Valerie, a leading scholar in the field of communication, has studied and taught communication her entire adult life. At the same time, she’s struggled with being herself and revealing who she is in relationships. As a result, she’s lost friends, colleagues, and countless opportunities to share and connect with others over the years.
As she said to us: “I never knew the extent to which my own fear was coming across as not being open—or as being reticent. And that’s not a very engaging way to be.”
We live in a communication-intensive culture. We can text, email, and Zoom in a flash. And yet, many leaders and employees today feel the pain of a profound epidemic: the dark experience of loneliness and isolation. About half of all American adults feel substantial levels of loneliness. In the workplace, 52% of CEOs frequently feel lonely. Similarly, small-business owners experience “a pervasive sense of loneliness.”
The loneliness epidemic at work has consequences. Loneliness for leaders is associated with poor health, depression, and feelings of helplessness. Lonely employees directly affect their colleagues, the culture of the organization, and a range of performance outcomes.
What triggers loneliness?
For leaders, there are two key factors that lead to loneliness. The first is the environment itself. As one researcher explained, “Leadership positions within organizations often do not foster work environments where friendship and social intimacy are possible.”
The second factor is the self-imposed social distance many executives maintain. In the case of Valerie, she admitted she’d been withdrawn and unwilling to engage authentically during conversations. Once she realized this, she pursued a new way of communicating. Valerie decided to move in the direction of others and allowed her relationships to deepen. She opened up and made it safe for others to do so as well.
Researchers Sigal Barsafe and Hakan Ozcelik have shown that “loneliness is different from depression, being alone, or feelings of solitude.” They emphasize that loneliness “has more to do with a person’s quality of social relationships rather than their quantity.” In other words, the antidote to loneliness is closeness and the creation of quality relationships.
So how can you, as a leader, make this shift and do what Valerie was able to achieve in her own life?
We offer two real-world solutions.
Solution #1: Create More Quality Moments
Author and consultant Allen Weiner describes the challenge many people face as they transition into leadership roles. “Leaders occupy roles that seem to come with the prescription to act distant from followers,” he explains. “Many leaders feel as if they can’t violate these expectations, and that limits their choices.”
In contrast, Weiner says, “Leaders who cultivate positive, dynamic conversations have created a ‘crack,’ so to speak, in their prescribed role. Some high-level leaders, for instance, start conversations with individuals who were likely pleasantly surprised that the CEO was greeting them on a first-name basis.” Weiner adds, “The more we know about the people we interact with, the less our prescribed role dominates the conversation.”
One way out of loneliness, then, is to hone your ability to cultivate meaningful moments with others, what researcher Jane Dutton calls high-quality connections: short-term, positive interactions at work that foster beneficial outcomes for employees and the organization.
You can create these moments in simple ways:
- Start with greetings. Many employees don’t feel comfortable “making the first move,” especially when power dynamics are at play. Greetings serve two essential functions: they acknowledge the presence of others and jump-start interaction. When you arrive at work, take a moment to briefly drop by people’s offices to say hello, open the lines of communication, and affirm your existing relationships. Avoid the temptation to get to work. Many people will feel grateful to spend a little time with their boss.
- Make small talk. Small talk is the oil that greases our social wheels. Research conducted in New Zealand, for example, found that without small talk, people don’t experience collegiality. Asking about people’s weekends, checking on children or pets, or talking about the latest TV show are the types of conversations that bind people together.
- Walk the space. For our book, we interviewed Rob, a great leader who’s a master at building relationships. His strategy is simple: he makes the effort to visit people in person. “I’m out of my office and going to people’s offices daily,” Rob explains. He walks directly up to people and uses the time for connections. “If somebody comes to see me and I’m not available. I’ll go find them that day.” Connection requires your presence.
Our point is this: Use the creative power of communication to cultivate a network of meaningful relationships. Investing even a few minutes a day can create major, long-term relationship results and help get you out of loneliness.
As Rob shared in our interview, “When I am talking to people, I go in and have meaningful conversations for as long as it takes. Sure, we have a bunch of problems today. We’ll have them tomorrow. What gets us going where we’re going in the long run is the relationships that we’re developing.”
Solution #2: Disclose More, Authentically and Genuinely
When we hold trainings and workshops on effective communication, Alex often describes disclosure—the simple act of revealing aspects of who you are—as the “magic wand of communication.”
It’s real magic because when you choose to disclose information, other people often reciprocate. That’s the natural process of deepening relationships: I share a little bit about who I am, and then you share. Together, we deepen our relationship.
One way of deepening relationships is to take the initiative to share information about our personal experiences and professional journeys. For example, in health care settings, doctors who reveal their own experiences improve patient satisfaction, increase patient adherence to treatment, and decrease the likelihood of being sued. In education, teachers who share their experiences, academic hardships, and even professional struggles increase their students’ learning.
Why does this work so well? Sharing stories creates more trust and better working relationships. In small working groups, one recent study found that “revealing personal information encourages others to do the same, thereby facilitating mutual exchange of personal information between teammates, [and it] improves the quality of relationship they have with each other.”
There are many ways for leaders to share their thoughts and experiences. You could, for example, start a meeting with something personal, such as talking about a moment from your weekend that gave you joy. You might share stories about your hardships, challenges, weaknesses, and mistakes. This may feel counterintuitive, but the research is clear: “Disclosing personal information and revealing weaknesses provides room for mutual trust to develop which, in turn, encourages teammates to feel free (and safe) to express themselves.”
Allen Weiner writes about how talking about our weaknesses or “foibles” can help create better connections and make it feel safer for others to do the same. As he explains:
A foible is a small weakness. . . . When I talk about mine, people talk about theirs. Sometimes that helps us make a connection. I think I’ve surprised a lot of people by my willingness to share a weakness, and it’s helped them open up to me. The more “unsuitable” my weakness—to a point—the more I’ve invited such a connection. Most of the time, the person I’ve been talking with [about my weakness] will say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. I can get you one better.”
The German-Swiss psychologist Karl Jaspers predicted our current situation. He wrote: “In this world, the task remains: to come closer and closer to each other in an ever-widening perimeter of communication.”
The takeaway? Leaders today are facing the pressure of loneliness, and the only thing that will crack the gap is to make human contact.
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