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Are you taking a workplace lonely?

Leaders are at great risk of loneliness. Here is some advice on finding community.

6 min read



Sean DuBois/Unsplash

For millions of people worldwide, the act of taking selfies has become an integral part of the social media experience. Selfies are internationally pervasive and evoke strong reactions from those that encounter them.

In a hysterical clip about selfies, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco hits hard on selfie-takers. In his words, the act of taking a selfie should be called “taking a lonely.”

“Do you know how alone you got to be,” he asks, “that you can’t find anybody to take a photo?”

As funny as Maniscalco’s rant is, there is a deep element of scientific truth in it. For many, selfie taking is, in fact, the product of being alone. “Not only do individuals who become obsessed with taking selfies tend to feel that their personal lives and psychological well-being are damaged, but they may feel that relationship qualities with others are also impaired,” said lead researcher Peerayuth Charoensukmongkol.

Those researchers also found that a most people studied spent the majority of their spare time online in some fashion.

(Such people also use selfies to control their image. In the words of Dr. Charoensukmongkol, “Taking selfies allows individuals to control what other people see in the photos, it is not surprising that those who exhibit these narcissistic characteristics tend to like selfies because it helps them achieve this personal goal.”)

While we often think of loneliness as something that afflicts people when in “social mode” (becoming socially acquainted, making friends, deepening relationships, etc.), the truth is that it plays a significant role in the workplace as well.

Workplace loneliness is often measured by how many people surround and interact with you while at work. Some argue that the loneliest professionals in the world are those who toil in isolation, with limited opportunity for interpersonal communication. These include writers, poets and scientific researchers working in remote outposts.

Yet there are others who weigh loneliness not by the frequency of their interactions with others but rather by the quality of such exchanges. Therapists, for example, often feel lonely, despite the many deep conversations that they have on an average day. Because they tend to spend so much of their time listening and giving to others, they do not benefit from the balanced conversations and idea exchanges that meet their social needs.

The same could be said for teachers. I once read a book that posited that classroom teaching was the world’s loneliest position. The author argued that teachers were required to go into independent classrooms each day and spend many hours alone with students — hardly a satisfying set of social partners. They often had little time to chat with peers and even less time engaging in meaningful learning and problem-solving activities with colleagues.

As a former classroom teacher, I know that it can feel lonely at times to occupy your day communicating with others who are not your peers and cannot relate to your experiences and passions. Still, I suggest that the loneliest job may very well be that of a leader, whether it’s the leader of the free world, a school principal or a CEO. 

Jeremy Cai/Unsplash

Most employees have others in the workplace that they can turn to for advice, feedback and/or companionship. They can ask questions on how to get things done and work through tough times with their peers without unreasonable concern that they will be unnecessarily or unfavorably judged (or worse). They can share a joke in the office, fill their March Madness brackets, and comfortably discuss what’s going on in their personal lives. They can also “hang” with their associates after work, as a natural extension of their time together in the office.

Leaders, on the other hand, have fewer people to turn to when things get tough. Who in the organization, after all, has had to sign off on the types of decisions that they must make each day? It can certainly be difficult to confide in and bare their souls to direct reports. And those who sit above them in the corporate or organizational food chain (such as the chairman of the board) are also not the ones to whom they want to display weakness or vulnerability.

Furthermore, it can be awkward and inappropriate for bosses to try to chum up with their co-workers. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with occasional out-of-work interaction. May times it can be both fun and healthy and offer all parties the chance to see each other in a different light. But at the end of the day, the boss is the boss, and that still spells social isolation for the guy calling the shots.  

For these reasons, I strongly advocate leader participation in peer learning and advisory groups. Not only do such settings provide leaders with meaningful learning opportunities to strengthen their skills and augment their toolkits, but they also offer havens for leaders to open up to people who can relate to their struggles and provide concrete suggestions, if not solutions. Oftentimes, these business convenings develop into social relationships that add balance to the lives of these execs.

Leaders should also make time to attend classes and trainings with members of their executive team and board of directors. Learning together and sharing ideas in a relatively neutral setting can open up pathways towards deeper bonding that may not otherwise occur. 

Of course, there are other ways to reduce feelings of loneliness, such as by having a strong network of family and friends to turn to outside the office. Hiring a coach or therapist can also help fill a social void (besides for the other benefits that they offer), as can networking events, dinner parties, social clubs, religious congregations and volunteering in the community.

In the words of Dorothy Day, “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.”

Collect inspirational quotes for when you need them. Read thought-provoking books about leadership as well as personal accounts of triumph and success. Many authors possess the gift of connecting with their words and building community through the printed or digital page.

Lastly, learn to distinguish between loneliness and solitude. Paul Tillich once said, “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”

Being alone is only a problem when we need others to fill the void of silence. Leaders who can dig deep within themselves for insight and self-encouragement will find the isolated time of solitude to be the most clarifying, purifying and rewarding time in their busy, hectic schedules.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and organizational consultant following a career as an educator and school administrator. Check out his new leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog.

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