Renowned experts on leadership share tips to help executives enhance their approachability.
A recent survey featured in Forbes found that CEOs identified “loneliness” as one of their biggest job hazards/complaints. With no one to confide in about the many difficult and/or confidential matters that often roll up to them, leaders have long lamented that “it’s lonely at the top.” But is it? And could their loneliness in some part reflect work conditions that the leaders themselves had a hand in creating?
Following, in Part 2 of this special two-part series, two leadership experts explore the nuances of executive loneliness/isolation and offer top tips to help leaders break down walls and enhance their approachability among employees.
Life in the Ivory Tower
Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of the best-selling book “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior & Thrive In Your Job” (www.tameyourtot.com), believes that the phrase “it’s lonely at the top” is valid for many reasons. “When you’re at the top of an organization chart, that by definition means that there are few peers at your level and most others in the company directly or indirectly report to you,” she said. “The reality is that there are legal, strategic, budgeting, HR, and other ‘big picture’ issues that can’t readily be shared with the team at large.”
However, she noted, “if the company is operating correctly, executives are constantly engaging with not only mid-level managers, but those at all levels, keeping their pulse on the organization. By staying in the ‘ivory tower,’ C-suite executives are doing themselves and the company a disservice.”
Dõv Baron, leading expert with Vancouver, Canada-based Full Monty Leadership as well as a best-selling author, trainer, keynote speaker, and TV personality who has appeared on CNN and other prominent business venues, concurred – to some degree. “I would agree that many leaders are lonely, but not necessarily for the reasons given,” Baron said. “For instance, Gallop research has shown that more than 70% of executives suffer from varying degrees of ‘imposter syndrome,’ whereby individuals doubt their accomplishments and are afraid of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’ If we’re afraid our colleagues will find out that we are (or feel that we are) imposters, there’s no way we’re letting them in,” he said.
“If we’re lonely at the top, there’s a pretty good chance that we were lonely at the bottom,” Baron contended. “We tell ourselves the ‘lonely at the top’ myth to justify not letting people in, but the truth is that this is a poorly-disguised self-protective mechanism.”
To truly understand this concept, Baron recommends examining the difference between people we consider our real friends versus those who are merely acquaintances. “What we quickly come to discover is that the difference between the two comes down to vulnerability,” he said. “As with any close relationship, there needs to be a willingness to step into vulnerability and to embrace reciprocal vulnerability. As leaders, rather than being exclusive, we must become leaders who are inclusive,” he said.
When it comes to the behaviors that make executives more difficult for colleagues to approach (and subsequently lead to leaders feeling lonely or isolated), “the behavior of a hierarchical, authoritarian ‘my way or the highway’ leader will push people away,” Baron confirmed. “We’re never going to fully trust someone who won’t allow us to see them, warts and all.”
Taylor agreed, noting that other classic obstacles to optimal employee engagement include “keeping one’s door closed, staying in one’s own clique of executives, rarely being present in the office, and being inattentive with employees when you do communicate,” she said.
Top Tips for Optimal Engagement
Our experts offered the following proactive ways for executives to break down the walls of communication and help enhance their approachability among colleagues:
- Reach Out – “Roam the office and make sure you reach out to everyone, even those in the mailroom,” Taylor advised. “It goes a long way towards signaling that you care about your team, no matter their seniority. It’s highly motivational, as it says that you respect all of your employees and are a good listener.”
- Promote an Open-Door Policy – “Leave your office door open as often as possible,” Taylor said.
- Interact Regularly – In addition to holding regular staff meetings with your team, “make an effort to take your team to lunch and get to know them,” Taylor said.
- Promote a ‘Blend’– According to Baron, research shows that another major cause of leaders experiencing a sense of loneliness stems from their attempts to ‘balance’ their professional and personal life, which doesn’t work. “Though Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have come to believe that a separation of one’s personal and professional life is the key to success at work, this approach often fails because it implies that we have two different personalities, which we don’t,” he explained. “We can’t separate our professional selves from our personal selves. We spend so much time at work that it’s important to make friends there; this will help avoid the loneliness that some leaders feel.” Rather than a work-life ‘balance,’ Baron said, “millennials, in particular, want to work at places where the culture embraces friendships and work-life ‘blends’, and this has been found to be a better approach. Successful companies set up their businesses as ‘communities’ where people gather, have friends, and want to be.”
- Act Quickly – “If you suspect that there are conflicts in the office,” Taylor said, “address them immediately, rather than letting them fester.”
- Open Yourself Up – Taylor recommends creating a “safe for success” environment through which the leader lets people know that mistakes are part of the learning process and that even they (the leader) are fallible. “Ultimately, this requires being vulnerable, which is the only way to engender trust from other human beings — in this case, your fellow colleagues,” she said.
- Play an Honesty Game – Baron said that there are many ways to create a comfortable working environment where team members feel that leaders are approachable. One of the techniques that’s been very successful in his firm’s corporate cultural and executive leadership development training sessions is an exercise that promotes open and honest communication. To begin, Baron said, “the leader gathers her/his key people around them and says, ‘As a company, we need to constantly grow and therefore, as leaders, we also need to grow. All real and lasting growth takes place in discomfort, and I’m willing to be uncomfortable in order to be the kind of leader who walks their talk. So, within this room let’s have a chat that requires honest and open communication. Each of us, and I’ll go first, will sit in the center and have the others tell them three things. First: What you wish I’d stop doing. Second: What you wish I’d do more of. And Third: What you want me to improve.” According to Baron, “the leader goes first because ‘leaders must lead.’ Not only is this exercise deeply insightful,” he confirmed, “but it’s extremely effective at leveling the playing field and represents a great place to start!”
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