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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Jun 2016

Corporate loneliness

John Cacioppo is the director of University of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and is interested in Loneliness as a social phenomenon.  According to his studies, 25% of Americans have no one to confide in and as many as one in four people are affected by a sense of social isolation in their lives.   The consequences of loneliness are observable in brain chemistry and lead to anxiety, difficulty sleeping and low immunity to disease.

His work got me interested in loneliness as a corporate phenomenon. I often want to find out about my clients sources of support. Who are their confidants? Where do they go to talk things over? A surprising number of people find those questions hard to answer. For some I am their only confidante at the time – at least on the topics they bring to coaching.  Seniority seems to increase the effect; it’s lonely at the top.

Cacioppo defines the sustainable route out of loneliness as not about getting something from others but about mutual relationships or in his words rich reciprocal bonds. Having a coach might help for a time but the relationship is commercially lopsided; what you need is mutual connection with someone who you can support as well as be supported by.

Rich reciprocal bonds don’t grow on trees.  It seems to me that many people I meet have a gap in their groups of friends, family and colleagues. And that gap is the right person to confide in about professional dilemmas, identity and values, career direction, work/life balance and self development. Friends, family and colleagues can only do so much – you can’t expect them to have the time, patience or skill to hear your incoherent wrestlings with yourself. What is more, they often feature in the story. In some cultures I work with it may not even be acceptable to admit to a colleague that you need to talk something over.

Is this is a big issue for organisations? Does the shareholder or customer care if the company is a lonely place to be unless the ill effects are leaking into business performance?  I don’t know. What I can see from my vantage point is that the loneliness of the long-hours executive can be a problem for the resilience and effectiveness of a leader and their team.  It seems at least the responsibility of each individual leader to attend to their own sources of support.

Where I do see clients that are getting those sources of support it is often from communities of interest that are related to their work but not necessarily inside their organisation.  One CEO meets regularly with a group of fellow CEOs in different sectors. Another MD – a professed introvert – is not part of any groups but has kept in touch with former bosses and peers in other companies and will give them a call for 1:1 support when needed. Personally, I rely heavily on one or two fellow coaches and consultants.

The good news is that it needn’t be too onerous a task.  Cacioppo’s research suggests that only one high quality mutually-supportive confidant can change observable brain chemistry. Two is better and in times of stress you may need more, but one is a great start. Who is yours and did you call them recently?

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