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Wellbeing

Leadership isolation: How mentorship can make life less lonely at the top

By Nick Wilson | |6 minute read

As loneliness continues to cost individuals and organisations, leaders are looking to mentorship as a way to forge meaningful connections.

“Colleagues are a wonderful thing – but mentors, that’s where the real work gets done,” said author, professor, and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz.

When it comes to business relationships, there are the transactional, the obligatory, the loathsome, the neutral, and then there are the mutually beneficial. Relationships between a mentor and mentee can fall anywhere along the spectrum. At their best, both parties benefit professionally and at a more human level.

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There’s a perverse kind of isolation that often haunts business leaders. It is perverse because of the way it can live, even thrive, despite an ostensibly jam-packed social calendar.

“It can be hard to acknowledge a lack of connection, especially when a leader’s schedule is likely to be full of conversation and back-to-back meetings, but these are examples of contact, not necessarily connection,” said Constance Dierickx in an article for Forbes.

“However, the most important factor in loneliness is not the number or frequency of contacts, but a lack of meaningful connection with other people.”

The business costs of lonely leadership

Among business leaders, said Ms Dierickx, loneliness tends to manifest in four ways:

  1. Loss of enjoyment
  2. Tension, fear, and anxiety
  3. Loss of empathy for others and self
  4. Uncertainty and distress

Apart from the obvious psychological toll of each of these, it is not difficult to imagine how isolation might affect business performance.

“When a leader is distressed, especially when they are unable to acknowledge it, they may create echo chambers for their own comfort. This is a sure way to shut down genuine dialogue, the sort that leads to meaningful connection and performance,” said Ms Dierickx.

There is a contagion effect of discomfort at the leadership level: “Even subtle signs of discomfort on the part of a leader will affect what those around them do and especially what they won’t do, namely bring their best thinking and strong motivation to work,” said Ms Dierickx.

According to research from Cigna, employee loneliness costs US businesses more than US$154 billion per year in lost productivity. Considering loneliness is increasingly affecting Australians of all ages, particularly younger ones, business costs are likely to only rise in the coming years.

“[A leadership position] can be a really lonely place to be,” said Richard Palmer, entrepreneurial investor and chair at The Executive Connection (TEC). “Often it’s very hard to be able to talk to anyone in your professional networks or even your home networks since taking work home isn’t always the best answer.”

How mentorship can help

Between a professional network with vested interests that might make a leader less willing to open up and a general reluctance to share work challenges at home, business leaders can find themselves socially adrift. It’s against this backdrop that mentorship enters the picture.

“[As a mentor], you can provide individuals with the ability to build a trusted relationship with a third party so they can talk about some of the challenges and opportunities they are facing at work,” said Mr Palmer.

“The mentor can provide them some counsel and scope and some experience. I think that’s an incredibly valuable thing.”

The right mentor will bring a combination of relevant experience with independent neutrality to maximise the utility of their advice and insights while fostering a unique culture of openness and non-judgment.

“I’m not suggesting line managers cannot mentor [their employees] because they can and they really should be good mentors, but there are some limitations,” explained Mr Palmer. “If I’ve got a challenge at work, and I’m not feeling like I’m listened to, or there’s a challenging environment … it’s often very hard to talk to someone within the working environment.”

A more human approach

When asked whether Mr Palmer had observed any major changes in the mentoring landscape over the course of his career, he answered that, increasingly, people are talking about mental health and stress management.

“It’s not my role to act as a psychologist, but it is absolutely my role to make sure they’re psychologically safe,” said Mr Palmer.

“It’s something I’ve seen a lot of over the last five years; obviously, with COVID-19, life became more challenging for all of us. And it [mental health] is real. And the business pressures that people are under right now are very extreme.”

A source of meaning

As mentioned above, social isolation is more about a lack of meaningful connection than simply a lack of general social contact. According to Mr Palmer, mentoring is an invaluable way to foster meaningful connections among people with broadly similar interests and life experiences.

“I’ve had a whole range of things in my personal and private, professional career that I’m really proud of,” said Mr Palmer.

“But the moments that I probably treasure most over the last sort of five or six years are those moments where I’ve had with the people that are in coaching and mentoring, where they’ve had a major breakthrough.”

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Burnout

Employees experience burnout when their physical or emotional reserves are depleted. Usually, persistent tension or dissatisfaction causes this to happen. The workplace atmosphere might occasionally be the reason. Workplace stress, a lack of resources and support, and aggressive deadlines can all cause burnout.

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