You Don’t Have to Be Lonely at Work

On a scale of 1 to 10, answer these questions about yourself at work:

* “I feel out of tune with my co-workers”
* “I lack companionship at my work”
* “There is no one I can turn to in this organization”
* “I feel left out”
* “I don’t feel like I can talk honestly with anyone in this company”

These are some of the questions researchers asked of 786 professionals and their bosses, to help determine both their sense of loneliness in the organizational culture, and then correlate that result with their current job performance.

Recent studies reflect that a little over half of us, at one time or another, experience periods of intense loneliness in our professional lives. But loneliness is not depression or shyness or poor social skills, and it certainly isn’t introversion. It’s more a feeling of estrangement, of alienation – a sense of not belonging to a place, or a culture. And the implications of having lonely people at work are big. Our sense of belonging on a team has a direct impact on our commitment to task, sense of role clarity, and collaborative effectiveness.

The other big implication of feeling lonely at work is that we increase our level of surface acting or “covering.” That is, we intentionally conceal parts of our authentic identity. What happens when we feel lonely at work is we start to pretend to be someone else. And when we pretend to be someone other than who we are, we start to emotionally withdraw.

Not only that, loneliness is linked to personal health. Feeling socially isolated has a direct link to increased blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease. Loneliness also negatively affects sleep quality, which affects cognition, which… well, affects everything.

Empathetic Interventions:
Persistent loneliness often leads to an expectation of negative interactions and an increase in hostility. If we feel socially isolated at work, we begin to expect that isolation will persist. In other words, loneliness begets loneliness. You have to break the cycle. Try this: the next time you feel a lonely emotion (“No one understands me.” or “I don’t belong here.”), recognize the emotion as simply that – an emotional response to a circumstance, or an individual. And recognize that we can choose other responses.

And even if you can’t conjure a charitable thought, try instead to see the world from their lens, their point of view. When we work on our empathy, we gain greater emotional fluency, which in turn creates connection.

If you are a boss, understand that loneliness in the workplace isn’t a private and personal issue, this is an organizational culture issue. If people around you are emotionally withdrawing, it’s not their problem, it’s your problem, and it’s your company’s problem.

The 5:1 Rule:
Aside from direct and personal intervention, ensure that you are using a 5:1 rule. That is, create a team interaction dynamic that builds a 5 to 1 ratio in terms of positive to negative communication. And by positive I don’t simply mean saying “That’s great!” Research tells us that supportive questions are even more powerful than supportive assertions. So the next time someone on the team has an idea you feel is valuable, ask a deepening question like “How did you arrive at that?” or “Who do you think we should talk with next to make this a reality?”

Check out our new micro-learning series Small Acts of Leadership to begin making cultural shifts one small act at a time. Message me if you’re interested and we’ll send you a preview. Enjoy!


SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Routledge) just released. You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello: