Dealing with isolation as a manager

Friday 27 September 2019
For many managers, the infamous proverb “it’s lonely at the top” rings true – but this needn’t be the case. We look at some of the ways you can stave off loneliness at work.
person walking in the desert

Jean Dowson, was an officer in the British Army for 29 years, rising up to become director of service personnel policy for the MoD. She was the most senior female officer in the Army at the time, but it could be lonely at the top.

As the only female in a male-dominated environment, she had to deal with a lot of pressure, and the feelings of isolation that came with it: “You have to be prepared and think about how you manage yourself, your emotions and your responses,” she says. “I suppose I had to agree with myself that, on occasions, it was okay to be the only female, so that I wouldn’t feel isolated. There weren’t any other female colleagues around for me to share thoughts and challenges with.”

Being a manager can be a lonely job. A survey by Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs experience loneliness at work, so it pays to find ways to tackle isolation at the beginning of your management journey.

The feelings of isolation in your first management role can be particularly stark – your colleagues suddenly become subordinates, meaning your relationships often change. You need to then strike the right balance in those relationships; new managers often try too hard to get staff to like them, or put them too far at arm’s length. Imposter syndrome can also hold new managers back from reaching out to more experienced people in their organisation for advice and aid.

So how do you keep isolation at bay as a manager? Here are a few things you can do to avoid it.

Find a support group

You may not be able to find support among your old peers. You may not even be able to find it in your own company. Look for networking groups that meet regularly – BNI, a professional networking service, runs small regular networking groups across the country, in which you can regularly meet with other managers, share ideas and practise skills such as presentations. Vistage International is another group, which also offers coaching and webinars. CMI events are also great ways to meet like-minded people in similar situations to you.

Seek a mentor

It’s hugely beneficial if you can find someone to mentor you when starting out as a manager. In addition to being someone trustworthy that you can speak openly with, they will also help you assess your own strengths and weaknesses, set you up with a development plan, and offer support when the chips are down.

Rebecca Sykes, global CEO of video production company MOFILM, was championed early on in her career by several mentors. “They put me forward for things that I wouldn’t have put myself forward for. I also realised that my approach to business, my language, was a bit apologetic. I realised that was the way I had learned to be in business, either apologised for what I was or tried to be what I wasn’t. And I realised there were ways for me to be more comfortable in my own skin.”

If you’re interested in learning more about mentoring, see how CMI’s mentor programme can help you.

Know you’re not alone (and be yourself)

While the feelings of loneliness and isolation in her position could not be avoided, but Dowson coped by acknowledging that some male leaders would feel the same. “The key is how you respond. You need to work out the correct thing to do in the moment, and focus on getting the right outcome. That will dispel the feelings of isolation. It’s about knowing your own values and standards, and living your life by them – not compromising, not being somebody else.”

CMI recently hosted a webinar on knowing your values and staying true to them while at work; the video can be accessed through ManagementDirect.

Part of the struggle of feeling lonely as a manager is the impact that has on our ability to interact with our team. Read our recently published article for management tips and new insight on bringing out the best in people, to see how you can manage your team more effectively.

Image: Unsplash