Is It Really Lonely At The Top?

The very nature of power and its psychological effects often leave the powerful feeling lonely at the top.” 

The debate continues…

M. Ena Inesi of London Business school and Adam D. Galinsky of Kellogg Graduate School of Business, published an article in the Wall Street Journal supporting the adage, “It is lonely at the top.

1. Power alters our beliefs about others’ generosity. When individuals have power, they know they are more likely to be the target of opportunists, who use kind words and seemingly selfless acts not for altruistic reasons but to further their own selfish goals.

2. Power affects our responses to the kind acts of others. Those in power are less likely to reciprocate because they tend to believe that the favors they have received were selfishly motivated.

3. Power reduces trust. Power creates a reason to mistrust others’ kind acts, thereby stunting the possibility for a trusting relationship to develop.

4. Power reduces commitment. The very state of being powerful causes individuals to feel less connected to others.

5. Power damages relationships in the very moments when they have the greatest potential to develop. It is in the very moment that someone tries to establish closeness through generous acts and unsolicited favors that power gets in the way.

“In the face of favors, the powerful see selfishness, refuse to reciprocate, strangle trust, and ultimately feel less committed. It is these psychological and social processes that leave the powerful sitting ever more alone at the top.”

Conversely, it may not actually feel lonely at the top.

Adam Waytz of Northwestern, Eileen Chou of UVA, Joe Magee of NYU and Adam Galinsky a professor at Columbia argue that it is NOT so lonely at the top.  As published in the New York Times:

Power decreases loneliness by reducing the felt need for affiliation with others.

Being alone is not the same as feeling alone.

You can have thousands of friends and feel lonely, or have only a single friend and feel connected. The separation from others — in stature, rank or responsibility — that power confers does not translate into loneliness.

In fact, power has the opposite effect on its possessors, alleviating the need to belong and making them feel less alone.

Their research should give “further enticement to power-seekers and further angst to those who resent those in power.

“Not only is it not so lonely at the top; it is far lonelier at the bottom.”

There may be a solution to loneliness at the top.

David Larcker of Stanford Business School provides the following observation:  “Nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive outside leadership advice, but nearly all want it.”

And, Steven Kaplan, as published in Psychology Today, agrees: “Leaders need coaching and advisors, just as everyone else.  They must cultivate key relationships, create support networks of people who will provide honest feedback and advice, and… they must be willing to listen.”

In my experience, leaders need a board of trusted advisors more than they need a board of directors, not only to fend off “loneliness,” but to reach their peak performance.

I would replace, “It is lonely at the top,” with “no man (or woman) is an island.

David Katz
About the author: 

David Katz is the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Randa Accessories, a $700 million men’s accessories company – the largest of its kind in the world.  He previously held executive roles with American Express and Martec, and has been published in New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.  Follow Mr. Katz on Twitter.