Last week, as I was coaching one of my clients, his situation got me to reflect. He had reached that state of hopelessness with what is happening with the Covid 19 epidemic. I then remembered a story I read a few years back of Curt Richter in the 1950s. Curt Richter was, a professor at Johns Hopkins who did a famous drowning rats psychology experiment. This experiment while it was cruel had profound lessons for circumstances as now as it demonstrated the power of hope and resilience in overcoming difficult situations. Those sensitive to issues of animal cruelty may not want to read this article any further, but the main message is not about that cruelty but our ability to push ourselves beyond our perceived capabilities.
In his Drowning Rats Psychology Experiments Curt’s works focused on how long it takes rats to die from drowning. He did this by placing rats into buckets filled with water and seeing how long they survived. He introduced a range of variables into the experiment, that yielded some interesting results. He for instance experimented with both domesticated and wild rats. The first set of experiments were the domesticated ones where they would last two to about 15 minutes in the buckets. Some would initially swim around the surface, then dive to the bottom of the bucket and explore what was there for a while. They lasted a total of two minutes before drowning. Others would initially explore the water surface and keep swimming there before eventually succumbing to exhaustion and drowning.
With the wild rats he did the same. Wild rats are excellent swimmers and the expectation was for them to fight hard for their survival. Despite their being fit and swimming ability, not one of the 34 wild rats survived more than a few minutes.
Curt reflected on what caused the rats to give up and drown.
In his own words he said: “The situation of these rats…is rather one of hopelessness… the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense… they seem literally to ‘give up.’”
With this in mind, Curt decided to experiment further. In his last set of experiments the focus was concerned with the impact that introducing hope would have on the perseverance of the rats in buckets. In these experiments, Curt’s hypothesis was that introducing hope to rats would increase their survival times. To test his hypothesis he selected a new set of rats all similar to each other and introduced them into the buckets as previously. He observed them as they progressed towards drowning. This time though, he noted the moment at which they gave up and just before they died he rescued them. He saved them and held them for a while to fully recover.
He then placed them back into the buckets and started the experiments all over again. He observed that this time when the rats were placed back into the water they swam and swam for much longer than they had the first time they were placed in the buckets. The only thing that had changed was that they had been saved before and so had hope this time around.
Curt wrote that “the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless” and that “after elimination of hopelessness the rats do not die.”
What This May Mean For People in General?
While one may not want to assume that humans would respond the same way as the rats, there is a lesson to learn and as humans we can learn a lot from these experiments. Where people have hope, they have higher levels of perseverance. They will keep fighting when they feel there is a chance of success or rescue. When they don’t have hope, they won’t.
The thing is, a glimmer of hope can be a powerful thing.
From a work perspective, these findings can be taken to mean that people will remain resilient and will continue to persevere in the face of difficult situations, provided they have hope. If people believe the future will be a better place and feel others are there to help them they may be able to drive themselves through difficult situations. The importance of belief here is very critical.
While the findings of experiments like those carried by Curt may not translate necessarily to humans, it can be generalised that people in your team will be strong and resilient, provided that you give them hope of a better future. That said, the findings from these experiments are very interesting. It can generally be held as true that hope leads to greater resilience and the thinking is that this is the case in humans as well as in rats. If that hope is extinguished, your people will stop fighting for you, their survival and/or anything. Furthermore our resilience can be an important factor in our wellbeing both in life and in the workplace.
In conclusion, let us remember that a large part of the role of leadership is to help individuals feel valued, respected, supported and hopeful about their futures. I believe that for most people there hasn’t been a greater time than now that such support and the provision of hope has been so required before. Besides the pandemic, there remains so many situations of helplessness where the leaders’ messages of hope are required. Now is that time when it is important to provide resilience and hope to your team.
Brian Maphosa is an author, HR Practitioner and Business Coach. He believes organisations can be more successful by leveraging on two important areas of human capital and that of Sales and Marketing. His work with business leaders focuses on these two areas. He regularly contributes to The Impact Lawyers Journal. Brian is a Regional Director with The Alpha Group and a Mentor with the Founder Institute and runs his own Coaching practice hps-businessacademywhere he helps business leaders triple their leads, double their sales and drastically impact on their profits. Brian can be reached at email@example.com
I am certain you have read the first part of the article. Here I provide some of the measures I suggest in combating the CEO’s loneliness which include:
- Join a Peer-to- Peer Board
There are several Peer-to-Peer Executive Boards that have come up all over the world. These are different from networking groups like BNI. Being a Regional Director with The Alpha Group, I chair such boards of CEOs and SME business owners. Being in this position, I have seen the sense of relief in some leaders that have joined our boards. The relief comes from being among colleagues giving honest and valuable advice. Furthermore, the relief is from dealing with people without hidden agendas.
Such boards provide a safe place to discuss the CEO’s most vulnerable issues whether business or persona without worrying about all the stuff one must deal with in their company boards. For most CEOs it is amazingly helpful and relieving to be among genuine peers. Such groups are also composed of people with an understanding of similar challenges the CEO is battling with. Unlike in their own boards, these are a group of people who are also CEOs in their own businesses. In most cases the advice or perspectives are from personal experiences that the member sharing would have gone through.
There is also the point that there is strength in numbers. Just the mere fact of the CEO knowing that there are others facing the same challenges and anxieties as themself is extremely helpful. To apply to be a member of THE ALPHA PEER TO PEER BOARD CLICK HERE
2. Be There in The Present
The CEO needs to be genuinely present at any moment and guard against the mind roaming off to the office while with loved ones or in a meeting or at a social function. While it is understandable that as CEO you are employed 24/7 you have to be present wherever you are if you want to curb that loneliness animal. You need to be grounded and connect not only with those around you but with whatever is going on around you at that present moment.
3. Be Genuine.
In your dealings with your team be simply open to different opinions and genuine in receiving the good and bad news. If you are intolerant to bad news or opinions different from yours you run the risk of creating a team of ‘praise singers’ that will only tell you what makes you happy. Once on that road, unfortunately you hit the ‘loneliness tarmac.’
Being genuine also means being appropriately vulnerable. Ask for feedback from your team and/or colleagues and swallow both the ugly and the beautiful. Time and again, I have seen leaders snapping in team building retreats after being told the truth by one of their team members. Doing that always breaks down all the pretence of being open to ideas or different opinions. At that moment all the trust flies out the window. Your team members must feel comfortable around you.
4. Develop a Social Network With Other Leaders.
Belonging to some social network grouping also helps a lot. In this kind of grouping, you can let lose of all the trappings of being a CEO and just be yourself. This is where you can be one of the ‘boys or girls.’ Afterall remember that the ‘self’ is desperate to come out from the borrowed robs of a CEO. These social networks can be such simple solutions as belonging to a whatsapp group, or joining a social club, or a biking club, golf club etc.
5. Know When to Stop
Having accepted that as the owner of a business, or CEO you are engaged 24/7, it does not necessarily mean that you must be working 24/7. It simply means that you are accountable to whatever happens to your business every minute. You need to know when to put away the laptop and all office gadgets and get on with the joys of life. As a business owner it’s a fact you will never feel you are done with work. Accept that you are going for the marathon rather than a short sprint and therefore need to some rest on the way. It is important that you have time to form crucial social connections in life. Give yourself that time to spend with your family and form some boundaries between work and home life. The important thing is to reconnect with those most important to you.
6. Accept Reality.
For one to seek social support, it is important that one acknowledges feelings of loneliness or isolation whenever they exist. Being in denial can have irreparable damage not only to oneself but to the business and your loved ones. This goes in tandem with being in the present that I referred to earlier. When in the present one is constantly self-introspecting and being honest about their state of mine. It also means being able to know when to seek help where needed before it is too late.
Acknowledging reality and seeking help is far from a being a sign weakness. The fact that you are in that CEO position means you are already an achiever. You are there because you made it. Being real and calling for help is also a sign of strength because weak leaders do not display their vulnerability. Loneliness will never be solved without admitting that there is a problem. Unfortunately, some CEOs lie to themselves and those trying to help. To such CEOs, the pressure is just a ‘small problem to be over soon.’
7. Get a Coach/Advisor
Have someone you can genuine confide in and get genuine advice from. Such people need not be necessarily a coach. It could be someone you respect, your pastor, an ex-CEO etc, but it needs to be a person who can help in many respects and most importantly understands the pressures you go through as a CEO.
8. Develop a Team You Can Rely On
To manage loneliness, you also need to develop a robust team that you can rely on. A team of strong, competent reliable players can take a big burden off the CEO’s shoulders. Having such a team in place means as a CEO you can take the time off and go reenergising with family and/or friends and be genuinely there as opposed to worrying about what is happening at the office. It really helps in the fight against loneliness to be able to reach out to talented team members. As I always say to my clients, ‘the success of your team is seen by how it operates in your absence.’
9. Have Your ‘me’ Day.
Have a day in a week when you can have no business or work related issues to deal with. This could even by one of the weekend days. That is the day you can have your ‘boys out’ or ‘outing with your daughter’ day. Its also a day you can do things you are fond of- be it sporting or reading etc. That way you reconnect with what matters to you.
10. Roll up Your Sleeves.
Every so often, roll up your sleeves and do some manual work. This could be gardening, cleaning the car or being in the kitchen. As Vishal Sunak, CEO and founder of LinkSquares says, “I love rolling up my sleeves, which helps combat the loneliness, even if that’s doing some work that is tedious or manual. It also helps me stay connected with the team that can benefit from these efforts.”
11. Deal With Lockdown Loneliness
The lockdowns that are there in most countries have not helped either. If not managed, they also cause an extra sense of isolation and loneliness. Some innovative ways of handling this include having ‘Virtual Bar Fridays for the team’ where the team can take the time to meet virtually and catch up in an informal online hang out over some coffee/tea or some beer. Some organisations have regular virtual meetings where everyone talks and asks for help if they need it. As a leader you will feel less lonely when you know you have a call with your team to just catch up.
The above are but only a few of the strategies a CEO can implement he/she grapples with the issue of loneliness at the top. The initiatives you take don’t matter because as Arthur C. Brooks in an Atlantic article titled ‘Why It’s So Lonely at the Top’, says, ‘ what matters is creating an ecosystem where you can spend time with others and be seen as a person, not as your title.’ The Chairman or board must have the responsibility to ensure this hygienic factor of loneliness is taken care of. They cannot afford to let the ‘girl or boy’ at the cockpit feel lonely- that is a recipe for disaster.
It is incredibly lonely at the top and a number of CEOs testify to it.
As according to the Harvard Business Review, at least half of CEOs express feelings of loneliness and 61% even believe loneliness hinders their job performance.
Also cited is that the biggest problems CEOs face is not having someone to talk to about their business. So, the reality is that loneliness affects many CEO’s and is haunting corporates be it large or the SME sector.
There is probably a need to clarify what is meant by loneliness. To borrow from the book Krishnamurti’s Journal, ‘it is good to be alone, to be far away from the world’ and generally there is that desire in us to be in that state of being alone. That is why so often we take a holiday or invest in a residential estate away from it all, away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
However, when we talk of loneliness at the top we are talking of ‘…that sense of existence in which there is no relationship with another, no sense of communication with another, thoroughly enclosed.” Krishnamurti’s Journal. It is not as if the CEO has any shortage of people around him/her. Day in and day out, he/she is in meetings, at functions, etc. The loneliness we are talking about is that failure to make deep human connections at work, its being “lonely in a crowd.”
What we need to understand is that we may be CEOs but the ‘me’ in each one of us still exists. We are ‘me’ first and CEO or business owner second.
If not properly dealt with the loneliness can be painful. There may be attempts to escape from it, attempts to cover it up or rationalise it, but these are not effective ways of dealing with it.
Loneliness, according to Wikipedia is “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way”. According to the RHR International 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey™ the “intensity of the CEO’s job, coupled with the scarcity of peers to confide in, creates potentially dangerous feelings of isolation among chief executives.”
What causes CEO Loneliness?
Obviously, this is a complex subject but some of the explanations for CEO loneliness are:
- The view among some CEOs that very few people understand the burdens their job carries. For them there is therefore generally no one to talk to among family members or ‘the boys or girls’ the CEO grew up with that understands the intricacies of the job they now handle.
- There is also the desire or tendency to hide the vulnerabilities the CEO faces and for one to appear all confident and achieving. In the process of hiding the vulnerability, the CEO then builds a shield of protection thereby distancing him/herself from others.
- There are also the pitfalls of organisational politics. The CEO is limited as to how much they can discuss with their team about deep seated issues without exposing themselves to the ugly side of organisational politics. Real or not there are some ‘team members’ whether out of spite or general ambition would love to see the CEO fall. Unfortunately, that is the reality or falsehood the leader must contend with in running a business. That unfortunately puts him/her in that loneliness corner.
- Some of the causes unfortunately are also the leader’s own making. Once in the CEO or leadership position some leaders may feel the need to have a change of ‘guard’ of their friends. People who were genuine in their friendship with the now CEO are side-lined because it is no longer ‘appropriate’ to be seen hanging out with the Jonas’s. In their place now are people seeking to ‘please the boss’ and who may not necessarily be genuine in their relationship.
- One of the major causes of loneliness at the top is the amount of work CEOs do. According to the Harvard Business Review, the average American CEO works 62.5 hours a week, versus 44 hours by the average worker. That obviously leaves little time to cultivate outside relationships.
What Can the CEO do About Being Lonely?
Anyway, the main objective of this article is to articulate what the CEO do to address the problem.
As Brene Brown says, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
This issue of the CEO’s loneliness is therefore not a small matter. Loneliness goes beyond affecting the leader and those close to him or her but can hurt the business as well. Loneliness comes with such issues as exhaustion, stress, depression, sleep deprivation, and strokes etc. As one 2015 Brigham Young University study claimed, loneliness is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
It is therefore critical to have strategies in place to deal with this issue. Again, instead of leaving the CEO to deal with it as his/her own problem, the issue of loneliness needs to be on the company’s items to deal with. The Chairman or the board needs to be alert to this matter and take preventative measures for this.
To get Part 2 of this article which lays out the 11 strategies to manage loneliness at the top access the full article HERE: