The Strange Relationship Between Power and Loneliness
Both power and loneliness are studied extensively in the social sciences, yet few researchers have examined the relationship between the two. So my colleagues and I conducted eight studies to do exactly that, finding evidence that it’s not quite as lonely at the top as most of us assume. In our research, attaining power actually led people to feel less isolated from others, and lacking it led them to feel more isolated.
While debunking conventional wisdom can be satisfying, it’s important to think about the limits of these conclusions. Consider this comment by Thomas J. Saporito, chair and CEO of the leadership consulting firm RHR International: “I’ve spoken with 200 plus CEOs, [and] there are precious few that didn’t, in the privacy of our discussions, talk about loneliness.” Saporito’s observation syncs up with polling data by Harris Interactive Service Bureau in which about half of CEOs reported experiencing some loneliness in their role.
Why the disconnect between those leaders’ experiences and our findings? Here are a few possible explanations.
Sustained and temporary power are two different beasts. For starters, it’s critical to remember that our research involved temporarily inducing people to experience high or low power and then measuring their loneliness. In some studies, for instance, we randomly assigned subjects to a “boss” role, giving them a few dollars and telling them they could allocate as much or as little of this windfall as they’d like to a “subordinate” participant. In another, we asked subjects to ruminate either on the ways they have power in their lives or on the ways they lack it.
People in the high-power conditions consistently reported less loneliness than those in low-power or neutral conditions — but it’s possible that experiencing a fleeting sense of power boosts social connection, whereas occupying a high-power role for a sustained period generates feelings of isolation. This distinction warrants further examination.
Having sole responsibility for tough decisions might make a difference. In a study by School for CEOs, 93% of chairs and CEOs indicated that prospective CEOs require more preparation for the role than they typically get, especially to ready themselves for the loneliness and ultimate accountability that lie ahead. One respondent stated, “People underestimate the human dynamics of the situation, whether it be loneliness or the reality that if you screw up, there’s nobody to help.”
The stakes were lower in the kinds of judgment calls my colleagues and I looked at in our eight studies, so it may be that power increases loneliness when it involves sole responsibility for exceedingly tough decisions nobody wants to make — how to cut costs, whom to fire, how to change an organization’s course. We actually found evidence for this pattern in an unpublished study while examining the boundary conditions of our other findings. We asked some people to imagine being a head doctor with sole responsibility for deciding to take a premature baby off a ventilator; we asked others to imagine being a junior doctor who observes this decision but has no responsibility. The first group reported greater loneliness than the second.
Subjective and objective isolation don’t always match up. A study by Stanford’s Center for Leadership Development and Research found that nearly two-thirds of CEOs are relatively isolated, receiving no coaching or leadership advice from outside coaches or consultants. This finding speaks to an important distinction between objective and subjective isolation. That is, the number of connections you have does not necessarily correspond to how connected you feel. You can have very few trusted advisers and feel socially connected; you can have hundreds and feel alone.
By hierarchy’s very nature, CEOs are often quite objectively alone at their organizational level and may have few links to outside advisers. Yet, critically, our studies measured how connected people felt, consistently finding that no matter how many connections people actually had, greater power meant decreased subjective isolation.
Clearly, the relationship between power and loneliness is complicated, and we urge future research to examine its nuances. Our work merely provides a first step toward greater understanding.