Alone at the top

What causes CEO isolation, and how to overcome it

Secrecy plays a necessary role in the activities of many professionals. Without rules of confidentiality, lawyers, doctors, therapists and clergy, among others, could not provide their services. However, for others, such as some heads of organizations, secrecy becomes a self-imposed barrier to open communication and, tangentially, a source of loneliness.

This is the phenomenon of CEO isolation, whereby the CEO walls him- or herself off from the input of peers, subordinates and other potential advisors. While the CEO may not intentionally become cut off from others, presumptions of how to behave as a CEO, as well as overly aggressive gatekeepers, may exacerbate the situation.

CEO isolation is a common phenomenon. “I’ve been at this for over 30 years, and I’ve spoken with 200-plus CEOs — there are precious few that didn’t, in the privacy of our discussions, talk about loneliness,” says Thomas Saporito, the chairman and CEO of consulting firm RHR International. In a 2012 study, RHR found that half of CEOs experienced loneliness and that 61 percent of these felt that the loneliness negatively impacted their job performance. Moreover, first-time CEOs are especially vulnerable to isolation hurting their work performance.

Isolation and loneliness should not be treated as acceptable or inevitable. For one thing, loneliness is a dangerous emotion that has proven connections to physical damage, depression and strained relationships. The quality of decisions made in isolation is likely to decrease because of the lack of critical information or contrarian perspectives. The possibility of making a catastrophic decision for the company increases. Criticism from one’s self or others stings more sharply because there is no one else to mute it.

What causes isolation?

It is unlikely that a person reached the status of CEO by being a hermit or a wallflower. Rather, the perceived requirements of the role often turn a previously socially active person into someone who chooses to carry the burden of decisions and planning on his own shoulders. Moving in this direction often stems from a combination of forces. These include:

Distrust. The CEO may question the motives of others weighing in on decisions, often with good reason. Rather than having to defend against their views or questioning their intentions, the CEO may just leave these potential advisors out of the loop.
Appearances. The CEO may feel compelled to appear self-sufficient and totally decisive based on presumptions about how other CEOs operate. The CEO may confuse taking responsibility for the decision with taking responsibility for all the inputs into the decision. The CEO may fear that expressing uncertainty or ambivalence will be perceived as weakness and then exploited.
Feeding feuds. The CEO may be managing two or more direct reports who are clearly rivals. The CEO may fear that if the rival subordinates weigh in on opposite sides of a crucial issue, they will in essence be forcing the CEO to choose between them (as opposed to their ideas). The chance that the decision will be critiqued as favoritism or that the “loser” will react poorly may be unpalatable; leaving both rivals out of the decision altogether then seems a better choice.

These and other concerns may push the CEO to an unintended and harmful isolation.

Back to the center

Find someone to talk to. A number of authors advocate reaching outside the organization for the support one is not getting within. One common approach is to join a peer-CEO group to commiserate with and gain support from others in the same situation. Some will lean on a board member or a previous CEO; however, that can only work if the advisor can be truly impartial and trustworthy. Another suggested solution is to engage a personalized executive coach or business coach to share decision dilemmas and deal with isolation problems more directly.

Consider adopting a “decision partner,” someone with no vested interest in any decision, whose sole role is to allow the CEO to talk out a pending decision. The decision partner can play the role of devil’s advocate and minimize the fear that the CEO is ignoring crucial dangers or perspectives. The decision partner will not be a consultant providing advice, but will need to be familiar enough with the industry and the business to provide valuable input.

Find something to share. If you feel that you cannot share decision making with staff, find a common thread with employees in other areas. This could involve process improvements, attitudes of customers, or mildly personal matters. Surprisingly, just hearing others out is a partial solution to isolation — sharing isn’t the only way to forge a bond. However, if it stops at a one-way conversation and the CEO is still holding back, then it’s not working.
Open the gates. The CEO may have an “open-door” policy, but there is often a visible or invisible goalie blocking the door. Perhaps the administrative assistant is a bit too protective, or someone else, under the guise of protecting the CEO, is actually discouraging direct access. That will certainly isolate the CEO. The solution is to make sure that there really is access for those who want it.
Reevaluate. A CEO who is becoming more and more isolated needs to seriously examine the assumptions that are driving this behavior, whether the notions are true and if so, how to alleviate their impact. If the problem is untrustworthy subordinates, warring rivals, or false images about what a CEO should look like, challenge the premises, correct the problems and move back closer to the center of the circle, where you belong.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. Contact at [email protected]. This article appeared originally in the March-April 2015 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.