Lonely at the top: Leaders in Asia feel isolated and alienated from the rest of the world.
It is a cliché to say it’s lonely at the top, but in the case of senior executives, it appears to be true.
With an increasingly diverse set of issues, business leaders are dealing with issues such as rising protectionism to the threats and opportunities created by digitisation. Most of them find themselves with limited options on who they can turn to for advice.
Half of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) expressed feelings of loneliness according to a study carried out by Harvard business review. 61 per cent believed the issue hindered their performance at work.
The problem is particularly acute in Singapore due to the lack of peers that senior executives have in the region. A significant proportion of people at a high level in Asia are Regional Directors (RD) while CEOs and country directors in Europe typically have other people at their level in different countries across the continent who they can consult for advice, which means RD have no one to turn to for advice.
This lack of peers comes at a time when CEOs are facing significant challenges. In fact, pessimism among CEOs in Asia-Pacific has a record jump according to a PWC’s global CEO survey, as they have to grapple with trade conflicts and geopolitical uncertainty, as well as widening information and talent gaps.
Executives’ alienation in Singapore is further exacerbated by the fact that they are often required to report to head offices in Europe or the US. This meant working for longer hours to ensure there is an overlap in the two locations’ working days.
If the situation only impacted executives as individuals, it may be tempting to ignore it. But feelings of alienation typically relates to lower job performance, according to a recent study in the academy of management journal. The study, which looked at employees at a range of levels, also found that remote employees were perceived to be less friendly and less committed by their colleagues.
More significantly, those who suffered from isolation felt less committed to their organisation, which in turn affected their willingness to communicate and thus, estrange themselves further from the team.
Unsurprisingly, the issue of executive loneliness has spawned a range of industries, with some companies charging S$1,500 an hour to set up phone calls with experts when executives need specialist advice or offering executives coaching and mentoring services to help them feel more supported.
While these services could help to some extent by enabling CEOs to get the advice they need, they actually do little to target the root of the problem.
As a matter of fact, it is not only executives who are suffering from solitude in the workplace. Psychologists are now talking about the isolation epidemic across most developed economies globally. The situation has become so severe that the UK government appointed a minister of loneliness to introduce a national strategy to combat the issue.
Research by the new economics foundation suggested the problem costs UK businesses £2.5 billion (S$4.33 billion) per year, high levels of health-related leave, reduced productivity and increased staff turnover were all affected by loneliness in the workplace.
Unfortunately, loneliness is often self-reinforcing, with people who feel lonely develop a tendency to isolate themselves further.
As a result, interacting with a peer group or developing a network are the remedies to the issue, however, such options are often the last thing people suffering from loneliness feel like doing.
With this in mind, understanding and identifying loneliness at work is an important first step in overcoming and preventing the issue from spiralling further.
Withdrawal can affect one’s personal wellbeing and performance at work, and it should be made aware by CEOs and directors coming to Asia. Additionally, it is important to always prioritise setting aside some time to create a support network around themselves.
Creating an inclusive and accepting culture in which workers are less likely to feel isolated is also crucial, where the right tone in the company can go along away.
Nick Jonsson is managing director of Executive’s Global Network (EGN) Singapore. He is part of an international network of senior-level relationships. He is passionate about providing business leaders and specialists access to a professional network where they can help each other face challenges and identify opportunities. Nick is fortunate to constantly have exclusive opportunities to strengthen his professional network and develop his personal leadership skills.
Nick acquired international general management, direct sales and marketing experience, having worked across Asia, Australia and Europe representing major international firms. He has also been entrusted to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the Nordic Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City and the Vice Chairman of the Direct Selling Committee Vietnam further demonstrates his ability as a leader.