Are You Lonely at the Top?

Are you missing the medals?

The more senior you become, the less likely it is you will be spontaneously congratulated, patted on the back and given ‘medals’ by your colleagues, employees, management teams or Board. Yet, for the vast majority of people, the desire and need for unsolicited extrinsic external affirmation doesn’t diminish with seniority. Quite the opposite.

The more responsibility you have, the more you need to know you are doing it ‘right’ and hopefully better than right, that you are doing a good job. Yet as you become more senior, the circle of people upon whom you feel you can rely for honest and, at times morale boosting feedback, diminishes too. If you are feeling stressed and low, this can become a vicious circle. You are concerned you aren’t performing to your highest capability, so thinking it is being helpful, your brain delivers you the proof of this in everyday situations. Soon confirmation bias ensures all you can see is ‘evidence’ of your imagined failure or shortcomings. As most people harbour a modicum of imposter syndrome, even if they are not fully-fledged neurotic over-achievers, this can become emotionally draining and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This situation is compounded by two factors:

So why does this happen and more importantly, what can you do to overcome it?

Why does this happen?

All of us, no matter how confident or successful, have an intrinsic need for external validation of our performance and impact. I believe this is instilled in us at school and university, which is not a bad thing in itself. The issue is that whilst we physically graduate our egos don’t loosen their reliance on the systems of reward and recognition that charted our academic success. This doesn’t matter so much in your early professional career as you can zoom up the ladder collecting promotions and associated rewards as you go. But, when you reach the top, then what? You look around and realise it’s a little bit lonely and very quiet. Not only that, unless you change direction, you literally cannot get any higher so there are no more obvious prizes to win, no more self-validating goals to chase.

What can you do about it? 

You need to develop a solution that doesn’t threaten or undermine your hard-won success and reputation for steadiness. And, as with most problems, the answer isn’t one thing. Instead you need to develop an armoury of resilience tools and practices. I suggest that you identify someone to help you through this process so you don’t become locked in your own head, but assuming you are going to do this yourself, I have listed some generic steps below:

Step One – Clear Your Head and Re-Frame

Step Two – Identify your own goals and desired rewards

Step Three – Encourage a culture of constructive unsolicited feedback

As with any mind-set change and adoption of a disciplined thought process, it takes time and energy. But it is a far better use of both than persuading yourself you aren’t doing as well as you ‘should’ be and creating a problem that doesn’t exist.

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