Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Lonely at the Top: How to Get Help on Your Biggest Work Problems

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When you envision someone who is lonely, you might think of a person with few friends, sitting alone at home. You might think of someone who longs for a companion for life, or at least someone to eat dinner with every once in a while.

While this might be the stereotypical caricature of “lonely,” it is also entirely possible to feel lonely while being surrounded by people. Each of us has probably had that feeling in our working lives at least a few times: a sense that there is a problem that no one else can help us with, work that is our sole responsibility and that only we can get done.

For employees of small companies, managers, and CEOs, it can feel especially lonely because the number of people who you can openly talk to about what worries you and what you are afraid of is very limited or feels non-existent. It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be vulnerable—to reveal what you might think is a weakness—to a small team or directly to your boss.

Having run a growing organization by myself for a period of time, there have been moments when the fact that there were no other employees for me to share the workload of a project with, no one to take a turn responding to emails, no one who was looking at our bank account balance quite as much as I was, led to some significantly peaked stress levels. I suspect that even for people who are not quite so alone in their work, that exact feeling can still be there.

Having a conversation with a friend recently in this situation, it was clear that the stress that comes from a profound sense of being alone in tackling something huge was overtaking her. I pushed back and asked her why she felt that she needed to take everything on herself. Even though it was true that in some cases only she could do the actual tasks, weren’t there people she could turn to who might be able to provide insight and advice that could lead to the work itself becoming easier to manage or point her in the direction of a solution that she did not see before?

When she stepped back to think about it, she had been so caught up in the idea that she was the only who could execute that particular work, that she forgot that she had friends and colleagues outside of her organization who she might be able to talk to, who she could at least trade stories with, and who perhaps might be able to share insight and ideas for how she could solve her own challenges.

It is easy to get stuck in this thinking. If you work for a nonprofit, for instance, and are the sole person responsible for raising corporate contributions for your organization, it may feel like there is no one else who can make the phone calls and go to the donor meetings and that if you need someone to do that with you, then your value is diminished.

The truth, though, is that being smart enough to recognize that you will make a better pitch if you have someone else join you who has strengths where you might have weaknesses, does not make you weak—it in fact makes you strong and more likely to be successful. That other person does not have to be a paid member of your team—you probably have board members, volunteers, customers, or others who would be willing to speak on your organization’s behalf.

Whenever you are feeling stressed and lonely, take a few minutes to fill in the blank of this sentence: “I would love guidance on… .” Then think about where that guidance can come from. More often than not, there is someone or something close by—whether it is a colleague, a friend, someone in your professional network, a blog post, an online article, a book, and an online forum—that can help you get unstuck and at least feel less lonely.

And if after looking in all of those places, you still feel like there is no consistent place for people like you to turn, you can always create a professional group for people just like you—a place where you get together for coffee or lunch once a month and share off the record what you’re challenged by or curious about. With all of those options, we can start to tackle the stress of loneliness and open up the possibility for even greater success.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Press-Enterprise. It has been published here with permission.

Photo of man feeling stressed courtesy of Shutterstock.