Leadership Apr 4, 2016
Is It Really Lonely at the Top?
The surprising links between feeling powerful and feeling connected.
It is a familiar stereotype: the isolated, beleaguered senior executive, surrounded by minions—yet crying on the inside, as emotionally forlorn as an orphan.
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Yes, as everyone knows, it’s lonely at the top. Or is it?
In fact, people in positions of power tend to feel less lonely, rather than more, according to new research by associate professor Adam Waytz and professor Jon Maner, both in the management and organizations department at the Kellogg School.
The opposite is also true. “More power leads to less loneliness, and less power leads to more loneliness,” Waytz says.
“Humans have a fundamental need to belong to groups, and when people attain power, it satisfies that need.” —Adam Waytz
In other words, not only is it not lonely at the top, but it is lonely at the bottom. So swap out the senior executive above for a lowly mailroom clerk, subtract the minions, and you will have a scenario much closer to reality.
How Hierarchies Affect Loneliness
The professors conducted their research separately, but their findings have clearly overlapping themes.
Waytz’s research, in collaboration with Eileen Y. Chou of the University of Virginia, Joe C. Magee of New York University, and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University, examines how being highly placed in a social hierarchy affects loneliness.
Conversely, Maner’s work, written with Charleen R. Case, a Ph.D. student at the Kellogg School, and Kyle E. Conlon of Stephen F. Austin State University, highlights the ways in which having a low placement in a social hierarchy affects loneliness.
“The two lines of research are mirror images of one another,” Maner says.
Waytz and his coauthors conducted eight studies to test the hypothesis that high power levels decrease loneliness. In the first, 309 participants recruited online completed two questionnaires, rating their agreement with statements such as “I can get others to do what I want” and “I lack companionship.” Sure enough, the more power respondents reported having, the less loneliness they claimed to experience.
Another study asked 202 participants to complete an online survey, which randomly assigned each of them to a boss role or a subordinate role, then had them complete a loneliness questionnaire.
Each “boss” then assigned tasks, such as a logic game or a proofreading exercise, to a participant in the subordinate role. Afterwards, all participants were asked: “Thinking back to the role that you were assigned in this study, how much power do you feel you had?” The bosses reported much greater feelings of power and lower levels of loneliness than the subordinates did.
In yet another study, 607 participants were assigned to one of three groups: high power, low power, and baseline. In a subsequent “dictator game,” high-power participants got to divide $10 in any way they chose between themselves and low-power participants. The baseline group received no information about the game and did not exchange any money.
All participants then indicated whether they agreed with the statement “I feel like I have power” or “I feel like I lack power” and then completed questionnaires that measured their need to belong as well as their loneliness.
Once again, participants in the high-power group reported feeling less lonely and less likely to feel a need to belong than participants in the low-power group or the baseline group. And participants in the low-power group reported feeling more loneliness and a higher need to belong than participants in the other two groups.
Erasing the Need to Belong
These findings demonstrate a basic human need.
“Humans have a fundamental need to belong to groups, and when people attain power, it satisfies that need,” Waytz explains. “Power gives people the sense, ‘Okay, if I have power, I have access to resources that other people want. I can control other people’s outcomes.’ Instead of that making you want a greater sense of belonging, that makes you feel, ‘Wow, I have all the things that I need to form a group, to form an alliance, to get people to come to me. And so that need for belonging that is really central to human existence is alleviated.”
Interestingly, that power can be either real or illusory. “Sometimes power does give you access to resources, and sometimes it just gives you the sense that you have access,” Waytz adds.
In other words, you do not have to actually be a senior executive to feel less lonely. You just have to feel as powerful as one.
Feeling Powerless and the Desire for Connections
Maner’s research involves two studies. In the first, 145 undergraduate participants were randomly assigned a high-power, low-power, or control status. High-power participants wrote an essay about a time when they had power over others, while low-power participants wrote an essay about a time when others had power over them. Participants in the control group wrote an essay on an unrelated topic.
All participants were then asked to rate their level of interest in a fictitious campus service that, they were told, would facilitate student friendships. “The rationale was that if people are feeling temporarily powerless and therefore have a strong need for social connection, they should be especially interested in using the student service to connect with other students and peers,” Maner says. “That’s exactly what we found.”
The second study randomly assigned 148 undergraduates to a powerful role, a powerless role, or a neutral role, and then had them complete a group task of putting together a geometric puzzle.
Participants in the powerful role, called managers, were told that they would direct the task and evaluate their subordinates. Participants in the powerless role, known as builders, were told that they would complete the puzzle according to their managers’ instructions and that their managers would evaluate them afterwards. Participants in the neutral role were simply told that they would work with each other to complete the puzzle in an egalitarian fashion.
Each participant was then told to bring a chair from the waiting room and set it up for his or her partner. This is a subtle measure of the desire for social affiliation that has been used in many other studies. “The desire for physical closeness is strongly correlated with the desire for emotional closeness, so we measured how closely participants placed their own chair next to that of their partner’s,” Maner says.
Indeed, those in the role of builders placed their partners’ chairs closer to their own, Maner found. “Our interpretation was that this reflected a desire to affiliate with, or potentially become friends with, their partner.”
Lonely at the Top—Over Time?
Sturdy as their findings are, both Maner and Waytz have a few caveats to issue. First, Maner notes that his paper’s conclusions may have been affected by the fact that it used undergraduate students as study participants.
“Take the first study, in which we asked people to write about a time they felt powerful,” he says. “These are college students, and so many of them really haven’t experienced big opportunities to have power over others, but they’ve had plenty of opportunities to feel powerless. For example, there’s a power differential between them and their instructors. So I think it was easier for us to get people feeling powerless than to get them feeling powerful.”
Second, “there are lots of ways of thinking about being high or low in a hierarchy,” Maner points out. That is, each of us moves across several different spheres, each with its own potential hierarchy—the workplace, one’s family life, and one’s social circle, for starters. It is possible to occupy a high place in one of those hierarchies and a low place in another one. How might that variance of power affect a person’s levels of loneliness?
“I think it’s going to depend upon whatever social role is most salient in the person’s mind at the time,” says Maner. More research is needed to find out.
Then, too, “our studies were limited to looking at very in-the-moment kinds of feelings,” Maner says. It may be the case that power and loneliness intersect differently over the long term.
Waytz agrees. “It might be that sustained feelings of being in power—like being the CEO of an organization or the president of a country—could get pretty lonely,” he says. “You can imagine that that experience over time of having to make a lot of tough, unpopular decisions that are constantly going to upset at least one part of your constituency could start to feel isolating.”
So there might still be some truth in the lonely-at-the-top adage.
“When you’re in power, it becomes very difficult to trust people, because you start to question their motives as to why they’re coming to you for things or even being nice to you,” Waytz says. In other words, that CEO may be crying on the inside after all—at least if she has been on the job a while.
Anne Ford is a writer in Evanston, Illinois.
Case, Conlon, and Jon K. Maner. 2015. “Affiliation-seeking Among the Powerless: Lacking Power Increases Social Affiliative Motivation.” European Journal of Social Psychology. 45(3), 378–385.
Waytz, Adam, Eileen Chou, Joe Magee, and Adam Galinsky. In press. “Not So Lonely at the Top: The Relationship between Power and Loneliness.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
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