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:
- Those around you often believe that you don’t need to hear how you are doing because you seem so self-confident and successful.
- Few people talk about this problem for fear of appearing weak.
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 + Re-Frame
- Acknowledge that the sensation of something being ‘wrong’ is likely to be anxiety rather than proof of under-performance
- Assume a positive mind-set to help your brain seek out and provide evidence of your continued success. Actively look for indications that you are doing a good job and that your stakeholders believe in you
- Now separate emotion from fact – what is the problem you need to fix. Is it here and now and if so, what can you do to solve it? If you can’t identify a genuine issue and mitigation, the chances are the problem is one of perception not reality.
Step Two – Identify your own goals and desired rewards
- If you assume anything is possible, what would you like to achieve next? Just because the organisation has run out of rungs and you aren’t going ‘up’ doesn’t mean that there are no professional goals left to master
- What are the steps you need to take to get there?
- How will you know when you have achieved these goals?
- How will you reward your success? Seriously, it doesn’t have to be shoes or sports cars. It can be time – to read a book without self-analysing, to go to the gym, to cook. Anything as long as you acknowledge that you have done a good job and you are rewarding yourself
Step Three – Encourage a culture of constructive unsolicited feedback
- From your new position of positivity, encourage those around you to give you feedback. Informally. Unsolicited. Appropriately, constructively and without agenda.
- Make sure you return the favour – don’t forget that you are not the only one who feels like this. Far from it.
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.