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116. Combating Loneliness for Women Leaders: Strategies to Thrive at Work

Feeling lonely can be a real problem in the workplace, especially for women, as they climb the corporate ladder.

In fact, a recent study found that 53% of women in the workplace experience loneliness. The impact of loneliness is severe – it affects health, well-being, and leadership effectiveness. Furthermore, it often leads to talented individuals leaving their jobs.

But how do we combat leadership loneliness when we don't feel like we can ask our peers or our boss for support?

In this episode, discover ways to navigate your new leadership role and build a supportive community around you.

Listening to this episode will help you:

  • Tackle the problem of loneliness among women leaders in today's workplace environment.

  • Confidently manage the transition from peer to leader, reducing feelings of isolation.

  • Gain insights into the distinct challenges for women of color who occupy leadership roles.

  • Connect with supportive communities to enhance leadership growth in safe, nurturing environments.


  • Reserve your spot at our April 26th community gathering for women leaders

  • Referenced article about Workplace Loneliness for Women

Other episodes you'll enjoy:

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While it's not perfect, we offer this transcription by Capsho for those who prefer to read or who are hearing impaired.

00:00:00 A quick note: If you listened to last week's episode and you are looking for the episode I promised about how you can start leading in a way that brings more compassion and justice to your workplace, hang on a couple days. That's coming on Friday. But I wanted to start with a bonus episode today because I was recently reading an article and it was focused on just how lonely women are in the workplace.

00:00:29 So I'm curious when's the last time you felt lonely? What did it do to your productivity, to your ability to bring your best self to your leadership? If you answer that you just felt lonely today, you're not alone. In fact, the study that I was reading conducted just a couple of months ago by and Berlin Cameron & Benenson Strategy Group, shows that 53% of women in the workplace experience loneliness. And it only gets worse as they go up the corporate ladder.

00:01:03 That's a real problem. When we feel lonely, it not only affects our health and well being, it's just really hard to be the leader that we know we can be. And what do we do when we feel that way and feel kind of stuck and it's also affecting our emotional and physical health? Well, the data shows that we leave. We leave the workplace.

00:01:26 And that's just not okay. Because as we've talked about before, we're living in a VUCA world, a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. And that is exactly the kind of environment in which the leadership skills that women often possess seeing the big picture, being able to be empathetic and vulnerable, being able to look at things from multiple perspectives and reach across differences, those skills are exactly what our workplaces need. And if we are so lonely that we are just saying that it's not worth it and choosing to leave the workplace, our workplaces and our communities are in trouble. Whether you're a new leader who's grieving the loss of the peer social group that you had on your team, or a seasoned leader who is finding it more and more difficult to build supportive relationships, it's time to put some energy into figuring out how to combat leadership loneliness.

00:02:27 We feel unseen, unsupported, and like we can't bring our authentic selves to work. And you know how passionate I feel about you bringing your authentic self and your unique contribution to your workplace. So let's dig into it a bit more and figure out what can be done. Because I want you to thrive in your workplace and face it, your workplace and your community cannot afford to lose your leadership. I'm Teri Schmidt, founder of Stronger to Serve and Team Building, where we launch leaders past overwhelm into careers of courageous impact.

00:03:06 And this is the Stronger to Serve serve, Podcast.

00:03:25 So let's look a little bit more into what leadership loneliness looks like for us. Through the different stages of our career, we're going to start with you. If you are a new leader, maybe you just got promoted. I remember being in that phase. I was on a small team of three people and our manager decided to take advantage of another opportunity outside of our company.

00:03:48 Leadership had always been a goal of mine, so I applied for the job and thankfully I was selected. But to be honest, what was going through my mind is great, what am I going to do now? Isn't it going to be a little awkward leading my two peers who are actually good friends with me as well? Although I was excited, I was extremely lonely at the beginning. I wanted to make sure that they had the faith that I was the right person for the job and I could do it effectively.

00:04:21 So I probably put too much emphasis on showing my competence and credibility, leading me to be a bit inauthentic in some of our exchanges. Can you relate? The responsibilities of that new role also changed many parts of our relationship, as of course there were things that I couldn't share with them. No longer could I hang out at Friday happy hour sharing exactly how I felt about everything that happened at work that week. Looking to my peers and my leader to combat my loneliness were not great options at that point either, because similarly, I wanted to be seen as competent when I was unsure of my abilities or confused about something that everyone else seemed to be understanding.

00:05:07 My ego kept me from asking my boss or my peers. Sure, I could talk to my friends or my husband, but that just seemed exhausting as I would have to share all of the context surrounding the situation. And sometimes I really wanted to just leave work at work. So I remained in a lonely state, couldn't talk to the people who were my friends before and my peers who were now the people I was leading. I didn't necessarily want to vulnerably share with my boss or my peers at that point, and I just didn't want to bring my friends and my husband into it either.

00:05:44 So at a time where I was experiencing the growing pains of a transition into a completely different role, I felt lonely and unsupported. We'll talk about what I did that helped with that in a minute, but before we do, let's look at what happens further up the ladder. Let's start first with the facts. If you're a leader from an underrepresented group, the numbers are not in your favor. As Tara J.

00:06:10 Frank cites in her incredible book The Waymakers, McKinsey and company report that women enter the workforce at a rate of 45% but only make up 20% of top jobs. If you break that down and look at women of color, they enter the workplace at 18% but only make up 3% of the top jobs. Contrast that with white men, the only group whose representation goes in the other direction. They enter the workforce at 35% and represent 66% of top jobs. That's a recipe for loneliness for women, and particularly women of color.

00:06:52 We always feel less lonely when we have people who know what we might be going through. So less representation as we go up the ladder is a recipe for loneliness. Not only that, but Tara talks about how when you're underrepresented, you often bear the burden of feeling like your actions are representative of your entire group. She talks about there being evidence that if someone from a majority group makes a mistake, that mistake is individualized. But when someone from a minority group does, their mistake is often generalized to what other members of that group would do.

00:07:30 What does this look like? Well, you might hear someone say, well, I guess we shouldn't hire another woman for that job. Just look at what happened the last time we did. She retells the story of an Indian woman who shared her experience leading in a large consumer goods company. The woman said, because I am different.

00:07:51 I stick out in a crowd, but I feel invisible at the same time. People notice when you do something wrong or differently and ignore you when you do something right. Have you experienced that?

00:08:07 If you have, I feel your pain. So not only are we feeling lonely as we get into higher leadership roles, but we're bearing more emotional stress due to underrepresentation. Back to the study. They found that two thirds of senior level women say that work combined with their home responsibilities, left them feeling burned out, stressed and overwhelmed. This led many women to leave.

00:08:34 So what can we do? We can start by looking for resources that help you feel more confident and like you're not alone facing those struggles. First, I want to mention a couple episodes we've done in the past. Episode number one two on transitioning from a peer to a leader. And episode 110 with Belinda Clemensen for some strategies about protecting yourself from burnout.

00:09:00 Second, find someone to talk with. I know it seems obvious. I just said, if you're lonely, find someone to talk with. But why don't we look into what you should look for and how you can find a way to do that that works for you? First, look for a person or community where you don't feel that it's necessary to prove yourself.

00:09:20 For me, that first came in the form of a mentor, a former leader of mine who became a friend that wasn't involved in my current organization, but had been involved in similar situations and was a great listener. Often I found that I didn't need advice, but I instead needed only to feel heard and a place where I could process what I was going through. A coach can fill this role wonderfully as well. He or she will be skilled in asking you questions that can help you to process different leadership situations. And at the same time can help you to feel heard.

00:09:56 I do this for my clients regularly. Another option is to find a community where people are focused not on judging you, but on growing together. The second thing you want to look for in finding someone to talk to are commonalities. Think about what makes you uniquely you and find people that have some aspect of that in common maybe your gender or race or industry or even your company. We talked way back in episode 56 with Ashley McManus about forming your own personal board of directors, where you might have a member that represents each part of your identity that you can go to for different challenges.

00:10:36 You could also do this with the communities that you choose to join. As you probably know by now, we set up one of Women Leaders in our meeting quarterly starting next week on April 26, 2023. This is not just a networking meeting, but one with the clear purpose of exploring specific ways that we can support each other as women leaders. We'll also be supporting the nonprofit Stronger to Serve, an incredible organization that has been paving the path to gender equality worldwide for over 20 years. If you want to join us and have this community be one way that you can combat leadership loneliness, check out the information and get your tickets at

I'd encourage you to also look for other communities that align with other elements of your identity. Whatever you do, take care of yourself by finding an individual or group that can be an outlet for you. Your leadership is exactly what we need to make our workplaces more compassionate and just. But I know that leadership, especially as a woman, is tough.

00:11:48 I'm committed to do all I can to support you. Please don't hesitate to reach out via email or LinkedIn if there's any way that I can help you feel less lonely so that you can keep on changing the world through your leadership.

And until next time, lead with this quote by Misty Copeland in mind: "Anything is possible when you have the right people there to support."


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