Lonely at the top: 3 ways to counter EA isolation

A friend of mine was recently promoted to supporting a VIP at a prominent tech company. This is, of course, cause for celebration. But it came along with an unexpected side effect: isolation.

“Nobody talks to me anymore,” she lamented, “it’s like I graduated out of their clique.”

I’ve seen this before. There’s a social chasm between “admin” and “EA,” and that gap only widens as you climb the ol’ corporate ladder. And it makes sense:  when you support a high-level exec, you become a trusted adviser to the great and powerful Oz, which can be very intimidating. Up there, it’s just you and your exec against the world, and let’s be real, not all execs are great companions. And let’s be even more real, if you’re spending all your social time hanging out with your boss, we need to have a talk about professional boundaries. But that’s a blog topic for another time.

The lonely at the top phenomenon is real. And, as it turns out, loneliness is no joke. Scientists have now proven that loneliness / isolation can not only make you sick, it can kill you.

Now that I have your attention, let’s go over some ways to combat loneliness as a high-level Executive Assistant.

1. Reach out

As an EA, you have surely learned and learned well that …

If you’re feeling isolated, don’t wait to be invited out. Take it upon yourself to organize social time with your colleagues. If you thrive in a crowd, create a recurring group event. If you’re better one-on-one, set up a regular lunch or happy hour with a confidante or two.

As with any event, remember that it is more likely to be remembered and attended if it happens predictably and consistently, and if the agenda is known in advance. This could be as simple as an email, calendar invite, text, or Slack message that says:

“Hey! Let’s do lunch every Thursday at that greasy spoon on 3rd to trade war stories!”

or:

“Hump Day Happy Hour every Wednesday. Meet in the lobby at 5 pm sharp. One rule: no work talk!”

Go for simple, straightforward, and habit-forming.

And as in all things, remember that it’s not all about you. The best way to make a friend is to be a friend. Make a real effort to get to know your coworkers. Create calendar reminders for their birthdays, ask genuine questions, and really listen to the answers instead of just waiting your turn to talk. Be trustworthy, keep secrets. Don’t spread gossip, no matter how juicy.

In short, be the kind of person you would want to spend time with. This will not only improve your reputation, it will, by extension, improve your boss’s reputation as well, which will increase your value both personally and professionally.

2. Branch out

What if I told you that there are EA’s out there who don’t work for your company?

That’s right, there’s a whole community out there, and if you’re not tapped in, you’re missing out!

3. Get creative

Taking my own advice, I reached out to my network to ask folks what they do to combat loneliness. Most of the suggestions were expected:

  1. Make time for non-work friends

  2. Take up a hobby

  3. Write in a journal

And so on.

But there was one bit of advice that I found absolutely brilliant, which I never would have come up with on my own. This idea comes from a self-described introvert who we’ll call Nancy. Nancy works for a large corporation and found it difficult to penetrate the pre-existing caste system of EAs and admins in her department. She knew that she was never going to be the life of the party and pull people to her through the sheer force of her charm, so she got creative.

And by “got creative” I mean she literally started bringing creative projects to work, setting up in a conspicuous location, and putting up a small sign that said, “join me” with a smiley face. She brought coloring books for grown ups, and several packs of colored pencils, and got to work. Soon enough, folks got curious as to what she was up to, and very soon after that, started to join in the fun.

Nancy quickly ran out of pencils and books to lend out, but by then the idea had caught on and others were bringing their own art projects, etc., to work on. Before she knew it, she had created an unofficial art club at work, and had a whole circle of fellow creative introverted types to be awkward around.

See what I mean? Brilliant.

Got more brilliant ideas for combating isolation? Post in the comments!

Live bravely, work deliberately, and eat good chocolate.

#community #personaldevelopment #relationship

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