I stumbled on a rather old post by Ian Bicking, who just started working as an engineering manager at Mozilla at the time. He was feeling lonely and isolated in the role, reflecting on the progress made in the developer community over the years and how the internet has facilitated discussion and debate. However, as a manager, Ian felt unable to discuss his job or debate the details with others due to the potential for collateral damage.
Plus, since he was in a leadership position, he had to support the company’s decisions, even if he disagreed. In the post, Ian writes that he was sad and questioning if there’s another way. He believed in progress and new ways of thinking about problems, but he didn’t know how to find those new ways without being able to talk about what he was doing.
I Felt Lonely as a New Manager Too
I can relate to this feeling of loneliness. I was excited to lead my team when I first became a manager. But after some time passed, I started to feel alone, too, like Ian. I had friendly relationships with the people I managed, but I could tell there was a social distance created by my position of authority. I was no longer just a peer they could joke around with — I was “the boss.”
Outside my team, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. In manager meetings, we were cordial but rarely collaborated. It sometimes felt like the managers were competing with each other. When a new high-profile challenge arose, managers would lobby their own ways of solving it rather than discussing and jointly picking the best combination of approaches.
This isolation took a toll. Sometimes, I dreaded joining calls, feeling like I had no real workplace friends I could count on. When challenges inevitably arose, I struggled alone instead of feeling I had a team supporting me because they usually were the competition, part of the challenge. Over time, the isolation bred mistrust among us rather than cooperation and support.
The First Team
I knew something had to change if I was going to enjoy being a manager. The solution was right before me — turning fellow managers from competitors into collaborators. Jason Wong, former Director of Engineering at Esty, wrote a blog post about a “First Team mindset” in leadership, prioritizing supporting fellow leaders over supporting direct reports.
Jason argues that this mindset can lead to a high-performing organization by improving the quality of leadership and management. He encourages interdependence and help-seeking among the “first team” members, which solves the loneliness problem. You can’t get support from your subordinates, but you can get it from your fellow managers.
The Siloed Manager Life
As managers, we often operate in our own little bubbles, heads down, focusing on our team’s KPIs and projects. We barely come up for air, let alone to check what others are working on in their departments. Before we know it, we’ve got blinders on to everything outside our siloed world.
So when a fellow engineering manager reports completing a challenging critical feature stakeholders were waiting for while your team is still working on yours, it’s easy for envy to creep in. It’s easy to assume he’s the favorite son this quarter. When someone gets pulled into a brand new cross-functional project, you can resent not being considered, too. But the truth is, you have no idea what motivates those decisions. It’s likely because you didn’t bother to ask the other team’s manager about his challenges or offer kudos for scoring the special assignment.
Bonding Builds Bridges
Let’s be honest — we don’t prioritize bonding with our peer managers outside of work hours, especially when working remotely, hoping to connect enough during business hours. But meaningful trust-based relationships require quality time together, at least on regular team offsites.
Otherwise, our peers remain two-dimensional work acquaintances. Getting to know the personal side of each other — what makes you light up when you talk about your kids, the fun vacation memories someone shares, or hearing about a shared passion for coaching — that forges real human connections.
Trust and compassion grow when we share laughs over coffee, sympathize about struggles, and reflect together on family, hobbies, and life goals. Soon, you become the supportive leadership team you didn’t know was possible.
The more time we carve out for building these bonds, the more our professional relationships transform into authentic ones. We’re suddenly leaning on each other for advice when priorities conflict, giving kudos when one of us lands a win, and championing each other for new opportunities. And as a result, we no longer feel lonely.
The Power of a Peer Squad
Imagine how much better work would be if we felt part of a cohesive leadership squad. One that has your back, one that celebrates your accomplishments and pulls you up when you stumble. Making that happen requires intention and commitment to forge bonds with the managers already right before us. The effort leads to exponential rewards for ourselves and our organizations, including a sense of belonging and acceptance, which is extremely important for us managers.
Originally published on Medium.com