They say it's lonely at the top -- one of the inevitable hazards of power. Along with the cushiest office, the fattest paycheck and the most cracker-jack secretary, any big boss must naturally expect to feel isolated. Right?

"Absolutely wrong," says management consultant Gerald McManis. "Isolation doesn't have to be a fact of life for a top executive. But it too often is. And the isolated executive soon becomes the executive out looking for a new job."

Isolation -- characterized by being under- or misinformed -- will be a major problem for top executives in the '80s, McManis told association executives attending an "Isolation at the Top" workshop at the annual convention of the American Society of Association Executives.

"Isolation often comes about when there's quick change and we fail to adapt to it," he says."And in the '80s change will come very, very rapidly." a

It is a particular problem for chief executives in the public sector. "If a private industry isn't making money," he says, "an executive will get feedback right away.

"But since government agencies, trade associations and other not-for-profit groups don't have outcomes that can be measured in dollars and cents, it's harder for the executives to get feedback.

"So the decision-making process can become fuzzy. And if the executive hasn't set up clear goals and objectives that are known and understood by other staffers, he or she can get very isolated."

If you're not sure whether you're isolated or not, says McManis, "chances are you're in some stage of isolation." To find out for sure, ask yourself this question: "Is my staff really telling me what I need to know?"

Still unsure? "Start with a staff meeting," he advises. "Ask if they are giving you candid feedback. If there's a shuffling of shoes, that will tell you something. If they say, 'Hey turkey, we tell you when we think you're off base,' you're probably okay."

Executives commonly isolate themselves through their attitudes, reward systems and management styles.

"Every executive says he wants candid feedback," McManis notes. "But when you look at their reward system, those same executives only promote the 'yes' men or women.

"That just reinforces the behavior of those who tell you, not what you need to know, but what you want to hear because you're the boss.

"But if the staff sees you promote someone who has talent -- and the guts to say 'the emperor isn't wearing any clothes' -- you'll start getting the information you need."

Some chief executives filter out what they don't want to hear, or set up a hierarchy of command with assistants to do the filtering. "Nixon for example," he says, isolated himself out of the presidency.

Others isolate themselves by spending too much time doing technical work and not enough time on human relations skills. And in associations, he says, "the No. 1 cause of isolation is a poor relationship with the board."

Management styles that promote isolation include:

The mushroom manager -- "Keeps staff in the dark and feeds them manure."

The Firehouse Manager -- "Loves a crisis so much that if there isn't one, he or she creates one."

The Diaper Manager -- "Writes a lot of memos to cover a certain part of the anatomy."

The Hellfire and Brimstone Manager -- "Intimidates staff so they won't say what's on their minds."

The Cookie Manager -- "Has a solution to every problem, but, unfortunately, it's always the same recipe."

To avoid becoming isolated at the top, McManis suggests:

1. Avoid pontification. Make sure meetings are two-way.

2. Establish objectives, goals and plans, and make sure the staff knows what they are.

3. Be a coach. Help the staff understand how their jobs contribute to the overall effectiveness of the organization.

4. Cheerlead. Use praise and recognition (aside from pay) to reward excellent performance.

5. Avoid making too many changes at once.

6. Beware of complacency. Laurel-sitting may keep you from perceiving changes in the work environment.