What Happens When Leaders Feel Lonely at Work?

When you think about a day in the life of a leader at work, it’s likely characterized by interacting with others. Whether jumping in and out of team meetings, supervising a subordinate’s work or providing feedback and support, leaders likely spend most of their day talking to other people.

Because of this constant contact with others, it’s easy to assume that leaders feel connected to those around them. However, leaders hold positions of power and status, meaning that they may actually feel lonely or isolated from their followers. Perhaps this is why Mandy Gilbert, the founder and CEO of Creative Niche, stated: “Leadership and loneliness go hand-in-hand… Those daily 3 p.m. coffee breaks and happy hour invitations are no longer being extended, and your water cooler conversations have become trivial small talk. You're no longer one of the gang.”

My colleagues — Klodiana Lanaj and Remy Jennings of the University of Florida — and I wanted to explore what happens when leaders feel lonely day-to-day. Specifically, how does this affect leaders when they go home from work? And, how do they respond in terms of future interactions with their followers? Our research, which is forthcoming at Journal of Applied Psychology, tracked 86 leaders for 10 consecutive workdays. Our findings suggest that leaders who feel lonely can respond to this experience positively or negatively.

Starting with the positive, leaders who felt lonely tended to go home and engage in problem-solving pondering­. This is a productive form of rumination for leaders, as it helps them process and re-evaluate their workday, along with thinking about ways to improve the next day at work. Leaders who engaged in problem-solving pondering were more likely to be engaged with their work and help their followers the next day, helping reduce further feelings of loneliness. This means that it is possible to break the cycle of loneliness from one day to the next.

However, it is also possible to perpetuate loneliness cycles if leaders go home and engage in affect-focused rumination. Here, leaders think about their tension, worries and anxieties tied to work, which reduces how helpful they are to their followers the next day. When this happens, the cycle of loneliness can perpetuate over time.

Of course, a follow-up question is: “Why should we care about leaders feeling lonely at work?”

In a follow-up study, we surveyed 62 leader-follower pairings for 10 days, asking leaders to report how lonely they felt, and their followers to report how effective their leaders were. When leaders felt lonely, their followers rated them as less effective in their leader role and less empowering, suggesting that when leaders are lonely, their followers take note.

What can be done?

Our work suggests that when leaders feel lonely, they should think about proactive ways to solve this experience — can they connect with followers more meaningfully? What can be done to build bonds with others? Additionally, organizations can help by facilitating social connections among leaders.

Even though they are at the top, leaders still need to belong.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.