Leaders who feel powerful are likely to reveal more about themselves at work, according to new research from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).
However, leaders, particularly, seem to be vulnerable to experiences of loneliness. Leadership often involves directing teams, influencing strategic directions, and making high-pressure decisions, and the current generalised approach ignores leadership-specific factors that may trigger experiences of loneliness.
Lead researcher Hodar Lam conducted 26 in-depth interviews and found that leaders create characters to make sense of their leadership role and loneliness experiences.
Some leaders were better at switching these characters with their coping repertoire; hence, loneliness grew over time. These leaders also picked up a new meaning of leadership for themselves; others were more rigid and held onto a way of portraying themselves in lonely experiences, inadvertently perpetuating their feelings of disconnectedness.
In another survey of more than 650 mid-level managers, the research found that leaders who felt more powerful would feel less lonely at work because they were likelier to reveal more of themselves across the organisational hierarchy.
In particular, sharing personal and sensitive information with superiors seemed more helpful than sharing it with followers. The project also showed that lonely leaders reported poorer sleep quality and more emotional exhaustion.
The research outlines four measures to help some managers feel closer to their colleagues and organisations.
- Foster stronger ties between middle managers and senior managers. Structured mentoring programmes between people at different levels of the hierarchy can go a long way toward making people feel more at home.
- Reflecting on leadership expectations and how these beliefs affect social expectations at work can help managers. This could be done as journal writing and coaching conversations.
- Give managers real decision-making powers. Loneliness stems from a perception of personal powerlessness; more legitimate control should help managers’ subjective feelings about their position and effectiveness.
- Most of all, don’t accept loneliness as part of the job description. Organisations should discuss loneliness more often in open forums, internal communications, and development programmes.
Lam states: “My work is a timely response to the loneliness “epidemic” and calls for more attention to leader well-being issues in research and practice. I believe my research is also a moral statement: I want to raise organisational and social awareness of the emotional challenges on the leader side. Loneliness is an important yet missing topic in leadership development – leaders need to know “disconnect” to understand and appreciate connect.”