29. May 2020

Together alone

Original Study: Ozcelik, H. and Barsade, Sigal G. (2018) “No Employee an Island: Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance” in Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 61 (6), pp. 2343-2366. Link

The study in one sentence

This study shows that workplace loneliness is related to lower job performance and can be influenced positively by a culture of compassion.

Interesting for people who…

… want to understand how workplace loneliness is triggered and what can prevent it.

What to remember

This study reveals that workplace loneliness leads to lower job performance. However, loneliness is not an individual characteristic that an employee brings to the workplace. It’s the outcome of unfortunate social reciprocal interaction with others at work. The feeling of loneliness occurs when employees have high expectations for relational closeness, caring, security and support which are not met in their social interactions. As a consequence, they start to shy away, avoid social interactions and withdraw their affective commitment. Co-workers find these people difficult to approach and uninterested in forging relationships, and they respond with the same behaviour, which in turn aggravates the feeling of loneliness. Loneliness is in fact an unfortunate vicious reciprocal cycle. Tragically, it particularly affects those employees who are most driven by high-quality relationships, seeking caring commitment and a sense of belonging. However, the cultural context can help to prevent these vicious cycles. In particular, a culture of care and compassion has the potential to reduce loneliness in the workplace, whereas a culture of anger aggravates it.

The most insightful sentence

«[A]n employee does not have to be alone to feel lonely, and lonely employees can be lonely even when interacting frequently with many others […]. Whether employees feel lonely depends on the level of closeness, security and support they seek in their personal relationships.»

The most provocative sentence

«[L]oneliness is not just an individual phenomenon […] A practical implication […] is to consider loneliness an organizational problem that needs to be tackled to help employees and improve job performance.»

Consequences for management

If workplace loneliness creates lower performance, it becomes an organizational problem that needs to be addressed. This is not done by creating more social interaction, more meetings, more partying or chilled socialising, as one might first think. What seems to help is a culture of care and compassion. It’s about creating gatherings that enable a feeling of security, mutual support and care, regardless of whether these are physical or virtual. This implies, e.g., setting an agenda for each meeting so that people can prepare, making sure everybody has an equal opportunity to raise their voice, setting relational goals for the team together, and protecting present and absent people equally by talking about absentees as if they were present. These days, we are increasingly obliged to work in distributed teams, therefore the risk of developing collective loneliness is even higher. Leaders are called on to set respective behavioral rules to anchor workplace relationship quality in the company culture.

Food for forward thinking…

Today, more and more employees seem to prefer to work from home if they have a choice. Could this be interpreted as desire for escape from a workplace with disappointing social interaction and relationships? Thus, a sign of increasing "collective" workplace loneliness? What are your thoughts? Feel free to share!

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
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