ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2023, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (4): 582-596.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2023.00582

• Conceptual Framework • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Lonely at the top? Exploring the multi-level double-edged sword effect of leader workplace loneliness

GUO Li1(), JIA Suosuo1, LI Guiquan2, LI Manlin1   

  1. 1Business School, University of International Business and Economics, Beijing 100029, China
    2School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100080, China
  • Received:2022-06-24 Online:2023-04-15 Published:2022-12-30
  • Contact: GUO Li


In organizations, it is often difficult for leaders to obtain intimate interpersonal relationships due to factors such as power and status differences; thus, workplace loneliness becomes a common experience for leaders. In fact, leader workplace loneliness not only exerts influence on leaders themselves, but also has a unique social function that subsequently impacts his on her team and followers. However, by systematically reviewing and summarizing relevant literature, we found that the extant research has primarily focused on employees’ workplace loneliness, leaving leader workplace loneliness unvisited. More importantly, prior studies have predominantly focused on the negative effects of loneliness yet provided limited insights on the positive side of workplace loneliness from a leader’s perspective. To address the above issues and advance the study of workplace loneliness, this paper adopts a multi-level, multi-theory, and multi-method approach to unravel the beneficial and detrimental effects of leader workplace loneliness on various outcomes, as well as the underlying mediating and moderating mechanisms across three studies. Specifically, based on self-regulation theory, Study 1 aims to dissect how leaders adopt emotion regulation strategies to cope with their daily workplace loneliness. We further identify the critical role of emotional intelligence in the leaders’ self-regulation processes. Because leaders have frequent interactions with their subordinates on a daily basis, such leader-subordinate interactions significantly affect the loneliness that leaders experience during the workday, which influences other attitudes and behaviors of leaders. Hence, Study 1 adopts the experience sampling method to investigate the short-term effects of leader daily workplace loneliness on key events (i.e., leader daily task-oriented focus and leader daily relationship-oriented focus) and key outcomes (i.e., leader daily task performance and leader daily contextual performance). Inspired by the emotions as social information model, Study 2 explores how leader workplace loneliness affects team climates (i.e., team individualism climate and team collectivism climate) and the effects of such team climates on team creativity. We also theorize team task complexity as one of the most important boundary conditions, which either facilitate or hinder the process of team creativity formation. Therefore, Study 2 takes a step forward to investigate how team task complexity plays a moderating role in the mediated leader workplace loneliness-team creativity relationship. We propose that the positive effect of leader workplace loneliness on team creativity through team individualism climate would be weaker when the team task complexity is higher vs. lower. In contrast, the negative effect of leader workplace loneliness with team creativity via team collectivism climate would be stronger when team task complexity is higher vs. lower. Study 3 sets out from a follower-centric perspective and explores how subordinates evaluate a lonely leader. Specifically, Study 3 utilizes the leadership distance theory to propose the inverted U-shaped relationship between leader accessibility as perceived by subordinates and subordinates rated leadership effectiveness. We then theorize the mediating role that leader accessibility plays between leader workplace loneliness and leadership effectiveness. In addition, Study 3 focuses on the individual differences among subordinates and further theorizes that subordinates’ power distance orientation can influence the evaluation process of subordinates on their lonely leaders. In this paper, we argue that the indirect effect of leader workplace loneliness on leadership effectiveness would be weaker when subordinates’ power distance orientation is higher vs. lower. In light of the above discussion, this paper not only advances the theoretical development of leader workplace loneliness, but also helps organizations cope with leader workplace loneliness with theory-based guidance and intervention. Last but not least, we admit that we still lack understanding of workplace loneliness, and thus encourage future research to conduct follow-up studies on the following topics, such as exploring the differences in the loneliness experiences of leaders at different positions, identifying the antecedents of loneliness in the context of the new economy era, and so on.

Key words: leader workplace loneliness, double-edged-sword effect, self-regulation theory, emotions as social information model, leadership distance theory

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