Article: Tuesday, 8 January 2024

Is loneliness just a normal part of leadership? Research into business leaders’ experiences of loneliness has highlighted a neglected and perhaps stigmatised aspect of being a leader. Despite inconclusive evidence and unclear definitions – not every leader experiences loneliness – these studies have shown there’s an unfulfilled research agenda on this important topic. The research was carried out by PhD candidate Hodar Lam at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), who will defend his PhD thesis, Lonely-ship: The Emergence and Experience of Leader Loneliness on Thursday, 5 October. Hodar Lam was able to give four tips for helping managers feel closer to their colleagues and their organisations as a result of his research.

The idea for research came from personal experience, as Hodar Lam explains: “When I was working as a HR manager in the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), my manager, who was a senior government officer would ask me to go his office daily for a one-hour meeting. We usually just spent 5-10 mins talking about work, and for the rest, it was about me listening to his stress in his position and his personal and family issues.

Is loneliness taboo at work?

 “I came to realise that he was in a lonely place, and I was puzzled: he was well-respected and surrounded by colleagues, but how could he feel so disconnected? And strangely enough, loneliness is like an elephant in the room in the workplace. People talk about well-being and stress, but loneliness seems to be a taboo at work.”

Negative implications of loneliness

 Over the past few decades, interest in loneliness – broadly defined as the subjective, unpleasant experience of social disconnectedness – has grown significantly. Scholars from disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy have been studying the phenomenon and its consequences for health, general functioning, and relational outcomes. Despite rising academic interest in these adjacent academic domains, loneliness has only recently started to attract attention in the field of management. “This is surprising, given the potential negative organisational and managerial implications of loneliness,” says Lam. Studying loneliness in the context of leadership and digital work has strong implications for the future of work – and loneliness at work can be indicative of poor employee well-being.

Loneliness in leadership

 Leaders, particularly, seem to be vulnerable to experiences of loneliness, yet scholars tend to consider leader loneliness along with general loneliness. But 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.

Hodar carried out 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. Loneliness then ‘grew out’ 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 loneliness experiences – and inadvertently perpetuated their feeling of disconnectedness.

My work is a timely response to the loneliness ‘epidemic’ and calls for more attention to leader well-being issues in research and practice

Sharing with supervisors 

In a survey of more than 650 mid-level managers, Hodar found that leaders who felt more powerful would feel less lonely at work because they were more likely to reveal more of themselves across the organisational hierarchy. In particular, sharing personal and sensitive information to superiors seemed to be more helpful than sharing it to followers. The project also showed that lonely leaders reported poorer sleep quality and more emotional exhaustion.

Feel closer to colleagues

Hodar Lam’s doctoral thesis outlines four measures that could help some managers feel closer to their colleagues and their organisations:

1. Foster stronger ties

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.

2. Reflecting on leadership expectations

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.aid.

3. Give managers real decision-making powers.

Give managers real decision-making powers. “If our theory is correct and loneliness stems from a perception of personal powerlessness, more legitimate control should help managers’ subjective feelings about their position and their effectiveness in it.”

4. don't accept loneliness

Most of all, says Lam, don’t accept loneliness as part of the job description. Organisations should talk about loneliness more often; in open forums, internal communications, and development programmes.

Attention to leaders’ well-being 

Hoda Lam used multiple perspectives and methods in his PhD thesis, including a review-based critique of the existing academic literature of leader loneliness; a qualitative interview study on the leadership narratives of loneliness; and a quantitative project on the loneliness of mid-level managers, using an experiment and a three-wave panel survey study.

“My work is a timely response to the loneliness ‘epidemic’ and calls for more attention to leader well-being issues in research and practice,” he says.

“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’.

“Middle managers who feel less powerful are often lonelier in their work than those who feel more so, due to the inability to share personal, sensitive information to others at work.

“We need more quality research to understand leader loneliness to support evidence-based practice. It isn’t about which type of leaders will feel lonelier, but it’s about who can’t adapt their internal scripts to make sense of leadership experiences – the psychological rigidity would perpetuate loneliness.”


Hodor Lam received his Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Hong Kong. His Master of Philosophy degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology is from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and his Master of Philosophy degree in Organisation Research is from RSM. In 2016, he started his doctoral trajectory in the Department of Organisational and Personnel Management at RSM, with a research visit to University of Queensland Business School in 2018.

Hodar’s research focuses on emotions and well-being issues (especially loneliness and solitude) at work. His research has appeared in Applied Psychology: Health & Well-being and has been invited for revised submissions in leading management journals. He has presented his work in major international conferences, including the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management (AoM), European Group of Organization Studies Colloquium (EGOS), and European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology (EAWOP) Conference. In 2022, he organised the AoM symposium ‘Disconnected at work: Conversations to connect theories and empirics’. He has contributed knowledge to industry-oriented publications such as Forbes, QS Top Universities, and I/O at Work, and delivered webinars and podcasts on loneliness, leadership, well-being at work, and mental health.

Hodar joined University of Amsterdam as an Assistant Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology in February 2021. Since August 2023, he is continuing his career at Lingnan University, Hong Kong as a Research Assistant Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology. His PhD promotor and co-promotors are Prof. Steffen Giessner and Dr. Mirjam Werner of RSM and Prof. Meir Shemla, of EBS Business School at EBS Universität.

Dr H.W. (Ho Wa (Hodar)) Lam MPhil
PhD Candidate
Faculty of Social Sciences
Lingnan University
Ho Wa (Hodar) Lam

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