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While loneliness is often thought of as a personal issue, it is an organizational issue as well. A lack of social connection — whether with friends, family members, or coworkers — can have serious consequences. It is associated not only with health problems,1 including heart disease, dementia, and cancer, but also with poor work performance, reduced creativity, and flawed decision-making.2 Quite simply, people who feel lonely cannot do their best work, which means that teams with lonely members are not operating at their peak levels either.
You might think that working on a team would stave off loneliness by fostering a sense of community and camaraderie. But in our research, we have found that the composition, duration, and staffing of teams can trigger or exacerbate feelings of social disconnection in the workplace. Therefore, we caution managers to view loneliness as a systemic and structural problem that may require a new approach to teamwork.
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Team Members Are Feeling Isolated
To explore the relationship between the way teams are designed and loneliness, we have undertaken two research studies involving nearly 500 global executives and informal interviews with many other managers through our executive education and consulting work. In our first survey study of 223 executives, conducted in December 2019 and January 2020, we found that, even prior to the major shift to working from home and social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, people were struggling with feelings of social isolation at work. For example, 76% reported that they had difficulty making connections with their work teammates, and 58% agreed with the statement “My social relationships are superficial at work.” Yet these executives were serving on an average of three teams at the time.
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1. E. Carson, “How Loneliness Could Be Changing Your Brain and Body,” CNET, June 15, 2020, www.cnet.com; J. Holt-Lunstad, T.B. Smith, and J.B. Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,” PLoS Medicine 7, no. 7 (July 2010) doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316; V. Murthy, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic,” Harvard Business Review, The Big Idea (September 2017): 3-7; and S. Cacioppo, A.J. Grippo, S. London, et al., “Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10, no. 2 (March 2015): 238-249.
2. H. Ozcelik and S.G. Barsade, “No Employee an Island: Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance,” Academy of Management Journal 61, no. 6 (December 2018): 2343-2366.
3. M. Mortensen and C.N. Hadley, “Life Under COVID-19 Survey Results Report,” May 12, 2020, www.covidcoping.org.
4. K. Vasel, “The Dark Side of Working From Home: Loneliness,” CNN Business, April 30, 2020, www.cnn.com. See also J. Mulki, F. Bardhi, F. Lassk, et al., “Set Up Remote Workers to Thrive,” MIT Sloan Management Review 51, no. 1 (fall 2009): 63-69.
5. J.R. Hackman, “Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances” (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2002).
6. R. Wageman, H. Gardner, and M. Mortensen, “The Changing Ecology of Teams: New Directions for Teams Research,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 33, no. 3 (April 2012): 301-315.
7. M. Mortensen, “Constructing the Team: The Antecedents and Effects of Membership Model Divergence,” Organization Science 25, no. 3 (May-June 2014): 909-931.
8. N. Scheiber, “The Pop-Up Employer: Build a Team, Do the Job, Say Goodbye,” The New York Times, July 12, 2017.
9. M. Haas and M. Mortensen, “The Secrets of Great Teamwork,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 6 (June 2016): 70-76.
10. C.N. Hadley, “Emotional Roulette? Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Emotion Regulation Outcomes From Coworker Interactions About Positive and Negative Work Events,” Human Relations 67, no. 9 (September 2014): 1073-1094.
11. A.C. Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2018).
12. Vasel, “The Dark Side.” This tendency is also seen in social media, where depression and self-blame can occur when connections to others are high but fulfilling relationships are not. A. Walton, “6 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health,” Forbes, June 30, 2017, www.forbes.com.
13. S. Wright and A. Silard, “Unravelling the Antecedents of Loneliness in the Workplace,” Human Relations OnlineFirst, Feb. 21, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com.
14. See, for example, G.W. Marshall, C.E. Michaels, and J.P. Mulki, “Workplace Isolation: Exploring the Construct and Its Measurement,” Psychology & Marketing 24, no. 3 (March 2007): 195-223; and D.W. Russell, “UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3): Reliability, Validity, and Factor Structure,” Journal of Personality Assessment 66, no. 1 (1996): 20-40.
15. J. Wimmer, J. Backmann, M. Hoegl, et al., “Spread Thin? The Cognitive Demands of Multiple Team Membership in Daily Work Life,” LMU-ILO working paper, Munich, Germany, 2017.