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In organizations, the relationships employees form with their managers and team leaders are integral to their job performance. These are thus important relationships to understand and nurture. A key part of forming such relationships is through communication. But what about employees with communication impairments? How do they experience isolation in the workplace and what is the impact on their career outcomes?

Brent Lyons and Camellia Bryan from York University, along with David Baldridge from Oregon State University and Liu-Qin Yang of Portland State University, studied how employees with disability-related communication impairments (including conditions such as hearing or vision loss) experience isolation at work, the quality of their relationships with their supervisors, and how their communication impairments affect their career outcomes. The findings suggest that employees with more severe communication impairments may develop coping strategies to manage challenges of professional isolation, which has an impact on career outcomes.

While existing research focuses on how employees with more severe communication impairments experience greater stigmatization from their peers—which can lead to isolation in the workplace and other negative consequences—the authors add in a new perspective by looking at how these employees may experience psychological disengagement.

The research was conducted through two studies involving employees with disability-related communication impairment. In the first study, the authors conducted an online survey to measure communication impairment severity, the quality of their relationship with supervisors, their perceptions of professional isolation, and career attitudes. In the second study, the authors enriched the findings of the first study by examining career outcomes, analyzing career awards such as promotions and salary.

The authors found that employees with more severe communication impairments develop lower quality relationships with supervisors because they psychologically disengage at work. According to psychological disengagement theory, people cope with stigma and difficulties by disengaging from activities when they know that engaging might harm their views of themselves. An example of psychological disengagement is that a person might choose to withdraw from certain parts of their vibrant and busy social life if they develop a barrier to communication (thus leading to stigma or difficulties), and choose to focus their attention on fewer relationships instead.

…employees with more severe communication impairments who experience lower-quality relationships with their supervisors are more likely to psychologically disengage as a coping mechanism and to develop resiliency.

The researchers found that employees with more severe (rather than less severe) communication impairments experience less professional isolation when they are in lower-quality relationship with their supervisors. That is, those who experience more severe communication impairments perceive being less isolated than employees with less severe communication impairments.  Less professional isolation exposes them to fewer negative consequences with respect to their career attitudes, meaning they may have higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment than those with less severe communication impairments.

Their findings suggest that employees with more severe communication impairments who experience lower-quality relationships with their supervisors are more likely to psychologically disengage as a coping mechanism and to develop resiliency. In other words, these employees might disengage from professional connections and as a result, they bear fewer negative consequences of professional isolation on career outcomes.

This study shows that organizations have a role in strengthening the quality of relationships with supervisors to support those with communication impairments. For example, organizational leaders can offer coaching and mentorship opportunities with members of their team with communication impairments. In addition, access to resources – such as through training workshops that address diverse communication needs or methods in the workplace – for all team members might be able to help prevent social isolation.

Co-author of this study, Camellia Bryan (a GATE post-doctoral fellow) notes that organizations “can encourage managers to be proactive to communicate with their team members and provide greater awareness of the diversity and challenges that team members with communication impairments face by giving company-wide resources”. Such resources can include investment in supporting wider education on communication techniques for those with communication impairments. Workplaces can also be more proactive in encouraging awareness and training for the diversity of experiences that team members might have in the workplace.

Bryan notes further that “psychological disengagement in the workplace serves as tool for self-protection.” Another practical implication for organizations is that they can encourage these team members to engage, such as by building employee resource groups and community. Organizations can also be attentive to the diverse ways that communication can happen in the workplace.

Research brief prepared by:

Laura Lam


Disability Severity, Professional Isolation Perceptions, and Career Outcomes: When Does Leader–Member Exchange Quality Matter?


Brent J Lyons, David C Baldridge, Liu-Qin Yang, Camellia Bryan


Journal of Management






Research brief prepared by

Laura Lam