Human interaction refers to how people act and react with others surrounding them within a specific environment (Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012, p. 363). The organizational context can be seen as dependent on continuous interaction between parties establishing social bonds. Social roles further appear as a matter of identity that team members need to determine by defining their role in the organization and relationships they wish to engage in (Schein, 2010). Social interaction is often a matter of subjectivity, which makes universal definitions particularly difficult. Early considerations by Park (1924) describe social distance as "the degree of understanding and intimacy, which characterize personal and social relations” (p. 339). Shamir (1995) refers to social distance as the degree of direct relationship between two parties. Antonakis and Atwater (2002) characterize social distance as “perceived differences in status, rank authority, social standing, and power, which affect the degree of intimacy and social contact that develop between followers and their leader” (p. 682), following early approaches by Napier and Ferris’s (1993) definition of psychological distance and Bass’s (1990) portrayal of psychosocial distance. Prag?matically, social distance is outlined as perceived closeness between individuals by Dufwenberg and Muren (2006).
Distinctions between socially close and distant leaders have long been subject to vague assumptions. Shamir (1995) was one of the first researchers to incorporate social distance in empirical investigations. The researcher proposed socially-close charismatic leaders to differ from socially-distant charismatic leaders. From an effectiveness point of view, socially distant leaders are often viewed as authoritarian leaders, whereas the relationship between socially close leaders and followers is too intimate to achieve that condition (Katz & Kahn, 1978). Being socially distant is therefore assumed to be highly feasible, since greater respect between leaders and followers is established (Antonakis & Atwater, 2002). Socially close leaders engage in interpersonal interactions and discussions about their personal life, whereas socially distant supervisors lay the focus on role-modeling and communication. Empirical results by Gibson, Cooper and Conger (2009) counter this postulation. Their findings reveal that for goal accomplishment and constructive conflict, team performance is higher when leader and team have similar perceptions and operate in an environment of little social distance. Social closeness is perceived as positive by followers since it allows for custom-made building of confidence between the parties (Yagil, 1998). Highlighting interpersonal interactions and examples from personal life socially close leaders lay the focus on role modeling and might identify themselves more strongly with their followers (Antonakis & Atwater, 2002). Social closeness is experienced as positive by followers as it allows for custom- made building relationships and strengthening confidence between the parties (Ya- gil, 1998, p. 172).
Research further suggests that social distance moderates the way trust is developed between leaders and followers. Shamir (1995) observed that socially close leaders are capable of engaging in transactional behavior. This was found to be beneficial in establishing trusting relationships. Shared social values which focus on the mission and goal of teamwork might further lead to collective team unity (Bass, 1985; Joshi et al., 2009). For goal accomplishment and constructive conflict, team performance was found to be higher if leaders and team members have similar perceptions (Gibson et al., 2009). As transactional leadership focuses on goal-setting activities where deadlines need to be met, social distance might turn out to be favorable for the accomplishment of goals or achieving a set degree of performance (An- tonakis & Atwater, 2002, p. 685).
Despite theoretical abstractions on the existence and impact of social distance on the leader-follower relationship, only few empirical investigations have been executed to date. This might be due to the variety of definitions of social distance as well as lacking methods of operationalization. Emphasizing the potential of social distance as an impact factor on leader-subordinate relationships, the first study to confirm this postulation was conducted by Cole et al. (2009), investigating the effects of transformational leadership on follower outcomes by controlling for moderating effects of social distance. Adapting Antonakis and Atwater’s (2002) suggestion, the researchers operationalized social distance as the difference in hierarchy level between top managers and respective followers using a hierarchy score. In their investigation, transformational leaders were discovered to empower subordinates by enhancing their sense of belonging and reinforcing positive beliefs (Cole et al., 2009). Results show that social distance might function as reducer, neutralizer and/or enhancer of follower outcomes. Concretely, for the influence of transformational leadership on followers’ outcomes, social distance acted as reducer or neutralizer, whereas for positive emotional climate and collective efficacy beliefs, it enhanced effects (Cole et al., 2009, p. 1720).