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Interpersonal relationships at work

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Abstract

Interpersonal relationships in the workplace are an inescapable reality for all those working in organizations. While they have often been studied from a negative perspective, for many these relationships may facilitate a context in which working individuals can fulfill their “need to belong” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The current chapter reviews literature in the area of positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace. We take a multi-level approach, examining the area from organizational, group, and dyadic perspectives, and focus both on the outcomes and the predictors of positive working relationships. We also review some common methodologies used in this type of research before concluding with some implications for science and practice as well as suggestions for future research.
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INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK
Tara C. Reich and M. Sandy Hershcovis
I. H. Asper School of Business
University of Manitoba
Key terms: Interpersonal relationships; organizational belonging; social networks; friendship;
mentoring; workplace romance
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Abstract
Interpersonal relationships in the workplace are an inescapable reality for all those working in
organizations. While they have often been studied from a negative perspective, for many these
relationships may facilitate a context in which working individuals can fulfill their “need to
belong” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The current chapter reviews literature in the area of
positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace. We take a multi-level approach, examining
the area from organizational, group, and dyadic perspectives, and focus both on the outcomes
and the predictors of positive working relationships. We also review some common
methodologies used in this type of research before concluding with some implications for
science and practice as well as suggestions for future research.
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“Outside the nuclear family it is employment that provides for most
people [a] social context and demonstrates in daily experience that ‘no
[person] is an island entire of itself’, and that the purposes of a collectivity
transcend the purposes of an individual” (Jahoda, 1982, p. 24)
Interpersonal relationships in the workplace are an inescapable reality for all those
working in the context of an organization. As stated by Marie Jahoda at the outset of this chapter
(1982), it may be in the context of these relationships that workers find a social purpose.
However, researchers tend to focus on the effects and implications of negative interpersonal
relationships at work on organizational and employee outcomes. From an employee perspective,
these studies invariably find higher levels of job dissatisfaction, intent to turnover, and negative
physical and mental health outcomes among employees who have been subjected to such
negative interpersonal interactions as aggression, social exclusion, and incivility (e.g., Bowling
& Beehr, 2006; Cortina & Magley, 2003; K. D. Williams, 2001).
However, what is implied by the research on negative interpersonal relationships and
what has been supported in the literature reviewed in this chapter is that positive interpersonal
connections are associated with better individual and work-related outcomes (Heaphy & Dutton,
2008). Positive interactions can foster positive interpersonal relationships, and it is from the
development and maintenance of these relationships that many workers find fulfillment. In this
positive relational context, employees may find an opportunity to fulfill their “need to belong”.
According to Baumeister and Leary (1995), the need to belong is a fundamental human
motivation, guiding both voluntary and involuntary behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. Two
criteria must be met to satisfy the need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995): first, interactions
must be frequent and non-aversive and second, they must occur in the context of a stable and
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enduring relationship (p. 497). For many adults, beyond family interaction, the frequency and
regularity with which they interact with their co-workers is rarely matched. Therefore, the
workplace fosters the development of recurring interactions and prolonged relationships.
As such, the need to belong will provide an integrative framework for this chapter on
positive interpersonal relationships at work. We will begin with a discussion of what it means to
be in an interpersonal relationship, as well as an overview of the benefits of positive
interpersonal relationships in the workplace, before examining how such relationships may be
fostered. Our review will reverse the traditional format, such that we will briefly discuss the
outcomes of interpersonal relationships in the workplace before reviewing their predictors.
Furthermore, we will consider predictors from three broad levels, beginning with overall
organizational membership, followed by organizational teams and networks, and concluding
with the dyadic interactions of friendships, mentoring, and romantic relationships. For each of
these levels of analysis, we will consider how they may help meet an individual’s need to belong.
Following the discussion of positive relationships at the organizational, team, and dyadic levels,
we will briefly comment on: what happens when a relationship turns bad, the generalizability of
research findings to other cultures, and the strengths and limitations of the prevalent
methodologies used in this type of research. Finally, we will conclude with implications for
science and practice as well as suggestions for future research.
Before we begin our discussion of positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace, a
brief discussion of how we define these relationships is necessary. Heaphy and Dutton (2008)
made an important distinction between a connection and a relationship in the workplace.
According to these authors, a connection involves the mutual awareness of both parties that an
interaction has taken place; however, it does not imply intimacy or that the interaction is more
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than momentary. A relationship, on the other hand, develops from the recurrence of these
interactions or connections. Therefore, both connections and relationships require the awareness
and contribution of two individuals. Interestingly, however, Heaphy and Dutton also note that
“people’s subjective experience of their connections with others has immediate, enduring, and
consequential effects on their bodies” (emphasis added; p. 138). Therefore, for an individual to
experience the effects of a connection or relationship in the workplace, it may be that only they
need to appraise it as such. For this reason, we define an “interpersonal relationship” as an
individual’s subjective experience of repeated interaction or connection with another individual.
OUTCOMES OF POSITIVE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK
The positive outcomes, for both individuals and organizations, associated with positive
interpersonal relationships in the workplace are well-documented. We briefly review these
outcomes, from the perspective of both the individual employee and the organization as a whole,
before discussing how they may be achieved.
For individual employees, at the broadest level, Cohen and Wills (1985) found that
simply being a part of a social network (e.g., an organization) may reduce employee stress levels.
Moreover, while this finding underscores the importance of group membership in general, this
effect is enhanced by the qualities of one’s group members and relationship partners. For
example, in terms of formal (i.e., organizationally sanctioned) workplace relationships, leaders
that are perceived as “good listeners” have been associated with employee feelings of belonging,
inclusion, social significance, and togetherness (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003). In addition,
positive interpersonal relationships with mentors have been associated with improved work-
related outcomes, such as increased salary, organizational promotion (Allen, Eby, Poteet, Lima,
& Lentz, 2004; Dreher & Ash, 1990) career mobility (Scandura, 1992), recognition, rewards, and
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an opportunity to establish a base of power (Hunt & Michael, 1983). When organizations
promote positive interpersonal relationships, others tend to follow the example, further creating a
community of belonging (e.g., Baker & Dutton, 2007).
In addition to formal workplace relationships, informal relationships (i.e., those that
emerge without organizational involvement) are also associated with positive work-related and
personal outcomes. For example, attraction among co-workers enhances teamwork,
communication, and cooperation (Mainiero, 1989). Workplace friendships have been associated
with numerous positive outcomes, such as increased job satisfaction, job involvement, job
performance, team cohesion, organizational commitment, and decreased intentions to turnover
(Berman, West, & Richter, 2002; Feeley, Hwang, & Barnett, 2008; Riordan & Griffeth, 1995;
Winstead, Derlega, Montgomery, & Pilkington, 1995). Further, workplace romances have been
associated with happier employees and a positive work atmosphere (Riach & Wilson, 2007).
Finally, in addition to positive psychological benefits, positive social interactions have been
significantly associated with improved cardiovascular activity, immune system functioning, and
hormone patterns (Heaphy & Dutton, 2008).
The benefits of positive interpersonal relationships for organizations are also manifold.
For example, employee identification (i.e., one’s adoption of the defining features of the
organization as defining characteristics of oneself; Dutton, Dukerich, & Harquail, 1994) has been
related to increased employee compliance, motivation, job satisfaction, and group cohesion, as
well as decreased turnover and in-group conflict (Kramer, 1991). In addition, Liden, Wayne, and
Sparrowe (2000) found that positive interpersonal relationships were a key predictor of
organizational commitment, and Kostova and Roth (2003) report that positive interpersonal
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relationships should be positively related to team performance, as they promote individual
behaviors that are aimed at increasing team efficacy and efficiency.
In sum, the scope of these positive outcomes for both the individual (e.g., improved
physical health, job satisfaction) and the organization (e.g., increased organizational commitment,
job performance) underscore the importance of fostering positive interpersonal relationships in
the workplace. We now turn to a review of the predictors of these relationships.
FOSTERING POSITIVE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK
Given the benefits of positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace reviewed
above, the majority of this chapter focuses on how organizations can promote such relationships.
We begin by considering how organizational-level factors support positive relationships,
followed by a discussion of how team-level and dyadic factors may improve relationships at
work. As mentioned at the outset of this chapter, we will examine each relational level from the
perspective of how it may help meet an individual’s need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
Organizational Level Effects
As proposed by Baumeister and Leary (1995), the two interactional criteria necessary for
satisfying the need to belong are that they be both frequent and non-aversive and occur in the
context of a stable and enduring relationship. For many individuals, the organization itself may
offer a place to belong. Employees of the same organization often interact with one another on a
consistent, even daily, basis. Therefore, the organization in which individuals are employed
forms the overriding context of their interactions in the workplace. For many, the workplace may
be an especially stable context, in which they can expect to see familiar faces in predictable
places at predictable times; therefore, this section will focus on how organizations can ensure
that these stable relationships are non-aversive.
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At a macro level, the organization itself may be perceived as supportive. For example,
Wallace, Edwards, Arnold, Frazier, and Finch (2009) found that organizational support (i.e.,
employees’ perception that the organization values their input and is concerned for their well-
being; Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchinson, & Sowa, 1986) moderated the relationship between
challenge stressors (i.e., the stressful but potentially manageable demands placed on employees)
and employees’ role-based performance (i.e., employees’ performance responsibilities).
In addition to the support offered by the organization, employees’ perception of their “fit”
with their organization may also promote positive outcomes. Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman, &
Johnson (2005) meta-analytically examined the effects of person-organization fit on individual
outcomes. Person-organization fit is defined as the compatibility between the individual and the
organization, generally with respect to value similarity (Chatman, 1989; Kristof, 1996; Verquer,
Beehr, Wagner, 2003) or goal congruence (Vancouver & Schmitt, 1991; Witt & Nye, 1992). The
authors found that person-organization fit was strongly related to organizational commitment
(estimated true correlation [ETC] = 0.51, SD = 0.260) and job satisfaction (ETC = 0.44, SD =
0.167), and moderately related to intent to quit (ETC = -0.35, SD = 0.167). Therefore, the more
strongly individuals perceive that they “fit” with their organization, the better their work-related
outcomes seem to be.
Firms may also foster the development of positive micro-level relationships by creating
and maintaining a positive organizational climate. According to Schneider and Reichers (1983),
an organization’s climate is its observable practices and procedures. Research has found that the
promotion of an organizational climate of interactional justice, or fair and respectful
communication among employees, is one way in which organizations may foster positive
interpersonal relationships (Aquino, Lewis, & Bradfield, 1999). In their seminal work on
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interactional justice, Bies and Moag (1986) identified four communication criteria required for
individuals to perceive that they are being treated fairly; that is, communications must be
perceived as true, respectful, appropriate, and justification should be provided when necessary.
Another element of an organization’s climate is its socialization practices. Baker and
Dutton (2007) suggested that these practices, which may include matching new employees with a
mentor, help teach employees the appropriate norms of interaction, which can facilitate positive
interactions. Empirical research has supported this claim by showing that formally and
informally mentored employees are better socialized into the organization and have better work
outcomes than those who have not been mentored (Chao, Walz, & Gardner, 1992). In terms of
socialization, Chao et al. found that employees with mentors were more likely to establish
successful and satisfying work relationships than their non-mentored colleagues. The mentor-
protégé relationship will be discussed further in the dyadic relationship section below (as well as
in Chapter XX, this volume).
In addition to interactional justice and proactive employee socialization practices, George
and Bettenhausen (1990) reported that leaders can also influence organizational climate. This
notion is supported by other researchers (e.g., Dutton, 2003; Heaphy & Dutton, 2008) who
suggest that relational leadership can encourage positive interactions and connections at work.
Dutton (2003) argued that a leader’s relational attentiveness (i.e., his or her capacity to perceive
and react to an employee’s affective state) will encourage positive interactions because such
leaders can help employees sustain and repair interpersonal connections. Indeed, Postmes, Tanis,
and de Wit (2001) argued that organizational leaders, as representatives of management, were
more strongly related to employees’ sense of organizational belonging than were the employees’
“informal and social-emotional interactions with peers and proximate colleagues” (p. 240).
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Further, Heaphy and Dutton (2008) argued that leaders who promote a common identity
and interdependence among employees are better able to minimize perceived differences
between people, which should result in a stronger foundation for positive interactions at work.
The minimization of differences has important implications for diverse organizational work
groups (i.e., work groups composed of individuals who vary in gender, race, ethnicity, age, or
other observable characteristics), which have become far more common in recent years. More
generally, there is evidence that individuals who perceive themselves to be dissimilar to their
organization and/or colleagues tend to be less inclined to identify with and commit to the
organization and more likely to withdraw (Milliken & Martins, 1996; Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989).
Therefore, the minimization of perceived differences may help promote employee identification
and commitment, and thus their sense of belonging.
Empirical evidence in the leadership literature supports the role that leaders play in
cultivating positive relationships within their organization. For example, transformational
leadership a type of leadership that intellectually stimulates and inspires followers (Bass &
Riggio, 2006) is associated with a number of pro-social behaviors. Transformational leaders
encourage the development of trust among team members (Arnold, Barling, & Kelloway, 2001),
and greater levels of team cohesion (Sparks & Schenk, 2001) and friendliness (Krishnan, 2004);
all important elements for the creation of non-aversive interactions.
Another important leader characteristic is the perceived fairness of a leader’s decision-
making process. Cornelis, Van Hiel, and De Cremer (2006) found that leaders’ procedural
fairness was associated with both employees’ relationships with the leader as well as their
relations with other group (i.e., organizational) members. Specifically, they found that procedural
unfairness was negatively associated with group members’ interpersonal relationship quality, but
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only when they felt that the other group members actually supported the leader (i.e., when they
believed that he or she was representative of the group’s attitudes and behaviors). Further, they
found that this relationship was stronger for those individuals who had a high need to belong.
A leader’s procedural fairness also sets an example for their subordinates. According to
Lind and Tyler’s group value model (1988; Tyler & Lind, 1992), procedural fairness towards a
particular member of the organization indicates to both the individual and other organizational
members that they are valued as individuals (Tyler, Degoey, & Smith, 1996). That is, when a
leader treats an organizational member fairly, the leader is signaling his or her value to other
members of the organization. Leaders therefore play an important role in encouraging positive
connections and feelings of belonging.
Another way that leadership can help to build a positive organizational climate is through
effective relational coordination (Gittell, 2003). Gittell argues that such coordination is
facilitated by engaging in high-quality communication and high-quality relationships. High
quality communication involves frequent, timely, and accurate communication that emphasizes
problem-solving rather than blaming or avoidance strategies. To foster high quality relationships,
she recommends that leaders emphasize shared goals, and the sharing of knowledge about work
tasks. Finally, she notes that fostering mutual respect for each individual’s competence can help
create a bond between employees, which can facilitate high-quality relationships at work.
In addition to offering a physical place to belong that is both stable and enduring, the
research outlined in this section offers several practical suggestions for the promotion of an
organizational climate in which non-aversive interactions among employees can develop. These
suggestions fall heavily on the shoulders of leaders, and include an emphasis on interactional
justice, procedural fairness, transformational leadership, relational attentiveness, trust
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development, and high quality communication. When such a climate can be fostered, a context
may be created in which employees can more readily meet their need to belong.
Group Level Effects
In additional to organizational membership, many employees are members of groups
within their organization. These groups may be formal (e.g., work groups, teams) or informal
(e.g., friendship networks). Some organizational groups may be relatively transient (e.g., specific
project work groups); however, even transient work groups offer an opportunity for frequent
interaction (the second of two criteria of the need to belong). In addition, groups can provide the
social context within which employees interpret their organization (Robinson & O’Leary-Kelly,
1998). As such, both formal and informal groups offer another opportunity for organizations to
meet their employees’ need to belong.
For instance, in their meta-analytic review, Kristof-Brown et al. (2005) reviewed 20
studies examining an individual’s perceived compatibility (i.e., fit) with his or her work group.
Person-group fit was strongly related to co-worker satisfaction (ETC = 0.42, SD = 0.057) and job
satisfaction (ETC = 0.31, SD = 0). Therefore, the more strongly individuals perceive that they
“fit” with their work group or team, the better their work-related outcomes seem to be.
Work Groups and Teams
Research in the area of organizational groups (i.e., work groups and teams) has shifted
over the past 20 years. Where groups were once considered to be problematic for managers, their
potential benefits have since been highlighted (Shea & Guzzo, 1987) and many employees report
that they prefer to work in groups rather than alone (Alderfer, 1972).
According to Buss (1983), individuals may obtain important social rewards from the
mere presence and attention of others. The presence of others offers an opportunity for the
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individual to be validated, recognized, and valued for their achievement (Baumeister & Leary,
1995). Further, many researchers have underscored the strong correlation between group
identification and an individual’s self-esteem (e.g., Rowley, Sellers, Chavous, & Smith, 1998;
Tang & Gilbert, 1994). Social identity theory states that individuals base their identity, in part,
on the groups to which they belong (Tajfel, 1970; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and that individuals
tend to show a preference for their in-group even when group assignment is random (e.g.,
Brewer, 1979; Locksley, Ortiz, & Hepburn, 1980; Tajfel & Turner, 1986).
According to J. E. Cameron (2004), an individual’s social identity derived from group
membership is a multi-dimensional construct. That is, identification with a group is determined
by the centrality of the group to an individual’s self-concept, the individual’s in-group affect (i.e.,
the impact of group membership on the individual’s self-esteem), and their in-group ties (i.e.,
their interpersonal relationships within the group). Therefore, the interpersonal relationships one
establishes with group members are one of the key determinants of one’s identification with the
group.
However, while researchers have emphasized the importance of positive interpersonal
work group relationships for individuals, their benefit for organizations (i.e., their effect on team
performance) is not entirely straightforward (e.g., Allen & Hecht, 2004; Argyris, 1962; Postmes
et al., 2001; Tannenbaum, Beard, & Salas, 1992). Indeed, Allen and Hecht (2004) argued that
teams have been romanticized by managers who, in spite of evidence to the contrary, firmly
believe in their effectiveness. In their review, Allen and Hecht found that while team members
benefit from the fulfillment of social needs, the reduction of uncertainty, and the generation of
positive work-related attitudes, there is no clear evidence to support the hypothesis that teams
yield higher performance. In an attempt to disentangle the mixed research on team effectiveness,
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Mathieu and Schulze (2006) found that when teams had high levels of knowledge and formal
planning, team interpersonal processes (i.e., conflict management, motivation and confidence
building, and affect management; Marks, Mathieu, & Zaccaro, 2001) were a significant predictor
of team performance such that teams whose members had positive interpersonal relationships
outperformed those that did not have positive relationships. However, when team knowledge or
formal planning was not high, interpersonal processes were virtually unrelated to performance.
When interpreting their results, the authors’ suggested that team complacency may be an
important mediating factor; that is, a “teams’ failure to engage in constructive controversy
(Tjosvold, 1984)” may account for the observed lack of relationship between team interpersonal
processes and team performance (p. 616). Such complacency may occur, for example, when
team members do not anticipate working together for an extended period of time (Bradley, White,
& Mennecke, 2003). Under these conditions, members may prefer to be agreeable and non-
confrontational, for fear of alienating other members or embarrassing themselves (Mathieu &
Schulze, 2006). Therefore, the promotion of constructive controversy though not at the
expensive of positive interpersonal relationship development may yield greater benefits for
organizations.
In addition, while researchers tend to agree that positive interpersonal relationships
within teams and work groups is important for employee well-being (if not team performance),
when these groups contain diverse members (e.g., individuals with different ethnic backgrounds),
the situation is even more complex. On one hand, diverse groups have been associated with the
generation of higher quality ideas (McLeod & Lobel, 1992) and increased cooperation (Cox,
Lobel, & McLeod, 1991). However, they have also been associated with increased difficulty in
group member identification with other group members and with the group in general (Milliken
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& Martins, 1996). More research is needed to examine the costs and benefits of diverse teams
and work groups.
In terms of promoting non-aversive interpersonal relationships in work groups and teams,
trust has become an important theme. For example, Clark and Payne (2006) identified four
factors of character-based qualities of trust (i.e., ability, integrity, fairness, and openness) in
leaders, and argued that this variable is an important predictor of positive interpersonal
relationships and group processes. Further, Martin-Rodriguez, Beaulieu, D'Amour, and Ferrada-
Videla (2005) found that successful collaboration among team members resulted from trust
among members, as well as a willingness to collaborate and a climate of respect and
communication. Nugent and Abolafia (2006) proposed that trust may be built when members
express an intention of honesty and fairness in dealings.
Social Networks in the Workplace
Though organizational membership offers employees a general group to which they
belong, all of the members of this group may not be known to all employees. For example, in
large organizations, employees may work in different departments, on different floors of a
common building, or in different geographical areas. These individuals may be less likely to
interact with one another, and as such, may not consider one another to be a part of their
“organizational reference group” (i.e., the set of other employees an individual considers to be
his or her co-workers at any given time; Lawrence, 2006). This reference group may be
conceptualized as the employee’s “social network”, which is defined as the structure of patterned,
repeated interactions in an organization (Ibarra & Andrews, 1993). The repeated nature, or
frequency, of these interactions may help satisfy employees’ need to belong.
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Research examining social networks is based on the assumption that individuals in an
organization are “embedded in networks of interconnected social relationships” (Brass,
Galaskiewicz, Greve, & Tsui, 2004, p. 795). According to Brass et al. (2004), networks are
composed of multiple nodes (e.g., individual actors) which are connected by ties (i.e.,
relationships). Social network researchers have examined many kinds of networks in the
workplace, such as strategic alliances, information flow, friendships, and work flow. To study
these networks, researchers survey members of an organization, department, or work group.
Each group member is typically provided with a list or roster of their co-workers and is asked to
identify the employees that meet the criteria of interest, such as the employees they consider to
be personal friends or those they go to for advice (e.g., Feeley & Barnett, 1997; Mehra, Kilduff,
& Brass, 1998). From these reports, researchers are able to construct a map of the
interrelationships of interest, which they then use to address their research question.
This research has found that individuals who have more relationships (i.e., are well-
connected) report higher levels of job satisfaction (Shaw, 1964) and lower levels of stress
(Cohen & Wills, 1985). However, the quality of one’s relationships seems to be more important
than the quantity (Brass et al., 2004). Nonetheless, research examining information flow
networks has found that individuals with zero or single relationships report less satisfaction than
those that report multiple ties (Roberts & O’Reilly, 1979). Therefore, being part of a network is
important for employee well-being.
Within organizations, both formal and informal social networks are important elements of
an employee’s work relationships. Formal networks, reflected in an organization’s official
hierarchy of reporting and supervision (i.e., the organizational chart), often provide employees
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with instrumental resources, such as work-related help or advice, whereas informal (e.g.,
friendship) networks tend to provide emotional support (Ibarra, 1993).
In terms of organizational mobility, recent research has suggested that the most important
predictor of individual promotion is the diversity of one’s network relationships (Brass et al.,
2004). In this sense, diversity does not refer to gender or race, but to network diversity. For
example, the “tertius gaudens”, or the “third who benefits” (Simmel, 1950) is the individual who
connects otherwise unconnected actors (or networks), thereby filling an absence of a link
between two contacts, known as a structural hole (Burt, 1992). People who are able to connect
unconnected others tend to have the most opportunity to get ahead in their organizations because
they are in a position of power vis à vis the unconnected parties (e.g., Burt, 1992; Seibert,
Kraimer, & Liden, 2001; Podolny & Baron, 1997). One qualification of this finding, however, is
that informal networks in general (discussed below), and those with a high number of structural
holes in particular, may be difficult for both women and newcomers to penetrate (Burt, 1992;
Fernandez, 1981), perhaps due to a general tendency for homophily in organizational networks.
Network homophily has been found to be quite common in informal networks (Brass,
1985; Ibarra, 1992). Several researchers have underscored the tendency for individuals to seek
out and interact with similar others, an observation which is unsurprising due to the benefits
associated with perceived similarity (e.g., Kanter, 1977; Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996a,
1996b). In addition, these homophilic networks are not randomly distributed across organization
levels. For example, Brass (1985) reported that the “dominant coalitionof many organizations
(i.e., the decision-making network) tends to be populated primarily by men (see also Morrison &
Von Glinow, 1990 for a review). Ibarra (1993) has argued that network homophily is a structural
constraint for women and minorities who seek to gain access to the upper echelons of their
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organization, as these groups contain far fewer individuals with whom they are similar. When
women and minorities do forge ties with similar others, these relationships tend to be both
weaker (as their similar others tend to be more dispersed throughout the organization) and of less
instrumental value (as women and minorities tend to hold less power) than those ties forged
among white males. Therefore, while the workforce may have become more diverse and
formally inclusive, women and minorities continue to face a number of challenges with regard to
access to organizational power and influence.
As previously noted, women may have difficulty penetrating networks rich in structural
holes; however, such network access is not their only barrier. For example, Mehra et al. (1998)
proposed that the process of identification in the workplace may differ depending on the level of
representation of one’s group. They compared the friendship networks of both women and racial
minorities in a Master’s of Business Administration program and found that underrepresented
groups were more likely to be involved in networks with similar others than were majority
members. Similarly, Brass (1985) noted that, while women were equally able to develop social
networks, they may be less able to integrate themselves into men’s informal (i.e., informational
or influence) networks in their organization. Given the relative proportion of men and women in
positions of formal power, this discrepancy may prevent women from moving up in their
organization at comparable rates. For these individuals (i.e., women, minorities, organizational
newcomers), connections to powerful others (e.g., a mentor) may help them join the network. A
word of caution is in order, however, as dependence on such an individual may not be desirable
due to the limited recourse one would have should the powerful individual choose to sever the
relationship (Brass et al., 2004; Higgins & Kram, 2001).
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Finally, it is important to note that those minorities (e.g., immigrants) who do not count
members of the majority group in their social network tend to report higher levels of stress and
lower levels of general well-being (Jasinskaja-Lahti, Jaakkola, & Reuter, 2006). Further, when
faced with perceived discrimination, these employees often face a cyclical challenge; that is,
when individuals perceive that they are being discriminated against, they are more likely to seek
out the company of similar others (i.e., other immigrants from their home country) (Birman &
Trickett, 2001; Birman, Trickett, & Vinokurov, 2002). However, this tends to evoke the negative
perception that these individuals are unwilling to adapt and fit into the host country (Jasinskaja-
Lahti et al., 2006; Nauck, 2001). Therefore, the promotion of positive interpersonal relationships
in networks is especially important for these groups.
The research outlined above underscores the difficulty with which individuals (especially
women, minorities, and organizational newcomers) may have establishing frequent and non-
aversive group and network relationships within their organizations, as these groups may be less
inclusive than the organization in general. However, for those that do, such relationships promote
a sense of social identity and improved self-esteem, as well as improved work-related outcomes
for those who are well-connected. An important moderator of these findings, however, is the
quality of the interpersonal relationships, as opposed to the quantity. Therefore, membership in
an organizational team or network promotes more frequent interactions with a subset of
individuals in the workplace; when these relationships are non-aversive, they help satisfy
Baumeister and Leary’s (1995) criteria for meeting the need to belong.
Dyadic Interpersonal Relationships
In terms of fostering positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace, research at the
level of the dyad may be the most relevant. While organizational- and group-level factors are
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clearly influential to the development of such relationships, ultimately it is the relationship
between one employee and another that will determine each individual’s sense of belonging. In
addition, though there are some variables of organizations and groups that are arguably beyond
the control of the individual (e.g., organizational climate; George & Bettenhausen, 1990),
organizations and groups are built from the individual members and their interrelationships. For
example, Argyris (1996) suggested that workplace friendship provides a foundation upon which
productive organizational social systems can develop and flourish. Various forms of employees’
dyadic relationships with their leaders and co-workers will be reviewed in this section.
Social exchange theory has important implications for dyadic relationships. According to
this theory, individuals incur both costs and rewards from their interactions with others (Thibaut
& Kelley, 1959). For example, the establishment and maintenance of relationships require
individuals to expend both their time and effort (i.e., costs); however, individuals may also
receive rewards in the form of additional resources, emotional support, and a sense of belonging
from their interactions. According to social exchange theory, individuals will only be motivated
to pursue a relationship when they perceive the rewards to outweigh the costs.
In their meta-analytic study, Kristof-Brown et al. (2005) examined the effects of person-
supervisor fit on various individual outcomes. Person-supervisor fit is defined as the
compatibility or similarity between the individual’s and their supervisor’s values (e.g., Colbert,
2004; Krishnan, 2002), personality (Schaubroeck & Lam, 2002), and/or goals (e.g., Witt, 1998).
Though other forms of dyadic fit (e.g., person-co-worker) were of interest, there is a paucity of
research in these other areas. The authors found that person-supervisor fit was strongly related to
job satisfaction (ETC = 0.44, SD = 0.112), supervisor satisfaction (ETC = 0.46, SD = 0.228), and
21
leader-member exchange (ETC = 0.43, SD = 0.076). Therefore, the more strongly individuals
perceive that they “fit” with their supervisor, the better their work-related outcomes seem to be.
Another meta-analysis reviewed the influence of leader and co-worker support (Chiaburu
& Harrison, 2008). Chiaburu and Harrison found that both leader and co-worker support
significantly predicted role perceptions (i.e., role ambiguity, role conflict, role overload), work
attitudes (i.e., job satisfaction, job involvement, organizational commitment), work withdrawal
(i.e., effort reduction, absenteeism, intention to quit, turnover), and organizational effectiveness
(i.e., individual-directed counterproductive work behaviors, organization-directed
counterproductive work behaviors, individual-directed organizational citizenship behaviors,
organization-directed organizational citizenship behaviors, performance). Leader support had
particularly strong relationships with job satisfaction, role ambiguity, role conflict, and intention
to quit (rc = 0.42, -0.33, -0.31, and -0.31, respectively); where rc represents the corrected
correlation. In contrast, co-worker support had the strongest effects on role ambiguity, job
satisfaction, and job involvement (rc = -0.42, 0.40, and 0.35, respectively). Thus, at a dyadic
level, both leaders and co-workers can have a significant impact on employee outcomes.
Friendships in the Workplace
According to Berman et al. (2002), workplace friendships are “nonexclusive workplace
relations that involve mutual trust, commitment, reciprocal liking and shared interests or values”
(p. 218). They are voluntary relationships in which members interact with one another as unique
individuals rather than as interchangeable role occupants (i.e., co-worker, supervisor) (Wright,
1984), and are defined by a combination of the degree of mutual concern and mutual
interdependence beyond that required by their organizational roles (Winstead et al., 1995).
Friendships in the workplace may directly satisfy an individual’s need to belong, as these
22
relationships are expected to be non-aversive, due to the definition of “friendship”, as well as
frequent, stable, and enduring.
According to Randel and Ranft (2007), there are two underlying motivations for forming
and maintaining workplace friendships: relationship motivation (i.e., enhancing one’s social
support) and job facilitation motivation (i.e., enhancing one’s job success). These researchers
found that both forms of motivation were positively related to an employee’s sense of social
inclusion (i.e., belonging). As such, one’s motivation for friendship formation may be relatively
unimportant to the successful satisfaction of the need to belong.
From a social exchange perspective, while there are many rewards associated with
workplace friendships, there will unavoidably be costs. Berman et al. (2002) reviewed managers’
perceptions of both the costs and rewards of workplace friendships and found that while
managers did perceive costs associated with employee friendships (e.g., an increased potential
for situations in which friend- and work-related interests conflict, political vulnerability, and
strained independent judgment), they tended to deem friendships to be important and valuable to
their organization. Moreover, these managers also reported actions they had taken to facilitate
friendships at work, such as the active promotion of an open and friendly organizational/work
group climate (Rousseau 1995), the use of teamwork, and management and employee training in
a variety of skills such as trust, empathy, active listening, and the expression of thoughts and
emotions (Berman et al., 2002). These techniques echo those used in the organization- and
group-level literature reviewed in the subsections above.
In terms of quantitatively examining workplace friendships, researchers have drawn
heavily on social network research methods, discussed above. For example, one index of
workplace friendship is an employee’s degree centrality; that is, the number of links he or she
23
has to others in the organization as compared to the number they could have (Feeley & Barnett,
1997; Feeley et al., 2008; Monge, Edwards, & Kirste, 1983). Interestingly, in their study of fast-
food workers, Feeley et al. (2008) found that the number of friends an employee had at work was
more important than the closeness of their friendships in predicting employee retention. An
important qualification of this study, however, was that the employees in their sample did not
necessarily interact with a consistent set of co-workers (i.e., their relationships were not
necessarily stable). Due to the variable nature of shift work common in the fast food industry, it
may be more important for employees to seek out multiple connections to ensure their sense of
belonging does not fluctuate from shift to shift. More research is needed to determine the relative
importance of quality and quantity of friendships for organizational outcomes.
As discussed previously, another index of one’s workplace friendships is the extent to
which one connects otherwise unconnected individuals (i.e., the tertius gaudens) (Burt, 1992).
This position has been associated with several work-related benefits (e.g., increased power and
job mobility) (Burt, 1992; Podolny & Baron, 1997). Though a tertius gaudens may not have as
many direct relationships with others in their organization as those who are high in degree
centrality, they tend to facilitate cooperation across organizational work units; cooperation that is
especially important in times of crisis (e.g., Krackhardt & Stern, 1988). Moreover, as noted by
Krackhardt and Stern, such a position is associated with a high degree of informal (or “social”)
power.
In addition to the techniques reviewed by Berman et al. (2002) above (e.g., the active
promotion of an open and friendly organizational/work group climate, the use of teamwork),
other methods for increasing the frequency and quality of workplace friendships have also been
advanced. For example, in their multi-level examination of the effects of leader-member
24
exchange (LMX) and team-member exchange (TMX) relationships, Tse, Dasborough, and
Ashkanasy (2008) found that while high-quality LMX relationships were positively associated
workplace friendships, this relationship was moderated by the team’s affective climate. That is,
when a team’s affective climate was strong, the relationship between LMX and workplace
friendship was stronger than when the team’s affective climate was weak. The importance of
group-level climate found in this study further underscores the importance of a multi-level
perspective in the study of interpersonal variables. Further, Sias and Cahill (1998) emphasized
the importance of open and honest communication for the facilitation of workplace friendships.
They proposed that employees need to be able to discuss both their work-related emotions and
their personal lives with trusted others if such relationships are to develop and their need to
belong is to be more fully satisfied.
Mentoring in the Workplace
Though it is discussed in more detail in the chapter on mentoring appearing in this
volume (Chapter XX), another important dyadic relationship in the workplace exists between
mentors and protégés. In this relational context, mentors tend to be more experienced workers
who take an interest in the professional (and sometimes personal) development of less
experienced co-workers (Kram, 1985). Mentoring relationships may be formally established by
the organization (i.e., formal mentoring) or may emerge spontaneously in the workplace (i.e.,
informal mentoring) (Ragins, Cotton, & Miller, 2000). Formal mentoring programs often entail
an official pairing of a mentor and a protégé (Ragins et al., 2000). According to Bragg (1989),
over one third of American corporations engage in some form of formal mentoring program;
however, rather than improving belonging, formal mentoring is often associated with a sense of
organizational obligation. That is, both mentors and protégés may recognize their relationship as
25
a requirement of their organization, which may be associated with fewer intrinsic benefits for
both individuals (Ragins et al., 2000). Perhaps for this reason, formal mentoring has been found
to be less effective than informal mentoring (Ragins et al., 2000).
According to Kram (1985), informal mentoring occurs when mentors reach a point in
their development at which they feel compelled to pass on their wisdom to another generation.
Mentors tend to choose protégés that they view as younger versions of themselves, and protégés
tend to gravitate to mentors that they view as role models (Ragins et al., 2000). Kram suggested
that this informal selection process may be associated with increased attraction and chemistry
and may lead to mutual identification or belonging. An important mediating variable for both
formal an informal mentoring, however, is employees’ satisfaction with their mentoring
relationship. That is, Ragins et al. found that individuals in satisfying formal mentor relationships
reported better work attitudes than those in unsatisfying informal mentor relationships.
Of the dyadic relationships considered in this chapter, the mentor-protégé relationship
may be the most explicit in terms of the promotion of positive work-related outcomes. Research
from the perspective of both the mentor and the protégé has generally found support for such
positive outcomes, in both the short- and long-term. For example, Ragins and her colleagues
(e.g., Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Ragins & McFarlin, 1990) found that protégés benefited
immediately from both the career-related and emotional support they derived from their
mentoring relationship. In addition, mentored employees often experience future success within
their respective organizations as indexed by both their salary and promotion (Allen et al., 2004;
Dreher & Ash, 1990) and their career mobility (Scandura, 1992). Further, Kalev, Bobbin, and
Kelly (2006) reported that mentoring programs were more successful than managerial bias-
reduction training in terms of promoting racial diversity within organizations.
26
The benefits of the mentoring relationship for mentors include recognition, rewards, and
an opportunity to establish a base of power (Hunt & Michael, 1983); however, in contrast to the
clear long-term effects found for protégés, these short-term benefits are not consistently
associated with mentors’ long-term outcomes. Rather, Eby, Durley, Evans, and Ragins (2006)
distinguished between the instrumental (i.e., recognition, improved job performance) and
relational (i.e., rewarding experience, loyal base of support) benefits of mentoring. They found
that the instrumental benefits were predictive of long-term mentor work attitudes (i.e., job
satisfaction, organizational commitment), whereas the relational benefits were predictive of their
intentions to mentor again.
Noting an interesting cultural difference in mentoring, Bozionelos and Wang (2006)
found that mentoring was more common among employees in China than it was among North
American employees; the authors speculated that this was likely reflective of the Eastern (or
Confucian) value system. Interestingly, however, Chinese employees who participated in
mentoring relationships did not report the same level of work-related benefits that North
American mentors and protégés did. Bozionelos and Wang suggested that this may have been
due to the increased prevalence of mentoring in Chinese organizations; that is, as the norm rather
than the exception, mentoring offered less of a competitive advantage to those in China.
While mentoring relationships have been associated with multiple rewards, as predicted
by social exchange theory, there are also costs associated with these relationships. For example,
Morgan and Davidson (2008) reviewed the pitfalls of mentoring relationships that had become
romantic or sexual. When individuals are in close proximity and frequently interact as in
mentoring relationships physical attraction may develop (Quinn & Judge, 1978). However,
given the implied power imbalance between mentors and protégés, acting on such attraction may
27
make the organization vulnerable to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct on the part
of mentors (Morgan & Davidson, 2008; Quinn & Lees, 1984). The development of romantic
relationships will be discussed in more detail in the subsection below.
In a similar vein, the gender of the mentor and protégé has become the subject of a
growing body of research. While mentoring has been related to improved work-related outcomes
in general, these outcomes are predicted to be less important for male mentors and protégés
(Kram, 1985; Solomon, Bishop & Bresser, 1986). As mentors, men seem to benefit less than
their female counterparts from the associated career rejuvenation, improved job performance,
and recognition (Kram, 1985). In addition, though mentoring of female protégés may help
women penetrate organizational networks (Burt, 1992), these benefits have primarily been found
in same-sex mentor-protégé pairs. That is, female mentor-female protégé pairs tend to report the
most positive outcomes (Clawson & Kram, 1984; Ragins & McFarlin, 1990). The least positive
pairing is female mentor-male protégé pairs; these pairs report fewer perceptions of similarity on
both psychological and career functions (Armstrong, Allinson, & Hayes, 2002).
An important implication of these costs of mentoring relates to the frequency with which
mentoring is cited as a viable solution by researchers studying other organizational issues. For
example, researchers have recommended the institution of mentoring programs to deal with
issues of employee growth and development (O'Donnell, 2007), employee learning strategies
(Hicks, Bagg, Doyle, & Young, 2007), work-based stress and exhaustion (Saarnivaara & Sarja,
2007), and employee resilience (Jackson, Firtko, & Edenborough, 2007). However, the
mentoring programs advocated by these researchers are implicitly formal; that is, they suggest a
purposeful implementation of mentor-protégé pairings, which, as mentioned, has been found to
be less successful than informal mentoring (Kram, 1985; Ragins et al., 2000). In addition, given
28
the increased vulnerability to sexual harassment allegations, mentoring may not be an
appropriate solution in all cases. Rather, before advocating formal mentoring, the usefulness of
this program as a remedy for specific issues should be investigated by researchers to determine
its potential effectiveness.
Romance in the Workplace
The final dyadic relationship we will consider are romantic relationships in the workplace.
Workplace romances have traditionally been defined as an exclusive heterosexual relationship
between two employees of the same organization, characterized by sexual attraction and known
to others in the workplace (Mainiero, 1986; Pierce, Byrne, & Aguinis, 1996). Though this review
acknowledges that this “traditional” view is in need of expansion to include same-sex partners, to
date, most research in this area has defined workplace romance with respect to heterosexual
relationships (Mainiero, 1986; Pierce et al., 1996; Powell, 1993). As such, same sex romantic
relationships will not be reviewed here.
In the United States, an estimated 10 million consensual romantic relationships develop
at work annually between employees working for the same organization (Spragins, 2004). Given
the frequent interaction and close proximity of many co-workers (Quinn & Judge, 1978), the
high prevalence of workplace romance is, perhaps not surprising. Indeed, Carson and Barling
(2008) suggest that increasing numbers of people have met their significant others at work. By
some estimates, one third of romantic relationships begin here (Bordwin, 1994) and a projected
80 percent of employees in the United States report having engaged in some form of sexual
experience in the workplace (Gutek, 1985).
Though it has been the case for many of the bodies of research discussed thus far,
workplace romances in particular have been examined with an emphasis on the negative
29
outcomes they predict. For example, researchers have posited that such intimate workplace
relationships are associated with issues of biased decision-making (Mainiero, 1986), role conflict
(Collins, 1983), jealousy, favoritism, revenge (Riach & Wilson, 2007), and an increased risk of
sexual harassment claims (Mainiero, 1989; Quinn & Lees, 1984). In addition, these negative
outcomes may be particularly pronounced when there is a power imbalance between the
relationship partners (i.e., supervisor-subordinate) (Karl & Sutton, 2000). In addition, romantic
partners may become viewed by outsiders as a coalition to overcome (Mainiero, 1986).
While negative outcomes dominate this research stream, a smaller body of research has
acknowledged the positive outcomes associated with workplace romance (for an extensive
review and model of the antecedents and consequences of workplace romance, see Pierce et al.,
1996). For example, workers interviewed by Riach and Wilson (2007) tended to agree that
romances were associated with happier employees, a positive atmosphere, and increased
productivity. Similar findings have been reported by Mainiero (1989) and Clawson and Kram
(1984), who proposed that attraction among team members can enhance teamwork,
communication, cooperation (Mainiero, 1989), and even productivity (Clawson & Kram, 1984).
Moreover, from the perspective of Baumeister and Leary’s (1995) need to belong,
romantic relationships may offer the most frequent and stable (and hopefully least aversive)
relationship of any reviewed thus far. In line with this reasoning, though not investigated in an
organizational context, researchers have found that individuals in stable romantic relationships
tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being than their single counterparts, even after
controlling for happiness (Kamp, Claire, & Amato, 2005). Similarly, Burns, Sayers, and Moras
(1994) found that married individuals undergoing cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression
improved faster than their single counterparts. Moreover, this relationship held after controlling
30
for marital satisfaction. Taken together, these studies suggest that simply being in a romantic
relationship (regardless of its quality) may be associated with positive health outcomes.
Therefore, it seems that no matter where they have been established, being in a romantic
relationship may enhance workers’ subjective well-being (Kamp et al., 2005), productivity
(Clawson & Kram, 1984), and sense of belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
It is likely then that workplace romances provide the most potential for extreme emotions,
both positive and negative, of all the relationships reviewed. As such, organizations would be
well-advised to take some measure of precaution and respond when appropriate. Indeed, some
organizations have instituted policies about romantic relationships at work, particularly as it
relates to relationships across hierarchical levels. For instance, universities often have policies
that prevent professors from engaging in romantic relationships with students. Such power
imbalances can leave lower status individuals (e.g., students) in a vulnerable position that
prevents them from ending their relationship with a higher power partner (e.g., professors). Such
relationships may also have a higher risk of leading to a subsequent sexual harassment lawsuit
(e.g., student or professor requesting sexual favors in exchange for higher grades, letters of
recommendation, etc.). Therefore, these policies are designed to protect both subordinates and
superiors from the risks associated with such romantic relationships. When these policies are
violated, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM; 1998) found that 42 percent of
companies that have workplace romance policies would transfer violators, 27 percent would
terminate the violators, 26 percent would ask them to participate in counseling, and 25 percent
would reprimand them in some other way.
Using a vignette design, Karl and Sutton (2000) found that individuals endorsed different
managerial intervention strategies as being appropriate in workplace romances depending on
31
several factors, including the visibility of the relationship and the subsequent performance of the
individuals involved. In general, the counsel policy (i.e., “counsel[ing] the couple on the risks
involved in forming romantic relationship”, p. 431) was perceived to be the most fair. In
actuality, however, the vast majority of organizations do not have policies for dealing with
workplace romance (Ford & McLaughlin, 1987; Rapp, 1992; SHRM, 1998), and the most
common managerial response to workplace romance is inaction (Foley & Powell, 1999).
However, while employees often express the opinion that workplace romances are not the
organization’s concern (e.g., Fisher, 1994), they also report feelings of injustice when they
perceive a co-worker to be advantaged by their romantic relationship in the workplace,
particularly when there is a power imbalance in the relationship in question (Foley & Powell,
1999). Therefore, organizational policies for workplace romances are an area of research in need
of further investigation, particularly when there is an imbalance of power between the
relationship partners.
Overall, in terms of the need to belong, research conducted at the level of the dyad may
be most important, as these relationships form the basic unit of belonging. Therefore, fostering
these relationships through the creation of appropriate organizational and group climates and
informal mentoring practices may most thoroughly satisfy employees’ need to belong.
WHEN GOOD RELATIONSHIPS GO BAD
It is important to note that the experiences associated with positive social interactions
reviewed in this chapter are not simply the opposite of those associated with negative
interactions (Heaphy & Dutton, 2008), or with the absence or termination of positive
relationships. Rather, the study of negative interpersonal relationships and the dissolution of
positive relationships has generated a separate body of research.
32
In their argument for the fundamental nature of the need to belong, Baumeister and Leary
(1995) reviewed research examining individuals’ resistance to the dissolution of relational bonds.
Specifically, they reported that humans almost universally respond with distress to the breaking
of relational bonds (Hazan & Shaver, 1994); a pattern which has been observed across cultures
and age ranges. This distress has even been evidenced in temporary groups, whose members are
aware of the transient nature of their membership (Egan, 1970; Lacoursiere, 1980; Leiberman,
Yalom, & Miles, 1973).
The few studies that have investigated the termination of positive relationships suggest
that the deleterious outcomes of a damaged relationship may be more negative than the
advantages of a positive relationship. Though we examined positive interpersonal relationships at
the organizational, group, and individual levels within this chapter, studies have examined the
dissolution of positive relationships largely at the dyadic level. Therefore, we briefly consider
what happens when dyadic relationships turn bad, by considering the termination of friendship,
mentor-protégé, and romantic relationships at work.
Few studies have investigated the deterioration of friendship at work. One exception is
Sias, Heath, Perry, Silva, and Fix (2004), who examined narratives of employees’ accounts of
friendship deterioration. They found that such relationships dissolve for at least five reasons.
First, personality trait differences may become heightened at work causing friendships to break
down. For instance, a member of a friendship dyad may display traits that the other friend cannot
tolerate, such as selfishness or disrespect. Second, personal life events that interfere with a
friend’s work performance can lead friendships to dissolve. Third, friends at work often
demonstrated different expectations about how to interact with each other at work. For instance,
in superior-subordinate friendships, subordinates may take a superior’s reprimand more
33
personally than in a non-friend relationship. Fourth, friendships may break down when one
friend is promoted to a higher status position, leading to uncertainty on the part of the higher
status individual about the appropriateness of the friendship. Promoted friends may become
concerned about the appearance of favoritism if they maintain their friendships with their now
lower status friends. Finally, friendships can end if a betrayal occurs, such as a breach of trust.
Sias et al. (2004) found that in most cases, friends communicated their desire to
disengage indirectly, by avoiding personal (i.e., non-work) conversation, distancing themselves,
and avoiding socializing outside work. The result of friendship disintegration included personal
distress, turnover, and lower job performance. Participants indicated that a key reason for
emotional distress from the breakdown of a friendship was because those same friends had
previously been a key source of emotional support (consistent with our earlier discussion of the
benefits of interpersonal friendships). Therefore, participants felt isolated, frustrated, and
unhappy, which sometimes resulted in participants ultimately leaving the workplace.
In terms of the dissolution of mentor-protégé relationships, Kram (1985) suggested that
mentoring relationships pass through four phases: initiation, cultivation, separation, and
redefinition. The latter two represent the phases during which the relationship terminates and
potentially reforms as a new relationship. Kram (1985) argued that there are functional and
dysfunctional reasons for termination. Functional termination of a mentoring relationship
generally occurs when the protégé has developed to the point where the relationship is no longer
useful. Therefore, termination enables both parties to move on to new and more challenging or
helpful relationships. Once terminated, such relationships may reform as a friendship, or may
simply end. In either case, the outcome is positive, or at worst, neutral for the parties involved.
34
In contrast, dysfunctional termination might occur for several reasons ranging from
malevolent deception resulting in dysfunction, to marginally ineffective relationships resulting in
lower quality mentorship (Eby & McManus, 2004). On one extreme, within some mentoring
relationships, the mentor may become jealous of the success of his or her protégé and attempt to
sabotage the protégé’s career (Ragins & Scandura, 1997). Such sabotage can psychologically
harm the protégé and if effective, can potentially damage his or her career. At the other end of
the continuum, protégés may simply not want to learn from mentors, thereby limiting the
benefits that might otherwise be gained from a mentoring relationship.
While failures in friendship and mentoring relationships can prove damaging to
employees, the failure of romantic relationships can become disastrous. Despite the benefits of
workplace romance, many such romances do not last, and often end acrimoniously. In addition to
the personal distress and other outcomes (discussed previously) associated with the ending of
romantic relationships, such acrimony can escalate to the point at which the organization overall
becomes affected. For example, as discussed in the romantic relationships section, research has
found that a growing number of sexual harassment lawsuits stem from dissolved romantic
relationships (SHRM, 2002).
As described in this section, relationships turn bad for a variety of reason; however, the
result of a soured relationship is often the same trust is violated. Throughout this chapter, we
have identified trust, or the willingness to accept vulnerability due to positive expectations about
another person’s behavior (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt & Camerer, 1998), as a key predictor of
positive interpersonal relationships. The dissolution of a positive interpersonal relationship,
particularly when such relationships become acrimonious, may result from a deterioration of
35
trust. Further, trust is often difficult to repair, particularly if the violation of trust involved
deception (Schweitzer, Hershey, & Bradlow, 2006).
While much research has considered the effects of negative relationships at work (see
Chapter XX, this volume), few studies have investigated the dissolution of positive relationships.
The organizational literature would benefit from more research that investigates relationship
damage and repair, particularly at the level of the organization and the group.
CROSS-CULTURAL GENERALIZABILITY
The majority of the research reviewed in the current chapter was conducted with
Northern American or Western European samples; therefore, the conclusions drawn about the
benefits of positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace are not necessarily generalizable
across cultures. However, according to Baumeister and Leary (1995), the need to belong is a
fundamental human need; therefore, the importance of belonging should be relatively consistent
regardless of culture. This hypothesis has received some support, as the few studies which have
compared the importance of interpersonal relationships in the workplace across cultures suggest
that the trends observed in the literature reviewed here can be expected to hold in other cultures.
For example, in their study of employee attributions for their successful performance at
work, Chiang and Birtch (2007) recruited participants in four countries: Canada, Finland, the
United Kingdom, and China (Hong Kong). Based on the traditional conceptions of individualist
versus collectivist cultures (i.e., individual- versus group-focused values, respectively)
(Hofsteade, 2001; Triandis, 1989), Chiang and Birtch hypothesized and largely found that
employees from individualist cultures (i.e., Canada, Finland, and the United Kingdom) attributed
their work-related success primarily to internal factors (i.e., factors under their control). In
contrast, employees from Hong Kong (i.e., a collectivist culture) attributed their success to both
36
internal and external factors. Interestingly, however, the authors did not find any significant
differences in employees’ perceptions about the importance of their interpersonal relationships to
their performance. That is, employees from both individualist and collectivist cultures appear to
value interpersonal relationships to a similar degree.
When cultures intersect, however, the promotion and development of positive
interpersonal relationships often becomes problematic. That is, although interpersonal
relationships are universally valued, they can be particularly difficult to achieve in diverse
workplaces. With globalization, the workforce has become increasingly diverse over the past
several decades with respect to both surface- (i.e., differences in overt characteristics, such as
gender, ethnicity/race, and age) and deep-level (i.e., differences in attitudes, beliefs, and values)
attributes (Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998). The outcomes associated with this diversity have been
mixed; some researchers report significant gains in group effectiveness (e.g., Pelled, Eisenhardt,
& Xin, 1999; Watson, Kumar, & Michaelsen, 1993), while others report significant challenges to
interpersonal relationships (e.g., Tsui, Egan, & O’Reilly, 1992; Tsui & O’Reilly, 1989; Smith,
Smith, Olian, Sims, O’Bannon, & Scully, 1994).
Given the universality of the need to belong, the negative impact of diversity on
interpersonal relationships in the workplace is especially distressing. Therefore, continued
research in the area of inter-cultural interpersonal relationship development will be an important
avenue to pursue in future research.
STUDYING INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS IN THE WORKPLACE
Over the past several decades, the workplace for many individuals has changed
dramatically. For some workers, greater load expectations, the frequency of multiple careers, and
increased overtime means that they are spending more time than ever at their jobs (Turner,
37
Barling, & Zacharatos, 2002), and thus in the company of their leaders and co-workers. Further,
the expanding marketplace, a surge in team work (both in vivo and virtual), and a decrease in the
number of formal hierarchically structured organizations has introduced new challenges to the
formation and maintenance of interpersonal relationships in the workplace. On the other hand,
many other workers have suffered job loss due to a struggling economy. This mass job loss will
undoubtedly affect these former employees’ sense of belonging (Jahoda, 1982). It is from these
diverging realities that the impetus for research in the area of interpersonal relationships
reviewed in this chapter has emerged.
As with all areas of research, one of the many challenges researchers must surmount
centers on the operationalization of the variables of interest. Research on organizational
belonging is no exception, and though we have loosely used Heaphy and Dutton’s (2008)
operational definitions for connection and relationship, a unified measure or even
conceptualization has yet to be established. For example, in their study of thwarted
organizational belonging, Thau, Aquino, and Poortvliet (2007) operationalized belonging as the
discrepancy between participants’ self-reported perceptions of their actual and their desired
relational closeness with their co-workers. They measured these perceptions using a modified
version of Aron, Aron, and Smollan’s (1992) single-item measure, which asks participants to
identify their perceived closeness to another by choosing one of seven pictorial representations
of closeness. Aron et al.’s scale consists of two circles (one which is labeled “self” and one
labeled “other”) which increase in their degree of overlap; Thau et al. modified this measure
slightly by asking participants to consider the “other” circle to be their co-workers in general, as
opposed to a particular individual. Participants in their study completed two versions of this scale,
38
one to indicate their perception of their actual closeness and one to indicate their desired
closeness. The difference between these two scales was used as an index of belongingness.
Another approach, taken by Edwards and Peccei (2007), operationalized organizational
belonging as the extent of the employee’s identification with his or her organization. This
operationalization is in line with Ashforth and Mael (1989), who define “identification” as one’s
sense of belonging with a particular category of society (e.g., an organization). Edwards and
Peccei defined organizational identification as “a psychological linkage between the individual
and the organization whereby the individual feels a deep, self-defining affective and cognitive
bond with the organization as a social entity” (p. 30). Their measure, tested in a sample of
National Health Service employees in the south of England, consisted of three distinct, though
highly interrelated components; namely, the categorization of the self as an organizational
member, the integration of the organization’s goals and values into the self’s, and the
establishment of an affective attachment to the organization. While these are only two of the
many operational definitions that have been advanced, they offer a sense of the difficulty
researchers have had defining and measuring the abstract concept of organizational belonging.
In addition to issues of operationalization, studies of interpersonal relationships in the
workplace suffer from many of the same issues that befall other psychological and organizational
research. For example, due to the relative ease of data collection, self-report survey data of
convenience samples is often the fallback choice for many researchers. Field data in
organizations is often very difficult to obtain, as the top priority of managers is rarely the same as
those of an external research team. When collecting data in organizations, researchers must first
convince management that their study is important and relevant to the organization in question.
They are also often required to tailor their surveys to suit the organization’s temporal restrictions,
39
which may result in the shortening of published scales (sometimes reducing scales to a single
item). However, when these scales are modified, they may not retain their psychometric
properties; this is an issue that must be acknowledged and defended by the researcher.
In addition, though the current chapter has explicitly examined positive interpersonal
relationships in the workplace, another limitation faced by researchers in organizations may be
the organizations’ concern of appearing as though they have done something wrong. That is, if
the interpersonal relationships within their organization are not “as positive” as a comparable
organization, they may be forced to face a problem that they didn’t know (nor perhaps didn’t
want to know) that they had. Furthermore, if such a comparison were to be made public, the
organization may fear negative publicity and reactions from their employees and/or consumers.
Such concerns may create barriers to entry of many research teams into the organizations
required from random (or, at least, representative) samples.
Interestingly, despite the issues of operationalization and data collection, tremendous
strides have been made in statistical procedures used to analyze the data that are obtained. For
example, while historically researchers have tended to focus on one level of analysis or another
(i.e., organizational, group, or dyadic), today cross-level research is emerging as the norm (e.g.,
Liden et al., 2000; Mathieu & Schulze, 2006; Tse et al., 2008), due in large part to the
development of hierarchical linear modeling (HLM; Raudenbush, Bryk, Cheong, & Congdon,
2000). This type of research and data analysis acknowledges the importance of individuals in
relation to one another (i.e., dyadic level), while also considering the social context of the dyad
(i.e., group and organizational levels). For example, in their study of team- and leader-member
exchanges discussed previously, Tse et al. were able to examine dyadic interactions among team
members of multiple teams while taking each team’s affective climate into consideration.
40
In addition to multi-level modeling, another development in interpersonal relationship
research has been social network analysis (see Wasserman & Faust, 1994). As discussed
elsewhere in this chapter, social networks are composed of multiple nodes (e.g., individual
actors) which are connected by ties (i.e., relationships) (Brass et al., 2004). This type of analysis
allows for the inclusion of multi-source data. For example, in social network analyses, often all
members of an organization or work group are surveyed with regard to their relationships with
all (or a subset of) others in their workplace (e.g., Feeley et al., 2008; Lamertz & Aquino, 2004;
Lawrence, 2006; Totterdell, Wall, Holman, Diamond, & Epitropaki, 2004). For example, Feeley
et al. surveyed all of the employees at a fast food chain with regard to the co-workers each
employee considered to be a friend. From their reports, the researchers were able to construct a
model of the employees’ extended friendship networks. Furthermore, the versatility of this type
of analysis is evident, as it has been used to examine strategic alliances, information flow,
friendship, work flow, and influence (Brass et al., 2004), to name a few.
Both HLM and social network analysis have dramatically affected the ways in which
researchers can study organizations, as well as the complexity of the questions they can ask. This
is particularly important for the area of positive interpersonal relationships at work, because
these relationships are embedded in larger systems of social context. By introducing analytic
procedures that allow for multi-level and multi-source data, many of the traditional limitations of
this research can be overcome. These procedures cannot, however, correct for inappropriately
defined constructs, non-random (or non-representative) samples, or inadequate measurement
tools; issues that can be particularly problematic in the study of relationship research in the
workplace due to the relative infancy of this stream of research. Therefore, researchers must
proceed with careful consideration to the conventions of proper research (see Aronson, Ellsworth,
41
Carlsmith, & Gonzalez, 1990; McBurney, 2001), and must work to converge on a set of
operational definitions and standards of data collection for productive progress to be made.
IMPLICATIONS FOR SCIENCE AND PRACTICE
The research reviewed in this chapter serves to highlight the importance of the
development and maintenance of positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace. The
benefits of these relationships, both for individual employees and the organization as a whole,
have been underscored in the numerous studies discussed above. Also, this perspective has been
championed of late by the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) (e.g., Bernstein,
2003; K. S. Cameron, 2007; Dutton & Glynn, 2008; Dutton, Glynn, & Spreitzer, 2006), a
research group at the University of Michigan whose stated mission statement is to energiz[e]
and transform[] organizations through research on the theory and practice of positive organizing
and leadership” (Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship mission statement, n.d.).
While great strides in the area of interpersonal relationships in the workplace have clearly
been made, there are several avenues of investigation that require further study. For instance,
research in the relational demography and social categorization literatures demonstrate that
employees compare their own demographic characteristics (e.g., sex, race) with those of the
other members in their work group (Chattopadhyay, Tluchowska, & George, 2004). When these
individuals perceive dissimilarities, they self-categorize with other similar members, and such
self-categorization can have negative implications for workgroup relationships and
organizational citizenship behavior (Chattopadhyay, 1999; Riordan & Shore, 1997). Further, H.
M. Williams, Parker, and Turner (2007) found that that the more dissimilar employees perceived
themselves to be in comparison to others on their work team, the less their perspective taking of
those individuals. Research on relational demography and social categorization therefore
42
highlight many of the adverse effects of diversity on the development of positive interpersonal
relationships at work for minority workers. A key challenge for the literature on positive
interpersonal relationships is to indentify the conditions under which self-categorization and
social comparisons are either minimized, or their negative effects mitigated. Interestingly,
Chattopadhyay, George, and Shulman (2008) found that dissimilarity had stronger effects on
outcome variables in collocated work groups (i.e., group members who work from the same
location) than in distributed work groups (i.e., group members who work from different
locations). This research suggests that a potential advantage of emerging work arrangements
such as telecommuting is that it may reduce in-group and out-group distinctions.
While emerging work arrangements such as telecommuting may reduce some of the
adverse relational outcomes associated with diversity, such arrangements present new problems
for the development of positive interpersonal relationships. As we have noted throughout this
chapter, Baumeister and Leary (1995) argued that for individuals to perceive that they belong,
interaction must be frequent, stable, enduring, and non-aversive. In traditional organizations in
which employees come to work from nine to five each day, the organizational structure allows
for frequent, stable, and enduring interaction. However, new work arrangements in which
individuals rarely meet in the same physical space may prevent employees from engaging in
such interactions. A recent meta-analysis found that, telecommuting in general did not have an
impact on individuals’ interpersonal relationships with their co-workers (rc = 0.00), where rc
represents the corrected correlation. However, when comparing low- and high-intensity
telecommuting, while low-intensity telecommuting had no significant effect (mean r = 0.03),
high intensity telecommuting (i.e., telecommuters who frequently work from a non-central work
location) had an adverse effect on interpersonal ties with co-workers (mean r = -0.19)
43
(Gajendran & Harrison, 2007). However, the study also found that this work arrangement had
other positive effects such as reducing work-family conflict (rc = -0.13) and increasing
perceptions of autonomy (rc = 0.22). Therefore, the challenge for researchers is to investigate
ways to ensure employees can develop positive interpersonal relationships while still benefiting
from the advantages of telecommuting and other virtual work arrangements.
In addition to the research challenges related to gender diversity and emerging work
relationships, research should also examine how individuals may vary in their need to belong, as
well as the potential impact of this variation on organizational fit. This may have implication for
the aforementioned research on virtual work arrangements since employees with a lower need to
belong or those who are able to meet their belongingness needs outside the organization may be
best suited to those arrangements. Further, the ways in which organizations may effectively meet
their employees need to belong when an employee’s job description requires them to work alone
and/or when employees are engaged in an increasing number of virtual teams (Fiol & O'Connor,
2005) has yet to be examined in depth.
Another complexity of interpersonal relationships in the workplace is the
interconnectedness of belonging and exclusion. Research traditionally examines positive and
negative relationships at work in isolation; however, while a focus on negative interpersonal
relationships may cloud the process by which positive interpersonal relationships may be
fostered, these relationship valences are heavily intertwined. As noted by Masterson and Stamper
(2003), a necessary condition of belonging be it to an organization, work group, or dyadic
relationship is that there are those who do not belong. As such, in order for individuals to
achieve a sense of belonging, as well as the associated benefits, they must exclude others.
44
In this way, positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace may have a dark side of
their own, as their development may depend, at least to some extent, on the formation of
negative relationships with others. For example, if one were to be slighted by another co-worker,
one might, quite legitimately, seek emotional support from another co-worker (e.g., a friend,
mentor, or romantic partner). Research reviewed in this chapter has supported the positive effects
of social support seeking for the seeker (e.g., Berman et al., 2002; Ibarra, 1993; Randel & Ranft,
2007). However, the effect of the negative information conveyed to the support giver about the
third party has not been examined. Research has consistently underscored the ease with which
individuals may be influenced and affected by subtle information (e.g., Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, &
Ross, 2004; Srull & Wyer, 1979). Following the results of these studies, it is possible that
support seekers may (intentionally or not) affect a support giver’s evaluation of a third party
(Reich & Hershcovis, 2008). This potential dark side of positive interpersonal relationships is an
area ripe for future research.
CONCLUSION
A focus on positive relationships in the workplace may not appear to be a revolutionary
notion; however, as mentioned previously, the vast majority of research in the area of workplace
relationships has focused on negative relationships and their predictors and outcomes. As
psychologists, we often “learn about the normal by studying the abnormal” (Wortman, Loftus,
Weaver, & Atkinson, 2000, p. 30); that is, we focus on when things go wrong, with the implicit
assumption that an absence of “wrong” is “right”. However, from the perspective of the current
chapter, a paucity of negative interpersonal relationships is not the equivalent of an abundance of
positive relationships. Therefore, in order to achieve the benefits outlined in this chapter, a focus
on the development of positive interpersonal relationships in the workplace is essential.
45
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