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Book Chapter

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Problematic Relationships in the Workplace


Troublesome relationships are a universal aspect of human social interaction (Levitt, Silver, & Franco, 1996). Perhaps nowhere besides the family are problematic relationships so commonplace as in the workplace. Although relationship research primarily focuses on positive relations and thorny problems that occur even in the best of relationships, virtually everyone who has worked in an organization can relate stories of problematic relationships. The challenges these relationships pose resonate with people’s deepest feelings and most significant experiences at work. Problematic work relationships are often as memorable as they are challenging. Workplace relations are largely nonvoluntary relationships. They are created when people with diverse backgrounds, reasons for working in a company, different work styles, values, and incompatible personal and career goals must all work with each other. Such an environment should create conditions where personal differences and conflicts are commonplace. If negative relationships had little impact on workers, they would not be of much concern to researchers despite their prevalence. Unfortunately, these relationships have significant negative effects on those who experience them. Fritz and Omdahl (1998) found that the greater the proportion of negative peers people have at work, the greater their workplace cynicism and the lesser their job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Furthermore, problematic relationships can have detrimental effects on people’s well-being. … If people are to be successful at work and find their jobs satisfying, they must learn how to deal with these difficult relationships.

One of the most important ways people cope with negative relationships is by distancing themselves from the problematic partner (Hess, 2002a). In this chapter, I provide a detailed review of what distance is, the role it plays in problematic workplace relationships, how the organizational setting may impact people’s use of distancing tactics, and why people use distance in such relationships. A careful reading of the literature suggests that underlying the act of maintaining relationships with problematic coworkers is a more general process of using affiliation (closeness and distance) to regulate arousal in personal relationships. The end of the chapter delineates this model and discusses its implications for problematic relationships in the workplace.

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Peter Lang Publishing

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New York, NY