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Problematic Relationships in the Workplace


Although most people begin their employment with the education and on-the-job training to handle the tasks their jobs entail, few long-term employees boast that they feel competent in dealing with all the difficult people they encounter in the workplace. Unpleasant coworkers range from annoying nuisances to major sources of job frustration and career roadblocks. Given that periodic preoccupation with unlovable coworkers is nearly a universal feature of organizational life, it is not surprising that such relationships are given due attention in the media and popular press (e.g., Bramson, 1989; Topchik, 2000). What is surprising is how little scholarly attention has been given to such interactions. Scholars have extensively examined the outcomes of positive work relationships, such as social support and friendship through co-worker relationships and guidance through mentoring (e.g., Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Kram & Isabella, 1985). However, only recently has scholarly attention been focused on identifying troublesome coworkers and documenting outcomes of unpleasant work relationships such as cynicism and reduced job satisfaction and organizational commitment (e.g., Fritz, 2002; Omdahl & Fritz, 2000). This neglect of unpleasant or difficult relationships in the workplace mirrors the more general literature on interpersonal communication. For decades, the focus has been on the development and maintenance of effective relationships, and only recently has research on the “dark side” of personal relationships gained attention (Duck, 1994).

This examination of negative relationships in general and with negative coworkers in particular is long overdue. People spend considerable time and energy navigating difficult relationships, and many working hours are spent in the company of others whom we do not voluntarily seek out and may actively dislike (Hess, 2000). These relationships have many negative effects on employees and organizations. For instance, research has shown that negative relationships detract from a person’s occupational experience through increased stress, workplace cynicism, organizational turnover, and decreased job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and task effectiveness (e.g., Cooper & Cartwright, 1994; Fritz & Omdahl, 1998). Research that increases scholars’ understanding of the causes, nature, and processes of such relationships can offer insight for communication theory and practice.

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Peter Lang Publishing

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New York, NY