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Katherine, a recent college graduate, is in her first year as an accountant with a small firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Katherine excelled in her undergraduate coursework in accounting and graduated with the top grades in her class. She felt well prepared for the challenges that being an accountant would inevitably bring when she began her position. Almost a year has passed since Katherine began working at the firm, and she feels that she has built a very good relationship with her supervisor and coworkers. About a week ago, Katherine submitted her yearly report to her supervisor, which detailed her projects from the past year and the professional development in which she had engaged, which Katherine felt was extensive.
At today’s staff meeting, Katherine’s supervisor asked Katherine to sit next to her during the meeting. At one point in the meeting, the supervisor began reprimanding many of Katherine’s coworkers for their lack of professional development and follow-through on their projects. The supervisor then turned to Katherine and noted to the group that “Katherine’s work over the past year had been exceptional. In addition, the amount of professional development in which she has engaged is an example for us all.” After the meeting, Katherine began to reflect on her supervisor’s comments to the group. Although Katherine knew that her boss had good intentions and was truly pleased with her work, Katherine could not help but worry about how her coworkers would react. Katherine wanted her supervisor to know that her comments put Katherine in a difficult position with her peers because she felt that her supervisor was treating her as a favorite. Katherine also was upset that her supervisor did not obtain Katherine’s permission before relating information from her yearly report at the staff meeting. Katherine had perceived her annual report to be confidential and preparatory to her performance evaluation. As Katherine reflected on these points, she thought to herself, “None of my accounting classes prepared me for this. How should I handle this situation?”
As this case about Katherine’s first job in an accounting firm displays, understanding communication among supervisors, direct reports (often called subordinates), and coworkers is crucially important for organizational member effectiveness, good relationships, and satisfaction in business, governmental, and not-for-profit contexts. The consequences of workplace communication stretch far beyond the immediate setting; these processes affect people’s family, leisure, spiritual, and community lives. In this essay, we describe and explore the nature of three specific organizational roles: supervisors, direct reports, and coworkers. We delve into both how individuals can better manage people who hold these roles and how these relationships are co-constructed by role-set members. Role sets are configurations of linked positions that “often include the supervisor, subordinates, and certain members of the same or other departments with whom the member must work closely, and other organizational members” (Katz & Kahn, 1978, p. 189). These role-set members may work in diverse organizational contexts ranging from traditional “bricks and mortar” workplaces to virtual settings.
Each section of this essay includes a discussion of the fundamental communication issues that drive a particular organizational role, including conventional theoretical approaches to these roles as well as how these approaches have been reconsidered in light of current organizational communication research. Overall, our goal is to highlight communication strategies for individuals’ more effective management of workplace relationships: (a) supervisors, (b) direct reports, and (c) coworkers. We conclude by discussing some similarities that cut across these three types of relationships.
Managing Relationships in the Workplace
In this section, we begin by describing the different ways in which supervisors have communicated with their subordinates, or direct reports, in the workplace. We present the case of “Suzanne” to draw out implications for complex intergroup relationships. In these ways, we provide a series of possible communication strategies and their implications for supervisors and organizations.
Organizations in the United States changed drastically during the Industrial Revolution, largely when the role of supervisor became formalized in organizational settings (see Conrad & Poole, 2005). Most formal organizations were structured using the classical approach to organizing, which positioned supervisors at the “top” of an organization overseeing direct reports. Except when their positions occurred at the top officer or entry-level worker positions, supervisors and direct reports communicated in both capacities because they functioned as “linking pins” for positions both above and below theirs (Likert, 1961, p. 113). The main elements of the classical approach to organizing included top-down communication, hierarchy, and centralized power.
Top-down communication is when supervisors speak to their employees without expecting and/or desiring a communicative response. Many contemporary organizations have resisted this practice because the one-way flow of communication can lead to problems such as misinformation, lack of information, dissatisfaction, and apathy. Instead, contemporary supervisors encourage their employees and direct reports to e-mail them with suggestions and feedback. In addition, supervisors recognize that their employees often want to influence others, use their skills, and identify with work and workplaces that they consider to be meaningful. Rather than using top-down communication, supervisors recognize that employees express themselves about work, workplace relationships, and organizational policies, products, and services in various ways. These employees may blog; write cartoons, such as “Dilbert”; use wikis; construct social-networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace; engage in dissent on resistance Web sites (e.g., www.radioshacksucks.com); or post a video on YouTube. As a result, supervisors must consider the multiple channels in which they and their subordinates communicate as well as contemporary workers’desire to participate in decision making.
A second tenet of the classical approach is hierarchy, which is when individuals are organized based on position, rank, and authority and the connections among their own and others’ organizational roles can be displayed visually via an organizational chart. In firms where the organizational chart has fewer levels (i.e., where there is less distance between the top and bottom levels of the chart), the hierarchy is flatter. Flatter hierarchies typically are found in entrepreneurial businesses, small not-for-profit organizations, and many contemporary organizations. Flatter hierarchies can enhance the rapidity by which information flows internally and by which crises can be resolved (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, & Ganesh, 2004). In addition, roles are less specialized, which promotes cross-functional training and skill development. However, there may be fewer opportunities for certain rewards, such as advancement. Implications for supervisory communication include being clear about and expanding the kinds of rewards offered, especially acknowledging and providing incentives for developmental activities such as on-the-job training and mentoring.
A third main tenet of the classical approach is centralized power, meaning that most of the power in the organization is centralized with management rather than spread out among the group. Not only is it centralized, but the assumption is that power and control are simple, meaning that managers overtly influence the everyday activities of their workers, which leaves the workers with little autonomy. In more contemporary organizations, forms of power and control, such as concertive control (Tompkins & Cheney, 1985), have largely been viewed as more effective than simple power and control because concertive control offers strategies whereby organizations influence the logic or premises underlying individuals’ decisions, attitudes, and feelings so that individuals act in the interests of the organization rather than in their own interests (Tompkins & Cheney, 1985). Whenever employees come to work while sick to complete a project or rearrange their personal schedules to accommodate work, then they probably accept the notion that there is little or no excuse not to get work done. When employees are controlled concertively, supervisors and direct reports have implicit understandings about appropriate conduct that rarely need to be explicitly expressed.
Complex Intergroup Relationships
Complex intergroup relationships are the variety of relationships that occur in a workplace, including supervisor, direct report, and coworker. These relationships can be described as complex because individuals simultaneously enact two of these roles at one time and/or intersect with multiple role-set members (e.g., supervisors serve as direct reports for other supervisors, or several individuals in different roles might be involved in career developmental networks). Intergroup relationships can become even more complicated when there is defensive communication or an organizational culture typified by incivility, harassment, bullying, dysfunctional mentoring, and other problematic workplace relationships. Defensive communication “involves a self-perceived flaw that an individual refuses to admit to another person, a sensitivity to that flaw, and an attack by another person that focuses on the flaw” (Becker, Halbesleben, & O’Hair, 2005, p. 144). Destructive organizational cultures can have norms in which harmful communication that seeks to undermine others’ confidence, employability, relationships with others, productivity, and quality of work life is enabled or even encouraged (Fritz & Omdahl, 2006; Lutgen-Sandvik & Sypher, 2009; Ragins & Kram, 2007). To better understand defensive and destructive aspects of intergroup communication, consider the following case study of Suzanne.
The case of Suzanne involves Suzanne, the manager of a local pharmacy, who oversees four full-time employees, three of whom have worked at the pharmacy for more than 10 years, and one of whom, Nadine, began 6 months ago. Suzanne has a very high-quality relationship with the three long-term employees, which includes a great deal of social support for each other. Nadine felt like an outsider at the organization from her first day of work because she felt that Suzanne really liked the other three employees and Suzanne did not seem to communicate as freely and informally with Nadine. Suzanne, on the other hand, actually felt very shy around Nadine because Nadine was older than Suzanne, and this was the first time that Suzanne had ever managed someone older than herself. Nadine and Suzanne were initially polite but increasingly got to the point where they carefully considered every word they spoke to each other. After a while, they stopped engaging in supportive activities, such as words of appreciation, inquiries about the others’ leisure activities, and congratulations for accomplishments. After the first 6 months, Nadine became tired of feeling like an outsider at the pharmacy, and she began to dread coming to work. In the meantime, Suzanne mistook Nadine’s actions as questioning her authority and testing boundaries. Suzanne avoided Nadine but spoke about her to the long-term employees at the pharmacy, especially when she perceived Nadine as not doing her work as well as the others. Toward the end of Nadine’s employment, Suzanne and Nadine no longer even exchanged greetings.
In our case analysis, Nadine considered the relationships of the other employees and their manager to be very collegial and supportive, in contrast to her perceptions of her own low-quality exchanges with these same people. Nadine’s analyses of her workplace relationships prompted her to feel less participatory and collegial in her organization. Suzanne and Nadine had different definitions and understandings of the situation, which led, in part, to their conflict. While it is simple to say that they should have engaged in dialogue to avert defensive and destructive workplace relationships, there are many different and conflicting intergroup relationship expectations that can create unanticipated and problematic consequences. For instance, some women may feel as though their conflicts about their treatment during workplace pregnancies and maternity leaves are irreconcilable because organizational and personal goals, understandings about fair treatment, and different parties’ use of particular negotiation strategies seem incompatible (Buzzanell & Liu, 2005, 2007). To facilitate productive discussion among organizational members, regular meetings in which all workplace members rotate assignments to provide information about policies, practices, common intergroup concerns, generational cohort attitudes toward work, and hierarchical differences in outlooks about company strategies could go a long way to developing a supportive climate and providing a baseline (of automatic rights and knowledge) from which parties could negotiate conflicts.
To better manage this specific case situation, Suzanne, because she is the supervisor, could have anticipated her feelings about having someone older than her work as her direct report. By anticipating these feelings and reflecting on the appropriate response to them, Suzanne could have been more proactive in dealing with this situation. In addition, Suzanne could have talked with the other three employees of the pharmacy before Nadine started and told them that it was important that Nadine felt like a part of the team from the first day, despite the fact that the other three employees had worked together for so long. Intergroup history may affect the manifestation of problems and potential solutions; and supervisors who have been at the organization for a significant period of time, such as Suzanne, could analyze the impact that intergroup history may have on a new employee. Excellent supervisors are proactive in considering the needs of new employees because these supervisors realize that replacing dissatisfied employees who leave is costly and time consuming. Another option of which Suzanne could have taken advantage of is to invite Nadine to have a meeting with her on the first day, after the first week, and after the first month. Suzanne could have expressed that she wanted Nadine to be happy at the pharmacy, and the meetings could have given Nadine and Suzanne the opportunity to talk through the minor issues they faced in the beginning, thus possibly preventing these issues from becoming major issues later on. Each of these suggestions is an option that Suzanne could have taken to improve Nadine’s perception of her job at the pharmacy. In addition, there are several things Nadine could have done to improve the situation, which are discussed in the next section of this essay.
Interestingly, this pharmacy had only five employees, and yet there was a lot of conflict that developed in a short period of time. In addition to the number of employees, there are many other elements of a workplace that can affect the level of conflict and the perception of fairness in an organization, such as employees’ generational differences, different education levels, gender, and technological capabilities. Intergroup communication can also become complicated when organizational members belong to different social-identity groupings. One example of this is that, for some African American women, “learning the ropes” and engaging in career developmental networks, such as mentoring relationships, networking groups, and challenging task force assignments can be difficult because of racial and gender stereotypes that prompt less participation on the part of colleagues, supervisors, and others (Allen, 1996, 2000; Ibarra, 1995). Supervisors also may discriminate or harass (consciously or unconsciously) based on sexuality, nationality, age, religion, and able-bodiedness (Allen, 2003; Liu & Buzzanell, 2006). To enhance effective communication, managers and other supervisory personnel can participate in everyday conversational practices that create connections through particular language choices and in workshops that discuss strategies for changing detrimental organizational cultures and intergroup communication processes.
Learning how to communicate effectively with direct reports can be approached by first addressing a fundamental conflict in superior-subordinate relationships, namely, the paradox of organization. Next, we suggest that individuals have a responsibility to “manage upward,” that is, manage the role-set member to whom they report. In some cases, managing upward may align with upward influence research, in which subordinates attempt to shape the opinions, feelings, and behaviors of the person in the position directly above theirs in the company hierarchy. However, theirs might not be a subordinate position in the sense of a traditional hierarchical structure and/or power-over relationship. Therefore, we use the label “direct report” to indicate that managing upward might also involve management of a supervisor to whom individuals report in more project-oriented “matrix” structures that cut across functional lines or in telecommuting, contingent, and other “nonstandard” work arrangements (Ballard & Gossett, 2007). Finally, more recent understandings of power dynamics can enable greater dialogue and collaboration among different role-set members.
The Paradox of Organization
The paradox of organization occurs when organizations need to control the work and production of their employees, but employees need to feel as though they have flexibility and can express creativity (Conrad & Poole, 2005). Both parties can experience frustration when their desires and goals are at odds. To circumvent this paradox when dealing with direct reports, Barker (1993) recommends that supervisors empower self-managing teams and other employees to discipline themselves by negotiating group values, norms, and acceptable behaviors that the group members then choose to follow. They can do this by creating situations in which employees feel greater attachment or higher identification with the work unit or company mission (Fairhurst, Jordan, & Neuwirth, 1997). They can also empower teams and groups to set their own rules for behavior and to monitor each other as well as themselves according to these rules (Barker, 1993). Through these processes, the needs of managers and workers increasingly coincide, so that all are working as if they are being monitored and in the best interests of the organization (Foucault, 1979). In the same way, organizational employees might feel that they are being monitored through computer technologies. The threat of potentially being watched often ensures that employees will comply with company rules, including self-monitoring of the Web sites they visit, e-mails they send out, or personal tasks they conduct on the Internet (i.e., paying bills, shopping).
The paradox of organization can be exacerbated when one or both parties experience communication apprehension and do not experience person-centered communication. Communication apprehension is the amount of anxiety that an individual feels prior to and/or during a communication interaction with another person, such as acute nervousness before an upcoming presentation before higher management or a televised interview (McCroskey & Richmond, 1979). With regard to communication by direct reports, those who reported high apprehension felt overwhelmed by the information they received (Bartoo & Sias, 2004). They are less likely to communicate about their needs and try to work with their managers to locate common needs that can be mutually satisfied for the individual and the organization. Person-centered communication largely “addresses relationships between individuals of unequal status” (Fix & Sias, 2006, p. 36) and therefore can be applied to the supervisor-subordinate relationship. Person-centered communication “generally refers to the extent to which one’s communicative messages consider the perspectives of others” (Fix & Sias, 2006, p. 37) and is an important predictor of job satisfaction.
Although people typically think of supervisors as the managers of their direct reports, Gabarro and Kotter (2005) argued that employees should engage in “the process of consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the company” (p. 92). They maintained that many individuals do not understand how important they are to their boss’s and organization’s success: “Some people behave as if their bosses were not very dependent on them. They fail to see how much the boss needs their help and cooperation to do his or her job effectively” (p. 93). When direct reports keep these issues in mind, their communication strategies might include initiating regular contact, providing information in advance so that the boss is not surprised at an important meeting, learning supervisors’highest priorities, and understanding the boss’s communication preferences (e.g., e-mails over face-to-face meetings).
A second strategy for managing a relationship with a supervisor is using leader-member exchange (LMX) theory to develop high-quality information- and opinion-sharing relationships, which can increase both parties’ communication and job satisfaction. LMX is based on the idea that
leaders operate within multiple organizational constraints (e.g., time, role, and power) and, thus, share their personal and positional resources selectively with their members. As a result, leaders tend to develop and maintain LMXs with their members that vary in quality or maturity, spanning from high (in-group, “leadership,” “partnership”) to low (out-group, “supervision,” “managership”). (Lee, 1999, p. 417)
High-LMX relationships are characterized by increased levels of trust and communication between the relational members. Low-LMX relationships generally include less trust and more formal supervision on the part of the manager (Lee, 1999). Research has indicated that higher-LMX relationships offer greater career developmental challenges and opportunities, enhance direct reports’ influence in decision making, construct a basis for mutual and accurate feedback, and promote other positive outcomes for organizational members (Fairhurst, 2001). But these relationships require maintenance or they may deteriorate into low-LMX exchanges. For instance, Manzoni and Barsoux (1998) detail the way in which a superior-subordinate relationship can spiral downward quickly when a superior has low expectations for an employee based on a past track record or secondhand knowledge of the employee. Both superiors and direct reports need to maintain vigilance for subtle conversational changes that indicate that something is amiss. Through much dialogue as well as mutual commitment toward creating a better relationship, both parties can reverse the relational damage.
In the past few decades, scholars have been reframing traditional theories of supervising and power to meet the needs of a more educated labor force and the rapidly changing organizational and global environments. Rather than depicting superior-subordinate relationships simply as power over, that is, “a traditional dominance model where decision making is characterized by control, instrumentalism, and self-interest” (Berger, 2005, p. 6), a relational approach to organizing, in which supervisors and direct reports collaborate (i.e., individuals work with rather than for managers), seems to better depict workers’ power sharing and cooperative exchanges.
This shift from power over to power with is reflected in research on the tensions and paradoxes involved in teamwork, developmental networks, and participatory organizations. In her multiyear investigation of oncology teams, Ellingson (2005) described how members of different health care specialties worked together for cancer patients and their families. While there was informal sharing of information and medical case impressions among different health care providers, these power-with exchanges were often among individuals of similar status, meaning that oncologists could and did expect that their own demands, expertise, and contributions would be privileged over those of others. Similarly, traditional mentor-protégé relationships, in which more experienced organizational and/or occupational members guide neophytes’ career progress, still persist. However, developmental networks, in which multiple parties of varying organizational and occupational statuses mutually develop each other, have created numerous forms of enrichment that include e-mentoring, strategic collaborative arrangements, reverse and spiritual mentoring, and guidance for particular life and career phases (e.g., mentoring for work-life balance or overseas assignments; see Ragins & Kram, 2007). Finally, research indicates that individuals often experience positive outcomes associated with greater workplace participation, identification, and personal assessments that their work is meaningful. However, organizations that desire to foster such connections may do so in contradictory ways (e.g., when they mandate particular forms of workplace democracy and all members’ involvement or when they fail to see the value of dissent [Stohl & Cheney, 2001]), unproductive ways (e.g., when they expect personal-organizational attachments despite the temporary nature of work arrangements [Ballard & Gossett, 2007]), and ironic ways (e.g., what individuals consider meaningful and desirable may not be what workplaces consider rewarding).
In this section, we have delved into the needs of individuals and organizations as both parties attempt to achieve their goals and interests. Rather than viewing direct reports as subject to the influence of supervisors only, we depict this role as embedded in a variety of workplace interactions that demand insight into complex communication processes, including collaboration and handling of contradictory relationships and situations.
In our case study of Suzanne and Nadine’s superiorsubordinate communication, we now can see how their exchanges are not simply the result of misunderstandings and unmet expectations, they also demonstrate direct reports’ needs to manage upward, maintain proactive stances toward workplace interactional changes, and develop collaborative relationships. Returning to Suzanne and Nadine, we see that Nadine had a few options that she could have used while dealing with the situation at the pharmacy. Most likely, Nadine knew that Suzanne was younger than Nadine. On taking the position, Nadine could have considered that Suzanne may feel unsure about managing someone older than herself. In her first few days of work, Nadine could have requested a meeting with Suzanne and asked questions about Suzanne’s communication preferences so that Suzanne knew that Nadine understood that Suzanne was the supervisor and that Nadine respected her position. In addition, Nadine could have worked harder to form strong alliances with one or two of her other coworkers so that she would not have immediately felt like such an outsider.
While recommendations for supervisors,’ such as Suzanne’s, training in conversational language skills and organizational cultural change are still necessary, we now expand desirable communication training to include strategies for handling collaborative workplace arrangements, forms of interaction that enable mutually influential workplace conversations, and dissent or conflict.
In this section, we explain the nature of the coworker relationship as well as recent communication research that is helpful in understanding how one can effectively manage this most common relationship in organizations. We also present the case of Nancy and Sheila to illustrate some of the major components of the coworker relationship. Finally, we present recent trends in coworker research to supply insight and interventions to prevent and repair problematic communication situations.
Nature of Coworker Relationships
It is difficult to capture all the different elements of coworker relationships because there are many types of coworkers and organizations. Regardless, there are some guiding notions that help individuals better understand and manage these relationships, such as the nonhierarchical nature of coworker relationships, particular relational transitions, expectations for support, and nondifferential treatment.
First, unlike supervisory and subordinate/direct report communication, which, by definition, involves some element of hierarchy, coworker relationships are considered to be equal in status, remuneration, and influence. While research on LMX indicates that equality among coworkers is not necessarily so, the fact that coworkers are structurally on an equivalent footing means that these relationships serve different functions, such as socialization and coalition building. In these cases, coworkers may be formally designated to do on-the-job orientation sessions for newcomers and/or may informally share information and survival tips even though neither socialization process is part of coworkers’ job descriptions. Where coworkers participate in nonstandard work arrangements, such as telework, and in salary situations where hours are billable, there may be tensions between implicit work practices and those behaviors necessary for pay, promotion, or recognition (see Hylmö & Buzzanell, 2002). With regard to coalition building, coworkers may come together to advocate for particular workplace changes or support each others’ best interests by covertly resisting what they perceive as unreasonable and unproductive organizational rules. For example, flight attendants at one airline agreed to work around appearance codes and eventually banded together to affect changes in workplace procedures (Murphy, 1998).
Second, relational transitions typically are different for coworkers than for supervisors and direct reports. Sias and Cahill (1998) addressed the multiple transitions that coworker relationships experience over time, such as “coworker/acquaintance-to-friend, friend-to-close-friend, and close friend-to-almost-best friend” (p. 273). This research shows that communication can help take coworker relationships from the basic level of working together to very close, intimate relationships, which are considered important in the lives of human beings.
Third, coworker relationships are ideally characterized by support, such as task-oriented and emotional support. Expectations for task-oriented support include the belief that one’s peers or colleagues will instruct newcomers on correct procedures, teach shortcuts around cumbersome rules, and introduce them to key individuals. In situations where there is political infighting, bullying, and other dysfunctional workplace relationships, and (conscious or unconscious) adherence to stereotypes about abilities aligned with coworkers’ social identity membership groups (e.g., race), then expectations about task-oriented and other forms of support are violated. Such violations may affect individuals’ feelings of well-being and job satisfaction but may also lead to employment termination, less productive work groups, and litigation, such as when coworkers sexually harass each other. In cases of emotional support, Cahill and Sias (1997) found that male and female coworkers experienced this kind of support in different ways. They concluded that although women felt that emotional support was important more than men did, and women often had larger emotional support networks than men, there was no difference in the responses of men and women to their coworkers seeking emotional support. Emotional support is so important that when this support is absent, either through coworker job loss or telecommuting, the individuals who remain in the office may experience profound sadness and engage in grief phases akin to romantic disengagement, death, and other forms of loss (see Hylmö & Buzzanell, 2002).
Finally, as ideas such as leader-member exchange and concertive control have gained popularity, research has developed that addresses how individuals feel when they see their manager treating their coworkers in different ways. Sias (1996) studied coworker discourse to determine how coworkers talked about this differing treatment. She found that individuals often engage in “bookkeeping” by noting how their manager treats their coworkers versus them and adjusting their behavior accordingly.
In short, coworker relationships and communication differ from those of supervisors and direct reports in a number of ways. In reviewing these differences, the case of Suzanne and Nadine is instructive because it privileged the supervisor-subordinate dyad to the neglect of any discussion about Nadine’s peers. Indeed, had Nadine and her coworkers developed a deepening connection from the initial on-the-job training that Nadine undoubtedly received, they might have been able to engage in sense making to determine what was going wrong with Nadine’s relationship with Suzanne and how best to deal with the situation. Instead, the inevitable loss of Nadine’s self-confidence, contributions to the pharmacy, and the resources associated with the hiring and training of a new employee cannot be recouped.
Next, we would like to present another case study that centers on a coworker relationship in a complex organization. The case of Nancy and Sheila is situated in the event-planning department of a large corporation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nancy had worked at the company for approximately 30 years. Nancy was over 60 years old and was very proud of her efficiency and hard work in her position. Sheila, a young woman straight out of college, began employment at the corporation in the office next to Nancy. They held the same position and often worked together as administrative assistants on large events. For one particular event, a reception celebrating the new CEO of the company, Nancy was assigned the task of making name tags for every attendee. Sheila was assigned the task of taking reservations for the reception, and thus these coworkers had to work very closely on this event. At one point, Sheila noticed that Nancy was retyping every attendee’s name from a printed spreadsheet to another document that formatted the name tags. Sheila immediately realized that Nancy could save a lot of time by simply merging the spreadsheet into the document, as she had done many times before in her work-study position during college. Sheila went to Nancy and explained that she could save time by using this quick trick. Nancy’s response was a dirty look as she said, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. You’ve been doing this for 30 days. I think I know the best way to do this. I don’t need your help.”
Despite the fact that this coworker relationship had been amicable, though distant, until this occurrence, Sheila immediately felt very upset. Had she overstepped her boundaries by offering to help? Was Nancy just overreacting? Why did Nancy turn on her so quickly? The lack of emotional support that she felt when Nancy snapped at her made her feel very unsure of herself and unsure of her role in the office. What Sheila neglected to take into account in the situation was that although she and Nancy were coworkers, Nancy may have felt threatened by Sheila’s college education and technological abilities. Once Sheila reflected on it, she realized that she was often called on to help other coworkers with their computer problems; she was seen as the computer guru of the office. Nancy simply felt threatened by this, particularly because she did not have a college education and because she lacked technological skills and increasingly felt that her lack of those skills made her a target for being laid off. Once Sheila thought through the reasons for her coworker’s reactions, she began to observe why Nancy did her work as she did and asked Nancy questions. She showed Nancy how—step by step—to learn other techniques when the two of them were alone and praised Nancy’s abilities to coworkers and bosses. She also provided short technology sessions to update everyone on techniques and not single out anyone. As we can see in this case study, coworker relationships are often just as complex as supervisor/direct report relationships. Issues such as differences in generational and technological ability, among many other things, can weigh heavily on a coworker relationship.
Recent Research on Coworker Communication
Traditional theories of coworker relationships stress the importance of coworker relationships not affecting productivity, such as the importance of workplace friendships and romantic relationships not adversely affecting work output. Indeed, Fritz’s (2002) analyses of behaviors that contribute to dislike of coworkers indicate that peers’ unwanted intrusion into coworkers’ personal and work lives, self-promotion, and controlling behaviors are some of the behaviors that are associated with negative workplace interactions. Fritz suggests that training in workplace civility and effective communication skills for impression management can enhance coworker relationships.
Moreover, in recent years, the nature, benefits and consequences of coworker relationships have been expanded. As the amount of paid work has increased and the scheduling of work leaves relatively little time for family and friends, research indicates that workers may locate their most meaningful relationships in the workplace rather than in the home or in previous nonwork friendship networks (Hochschild, 1997). The role of multiple network relationships within and outside one’s workplace suggests development of contacts for career pursuits, such as skills enrichment, advancement, and employability security, and for lifelong friendships and comentoring (see Ragins & Kram, 2007). However, issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and other differences can affect coworkers’ satisfaction with and management of such relationships (Allen, 2003; Buzzanell, 2000; Cahill & Sias, 1997).
In the case study of Nancy and Sheila, we now see that Sheila could have used a more face-saving approach to helping Nancy. The approach she first tried made Nancy feel like the way she was doing her work was wrong, which made her feel that Sheila was encroaching on her responsibilities. In the same way that individuals sometimes feel defensive when a coworker meddles in their personal life, it is important to be vigilant as coworkers try to help each other improve at specific work functions. Also, both Nancy and Sheila could have tried to understand the situation from the other’s perspective and see that Sheila really did mean well and that Nancy really did just feel threatened by Sheila’s insistence that her way was better. Sheila should try to approach the coworker relationships as collaborations. This is important for her current employment situation and also for developing a network of contacts that can assist her throughout her career. While some might say that Sheila should conduct a cost-benefit analysis and stop trying to help Nancy if her efforts don’t seem to change the situation, a longer-term view might prompt Sheila to maintain a pleasant and constructive approach to Nancy.
As in this case study, greater awareness of, dialogue about, and commitment to creating workplaces in which participation of all coworkers, particularly those who view themselves or others as different on salient dimensions (e.g., professional or educational background, nationality, ethnic origins), can encourage greater quality of life, workplace contributions, and mutual growth (Buzzanell, Meisenbach, & Remke, in press). For instance, peers’ unwillingness to continue meetings if a coworker needs to leave for personal or family reasons indicates recognition of others’ value and contributions to projects. Similarly, attention to, analysis of, and replication of behaviors that build the kind of workplace in which individuals want to work and in which everyone experiences fair treatment can be encouraged through coworker communication processes.
Although we have separated the different workplace roles to highlight communication processes and strategies, communicating as supervisor, direct report, and coworker involves many more commonalities than differences. All are required to work toward the organizational goal as well as their own individual goals. All rely on effective communication to do their jobs, sustain their employability, build satisfying relationships, enhance their chances of promotion within their current and future organizations, and create developmental networks within and beyond their current workplace. Communication research provides insight not only into workplace relationships considered unsatisfactory and even destructive but also into specific organizational procedures and relational practices that can repair and enhance supervisory, reporting, and peer relationships. (For more extended treatment of these communication issues, see Sias, 2008.) Construction of positive relationships is increasingly essential for workplace productivity as well as the quality of work and home life, the meaningfulness of work, and collaboration transnationally.
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