A relationship is the connection or association between two things or people. Key psychological aspects of a ‘good’ relationship are mutual trust, respect, commitment and individual responsibility. A good relationship meets the needs of both or all parties, where each person feels at ease with the other(s) and each can ask for help without fear of criticism. Professional relationships mean we can share and check our perceptions of what is going on in our work context, which helps put or keep things in perspective. The psychological contract between employer and employee means we know that support is available within our network, which reduces stress and increases feelings of security. We derive pleasure from being in our colleagues’ company and we benefit from the relationship’s inherent reciprocity. Being part of supportive workplace teams and networks sustains and improves our mental wellbeing and enhances our capacity and capability at work and has a significant impact on our ability to survive major challenges both in the workplace and personally.
Recent challenges to workplace relationships
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020/21 has had a huge effect on working practices and workplace relationships. While many people have been unable to work at all, many others have had to adjust from their employment co-located in a physical space with face-to-face interactions, to working in distributed, virtual teams; as a result, a much greater reliance has been placed on using technology and keeping up to date with rapidly developing IT. New ways of working and different patterns had to be established, often in conjunction with home schooling or sharing internet resources and space with others also working from home, and often quite quickly. Induction and training may have been particularly difficult to undertake without colleagues’ physical presence and support. Please see the Signposts for Work theme, which explores and addresses some of these issues in greater detail.
Throughout the pandemic period, people have had to respond flexibly, on an individual basis, and cope with changes to their professional (and personal) relationships.
Major challenges for managers in 2020 and early 2021 have been to set up and facilitate remote team working and to build and maintain productive relationships among colleagues who are no longer able to meet in person. A key question has been how to enable successful team working when people are part of virtual and not physical teams. An issue faced as lockdown restrictions are eased and people may be able to return to their workplaces is how to manage the shift back to co-located working and how to facilitate the re-establishment or refresh of collegiate relationships.
Managing relationships at work
However calm or turbulent the environment or context, what underpin a productive and successful workplace are effective and supportive relationships; these relationships can be flat or hierarchical in structure, for example between peers or between manager and the people who report to them. Good relationships depend on each individual being accountable by recognising the part they play, and fulfilling their responsibilities, aspects which require a certain amount of self-knowledge and self-management. Interpersonal skills – how we interact with other people and manage our relationships – and an appreciation of psychological traits such as the following have a huge bearing on how we deal with work tasks, issues and relationships:
- Locus of control (you can find out more about locus of control in our ‘Dealing with Change’ article and in Rotter (1966).
- Resilience: the capacity to maintain or recover high levels of wellbeing in the face of life adversity (see Ryff et al., 1998, in Lawton-Smith, 2017).
- Trust (see the ‘Trust in the Workplace’ article).
An understanding, too, of the lifecycle of a relationship or team, the shifting roles within them of individual members (Belbin, 1981), and of team processes (such as inputs, throughputs and outputs) is likely to lead to them being more positive and sustainable. For managers, an appreciation of decision-making processes (such as allocating time, staff, physical and financial resources, prioritising and problem-solving, and monitoring performance), as well as an awareness of their own skills, competencies and leadership style, is also important for maintaining good working relationships and practices.
Underpinning successful workplace relationships of all types is good communication. Communication can be written or non-verbal and includes listening as well as talking. Knowing how to adapt your communication style for different situations, audiences and formats, and writing and speaking – i.e., communicating – clearly and effectively sustain and support rewarding and productive relationships. Conflict, which may arise due to a mismatch between the short- or long-term goals of the partners, can be resolved or managed by appropriate communication mechanisms. World events of 2020/21 have severely limited face-to-face communication and, consequently, greater emphasis has been thrown onto non-verbal, electronic means of communication between people no longer co-located. This shift has fundamentally changed and put significant strain on professional interactions and relationships. The onus has frequently been placed on the individual to adapt to and assimilate this different way of interacting and to manage these fluid work relationships, with few pointers as to how this can successfully be achieved.
The resources in this section will help you to appreciate the importance of good workplace relationships and how they can be managed and adapted to changing circumstances. The resources give information and tools to help you understand and develop the interpersonal skills that are the basis to good relationships, provide insight into the mechanisms and features of work-based groups and teams, and suggest techniques for how to nurture and modify your professional relationships, to enhance your experience at work.
There are also further resources you may find useful in the Applying Psychology at Work hub, under the themes of ‘Wellbeing for Work’, ‘Trust in the Workplace’, ‘Dealing with Change’ and ‘Signposts for Work’. There are articles, such as this one, which explain each theme, and you can find out more about why this hub was created within the main header articles.
Belbin, M. (1981) from ’The importance of interpersonal skills’. Available at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/money-business/leadership-management/the-importance-interpersonal-skills/content-section-3 (Accessed: 3 March 2021).
Lawton-Smith, C. (2017) ‘Coaching as a route to resilience and wellbeing’, International Journal of Stress Prevention and Wellbeing, 1(4), pp. 1-5.
Rotter, J. (1966) ‘Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement’, Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 80(1), pp. 1-28