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The importance of interpersonal relationships is not one to be underestimated. In order for companies to be maximizing efficiency and productivity, they must take active measures to sustain healthy relationships in the workplace. When these measures are not in place, interpersonal stress and worker conflict are amplified, creating problems that could have been prevented in the first place. These issues are often thought of as organizational outcomes, such as decreased organizational efficiency, lower levels of organizational commitment, lower job satisfaction and higher turnover intentions (Frone, M. R., 2000). However, interpersonal conflict can affect personal outcomes as well, including lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of somatic symptoms. It is therefore crucial that the impact of interpersonal conflict is well understood and preventative measures are applied to the work environment.
The workplace is a common breeding ground for interpersonal conflict and worker stress. The first time I encountered workplace conflict was last year when I worked as a research assistant in a neuroanatomy laboratory. As an incoming lab member who had no prior research experience, I was new to many, if not all, of the techniques and procedures that would be performed in the lab. My PI (principle investigator) put me under the supervision of another lab member who had been there for a year already. Like any relationship, this was supposed to be a two-way street — I would shadow her and ask questions and she would teach me to the best of her ability. However, this was not the case. She stated explicitly that she was not a people person and had no patience for people who were slow to learn. Her punitive and condemning management style made it even more difficult for me to pick up these skills — instead of teaching me what I did wrong and what to do next time, she criticized me and yelled at me when I made small mistakes. It was very clear that she did not want to be responsible for helping me succeed in the lab, and this caused a great deal of tension and stress between us. This led to a lack of communication which made my job and duties sometimes very ambiguous. My PI was often too busy to even be seen, much less to be managing these relationships — making it more difficult to speak to someone in a higher position. Because of the absence of proper training and social support from my lab members, I started to lose interest in the work. The conflict and stress persisted, which inevitably led to decreased levels of mood, job satisfaction and job performance. After almost one year of tolerating this work environment without any improvement, I decided to leave the lab. Although the conflict never was resolved, I’ve learned a number of lessons from this experience that have been useful in other areas of my life.
Textbook on Interpersonal Stress
The book describes interpersonal stress as that which stems from difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships with others in the workplace (Riggio, 2013). Examples of this can include having a boss who is extremely critical and disapproving, or putting two coworkers in a conflict situation in which they have to compete against each other for a promotion. Emotional labor is another common type of interpersonal stress that often manifests in jobs that are heavily service oriented. When striving to provide excellent customer service, it can be taxing to handle difficult customers and maintain a good attitude. When these conflicts and interpersonal stress arise, they can have drastic effects on the organization. Workers may become cynical and discontent with their jobs, resulting in absenteeism, turnover and reduced job performance and satisfaction. Given that interpersonal conflict is one of the greatest sources of worker stress, it is important for companies to take initiatives to maintain workplace relationships.
The link between interpersonal conflict and psychological outcomes has been well studied in past research. However, the qualitative differences in what has contributed to these outcomes has not been examined as rigorously. In the correlational study conducted by Frone, M. R. (2000), interpersonal conflict with supervisors and among coworkers are studied as two different kinds of interpersonal processes. The posed research question examines how the psychological outcomes (the criterion) are different between interpersonal conflict with supervisors and conflict among coworkers (the predictors). The researchers recruited participants of 16-19 year olds who were full-time students and working at a formal organization for a minimum of 5 hours per week. Participants were asked to answer a questionnaire during a three month period. A variety of measures was considered in the questionnaire, including job satisfaction, interpersonal conflict at work, organizational commitment, turnover intentions, somatic symptoms, depression and self-esteem. These measures were assessed using different items adapted from various studies. For example, when testing organizational commitment, one of the sample items asked about the level of pride the participant felt when telling others what company he/she worked for. The participant would then answer using a response scale that ranged from one to six — one being strongly disagree and six being strongly agree. Demographic variables were also taken into account to rule out any possibilities of shared common causes and for generalizability purposes. These six covariates included age, gender, race, job type, job tenure and number of hours worked in a week. To examine if the results would be applicable across demographic subgroups, between- and within- groups analyses were conducted.
The hypothesized model states that interpersonal conflict with supervisors is associated with negative organizational outcomes, whereas interpersonal conflict among coworkers is associated with negative personal outcomes (Frone, M. R., 2000). Despite several limitations of the study, such that a broader sample would need to be collected, the hypothesized model was fairly well supported by the study. The model was consistent with the data from different subgroups, indicating that the results were able to be generalized across demographic subgroups. Model chi-square tests also signified that the results were in fact statistically significant. Interpersonal conflict with supervisors was discovered to be positively linked to turnover intentions and negatively linked to job satisfaction and organizational commitment. On the other hand, interpersonal conflict among coworkers was found to be negatively linked to self-esteem and positively linked to depression and somatic symptoms.
Past studies have highlighted the importance of interpersonal relationships at work. However, this study unveils a more nuanced layer to interpersonal conflict that includes the qualitative nature of those relationships between the people involved (Frone, M. R., 2000). Distinguishing between interpersonal conflict with supervisors and among coworkers has contributed to different solutions for human resource management. It is important to realize the impact of interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Companies should take both organizational and personal outcomes into consideration when adopting policies and changes. By improving the relations between employees and supervisors, they are likely to retain their workers and increase job productivity and satisfaction. Improving the relationships among coworkers would contribute to their subjective well-being. Riggio (2013) states some solutions as improving orientation programs and employee training, improving communication, providing a supportive and collaborative work environment and eliminating punitive management. Had my PI stepped in to ensure that these measures were being met, I would not have experienced as much stress and interpersonal conflict as I did. It is in the best interest of companies and businesses to adopt these solutions early on to avoid potential conflicts that may occur. In the case of my real-life work problem, these solutions could play out in many different ways. Having a more structured and formal process of training incoming lab members would have eliminated potential conflicts from occurring. This could look like giving a brief training to present members on what to teach incoming members and how to do so in an instructive, supportive way. New lab members could shadow multiple people in the lab who show them different skills, instead of throwing them under the supervision of just one lab member who may not be the most well-suited. Doing this also creates more opportunities for interpersonal relationships with members of the lab, supporting a cohesive and team-oriented work environment. These changes would have fostered the type of work setting that employees can thrive in, both professionally and personally.
- Frone, M. R. (2000). Interpersonal conflict at work and psychological outcomes: Testing a model among young workers. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5(2), 246-255. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1076-89220.127.116.11
- Riggio, R. E. (2013). Introduction to industrial/organizational psychology: 6th edition. Pearson Education: Upper Saddle River, NJ.
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