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11.4: Workplace Relationships

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    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the reasons why communication is important in the workplace.
    • Explain different types of communication in the workplace including, written, verbal and online.
    • Describe the basic dynamics of different workplace relationships and types of communication typically employed.
    • Discuss communication issues that may occur in the workplace.


    Communication skills are wanted in the workplace! Each year the National Association of College and Employers (NACE) releases a Job Outlook that provides hiring projections and attributes most desired by prospective employers. Communication skills are always placed near the top of the list. In 2020, NACE’s Job Outlook listed oral and written communication at number four (p. 15)

    A quick internet search of “skills employers look for” reveals soft skills like teamwork, listening and communication are always mentioned by prospective employers regardless of the position. Check out these links to see for yourself:

    Importance of communication skills in the workplace

    Why are communication skills so important in the workplace? There are several reasons, let’s look at the most significant.

    Good communication increases employee engagement (Bosworth, 2016). Organizations invest in resources to achieve both short- and long-term goals. The most significant investment organizations make is in their workforce (i.e., salary, benefits, training, etc.) (Srivastava, 2016). It is important for organizations to recognize the role employee engagement plays to maximize this investment and create a positive work environment.

    When employees have positive relationships with co-workers, supervisors and leaders, they will be more engaged in the workplace and more likely to communicate their needs and goals. In turn, supervisors and leaders will better understand the factors that motivate each employee and respond to those needs in a mutually beneficial way.

    Employee Engagement Take Away

    When employee engagement is high…

    • The talents and skills of each employee are cultivated.
    • Organizational goals are more easily achieved.
    • The work environment is both productive and satisfying for everyone.

    Good communication improves client relationships (Bosworth, 2016). Most businesses will not exist without clients. The more successful you are at forming and maintaining relationships with clients, the more successful the business will be.

    Many people have studied client relationships. Some of the best practices for strengthening client relationships include (Gregory, 2019):

    • Anticipate your client’s needs
    • Get to know your client
    • Do exemplary work
    • Communicate regularly with your clients
    • Ask for feedback from your client
    • Make recommendations based on your expertise
    • Cultivate partnerships

    Strong communication skills directly relate to building and maintaining client-business relationships. Effectively trained employees have the necessary communication and listening skills to ensure client needs are met. This may include being responsive to client emails and calls, scheduling regular meetings, sharing relevant business news and interacting with clients on social media platforms. When collaborative partnerships are cultivated, everyone benefits.

    Client Relationships Take Away

    When client relationships are strong…

    • The relationship between a client and business is mutually beneficial.
    • The client’s needs/expectations are met or exceeded.
    • An issue becomes an opportunity to resolve a problem and build a stronger relationship with the client.

    Good communication enhances team effectiveness (Bosworth, 2016). The driving thought behind team-based projects in the workplace is: we can accomplish more together than apart. Each individual brings their knowledge, experience and skills to the team. When these attributes are brought together, the team benefits from the unique talents of each individual, more tasks can be accomplished in a shorter period of time and innovation and creative thinking are promoted.

    Communicating within a workplace context is more than conveying information or giving orders to subordinates. It directly relates to the ways we build and maintain relationships with members of our team. The bottom line is an employee without the necessary communication skills is a liability to the organization.

    Team Effectiveness Take Away

    When team effectiveness is enhanced…

    • There will be less misunderstandings due to poor communication.
    • Team members will feel more empowered and confident in their tasks.
    • Productivity and accountability will increase.
    • Company culture will improve.

    Types of workplace communication

    All activities in the workplace rely on effective communication. When there is a breakdown in communication or an individual lacks the skills needed, the effects can be felt in a variety of ways. This section focuses on written, verbal, and online communication.

    Written communication

    Business letters, memos, reports, summaries, and emails are just a few examples of written communication in the workplace. As with all writing, the writer should carefully consider:

    1. Purpose: Express the purpose clearly and succinctly
    2. Audience: Use appropriate language for the intended audience(s)
    3. Content: Articulate information in an accurate and professional manner
    4. Structure: Conform to standard business practices

    Verbal communication

    Effective verbal communication is more than just talking. It includes what you say, how you say it, and how it is received by others. Generally, verbal communication in the workplace is heavily reliant on the context and rapport of those involved. Some common examples include conversations between colleagues, group meetings, presentations, performance reviews, sales pitches and training/consulting engagements.

    When we communicate verbally, we should:

    • Convey the message(s) concisely,
    • Encourage input from others (and receive feedback without becoming defensive),
    • Pay attention to tone,
    • Refrain from speaking too often or interrupting others and
    • Ask for clarification (when needed).

    Online communication

    Online and/or electronic tools (i.e., email, instant messenger, video conferencing software, etc.) are often employed in the workplace. These tools are used because they increase efficiency and promote collaboration particularly when participants are not located in the same place.

    While there are many benefits to these tools, there are also some challenges. When using email or instant messenger, tone can sometimes get lost in the message. Another person may interpret your message differently than you intended. This may create a miscommunication that has to be fixed.

    Online messages can also be retained by the recipient. This feature of online communication can be positive when we need to refer back to what was said. But it can also be negative if we are not careful communicators.

    Video conferencing software can be a great way to more directly communicate with co-workers and clients that are located in a different place than you are. At the same time, issues with internet connectivity and audio can become a communication barrier. If you are hosting a video conference, these issues should be taken into consideration ahead of time.

    Additional communication skills

    Additional communication skills needed in the workplace will vary depending on the position and organization. They may include listening, negotiation, problem-solving, and decision-making skills as well as assertiveness (Communication Theory, n.d.). To illustrate how these skills may affect workplace communication, let’s look at an example.

    Peyton is a graphic designer for a large training organization. This is her/his first job after college. S/He works directly with project managers, instructional designers and technical writers. Peyton manages her/his own workload, but s/he reports to the project managers and is accountable for meeting project deadlines. Consider the relevant communication skills:

    • Listening skills: Peyton is not a good listener. When meeting with project managers, s/he often doesn’t take notes. Later when s/he’s working on a project, s/he often doesn’t remember exactly what s/he’s supposed to do (so s/he guesses) and sometimes, s/he forgets to do something important. This often leads to frustration (both for Peyton and the project managers).
    • Negotiation skills: Peyton lacks effective negotiation skills. When talking with colleagues, s/he often expresses irritation about the amount of work s/he has and the way they deliver work to her/him. S/He doesn’t prioritize her/his project tasks and misses important project deadlines.
    • Problem-solving skills: Peyton has difficulty solving her/his own problems. When asked by project managers what needs to happen to make her/his work more efficient, Peyton rarely has any ideas. When s/he does, it’s usually about other people doing more work for her/him.
    • Decision-making skills: Peyton also struggles to make decisions. S/He doesn’t have a system to track her/his progress or deadlines for projects. When a decision needs to be made, s/he avoids it (hoping it will go away….unfortunately it usually doesn’t).
    • Assertiveness: Because Peyton lacks assertiveness, s/he is often non-responsive in group settings. S/He also refrains from suggesting new ideas or pointing out challenges when communicating with her/his colleagues.

    As this example shows communication skills are essential when working on collaborative teams in the workplace. When we lack the necessary skills, our job becomes more difficult. To improve our efficiency and overall job satisfaction, we should consider the ways we can improve our communication skills and seek additional training (if needed). In the next section, we will focus on the dynamics of workplace relationships,

    Dynamics of workplace relationships

    In the workplace, almost everyone will need to interact with others in some way. We may need to develop working relationships with co-workers, superiors, subordinates, and/or clients. Your organization may have policies regarding appropriate workplace relationships and methods of communication. The foundation of these policies is to guide communication behaviors and create a respectful workplace environment.

    Workplace relationships can sometimes be more challenging than other types of relationships such as friendships, romantic relationships or family relationships. For example, workplace relationships may be required (not voluntary) and we may have more difficulty controlling the situation. In this section, we will focus on three types of relationships in the workplace: co-workers, superiors/subordinates, and clients (Floyd, 2017).

    Relationships with Co-workers

    In the workplace, we may develop relationships with our co-workers. Co-workers are usually peers who have similar levels of power and responsibility. We also share common experiences with co-workers such as working for the same department and supervisor. As a result, we may spend significant time with our co-workers.

    When we communicate with co-workers, we are engaged in lateral communication, which is less formal in nature. Lateral communication is defined as messages sent and received by people at the same level in an organization (Floyd, 2017).

    Because communication is on a level playing field, co-worker relationships may lead to friendships. However, this can be tricky, since the goals of the friendship (social-orientation) may interfere with the goals of the job (task-orientation). Finding a careful balance may be necessary.

    Relationships with Superiors and Subordinates

    Relationships between superiors and subordinates can be complicated. Superiors typically have more power and responsibility than subordinates. When subordinates communicate with a superior, they engage in upward communication, which is generally more formal in nature. Upward communication is defined as messages sent by people at lower levels in an organization to people at higher levels (Floyd, 2017).

    By comparison, when a superior communicates with a subordinate, he or she engages in downward communication. This type of communication tends to be more prescriptive (task-oriented). Downward communication is defined as messages sent by people at higher levels in an organization to people at lower levels (Floyd, 2017).

    As with co-workers, many supervisors and subordinates become friends. While the difference in power and responsibility can introduce some challenges to these relationships, these types of friendships generally add to job satisfaction.

    Relationships with clients

    Many people will also interact with clients as part of their job responsibilities. Developing and maintaining strong relationships with clients may be significant to your organization’s business goals. Professional and ethical guidelines provided by your organization should follow.

    Client relationships may also lead to friendships. Similar to co-worker friendships, friendships with clients can be complicated. It may be important for us to draw a distinction between our personal and professional interactions.

    Communication issues in the workplace

    Interpersonal relationships in the workplace and differences in communication style can lead to many issues. In this section, we will look at a few examples that related to the workplace: expectations, misunderstandings, cultural differences, generational differences and negative communication.


    Sometimes one individual can be focused on the social-orientation of their relationship while another may be focused on the task-orientation. This can lead to conflict, particularly in a superior/subordinate relationship. In this situation, we should pay close attention to the communication context. It may guide us toward a resolution.

    Lane is the manager of a shoe store, responsible for the daily operations and driving sales. Robin is one of Lane’s employees that has significant responsibilities in the store. Lane and Robin found out quickly after working together that they share common interests. At first, Lane found it refreshing to have someone in the workplace to bond with. Lately, however Lane is in the throes of a dilemma.

    The problem is, Robin now wants to socialize and talk about non-work related subjects when things need to be accomplished. At work, Lane wants to stay focused on tasks rather than socializing. This situation has developed a rift in their personal and professional relationship because of different expectations. Robin thinks Lane is taking the job too serious and Lane thinks Robin doesn’t take the job serious enough.


    Communication is a complex process in general. This does not change when the context is the workplace. It is important to acknowledge misunderstandings and correct them as soon as possible. For example, a concept known as groupthink, describes an occurrence in groups where consensus becomes more important than carefully considering all options (Communication Theory, n.d.). This way of thinking can lead to misunderstandings or drastically bad results. A classic example of groupthink is the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. A more recent example is the Astros sign stealing scandal.

    Cultural differences

    Global diversity is reflected in many organizations both directly and indirectly. Cultural differences in communication may include differences in acceptable verbal and nonverbal practices, communication styles, attitudes towards authority, gender, etc., norms for decision-making just to name a few. When communicating with others, consider not only what but how you communicate.

    Jack is a 38-year old bartender in a popular restaurant with 15-years of experience. Recently, Sage the restaurant manager hired a new server, Blanca who is transgender. Jack is used to telling off-color jokes with other staff members and patrons of the restaurant. Blanca finds many of these jokes offensive and has complained to Sage.

    Jack was not pleased when Sage told him to refrain from his locker room humor. Jack thinks it’s unfair because of his tenure. “This is how I’ve always been, why change now?”, Jack said. Sage reminded Jack to be culturally sensitive. Jack refuses to refer to Blanca as she or her. This situation may result in Sage having to let Jack go if continues to be disrespectful.

    Generational differences

    Diversity in the workplace may also include working with people from different generations. Differences in knowledge and experience can create misunderstandings. Cross-training within organizations can be an important step to communicating more effectively in the workplace.

    Perry is a Gen X-er who supervises a local gym. In recent months, Perry has become increasing frustrated with the young staff because of generational differences. Most of Perry’s staff are Millenials and Generation Z. Often, Perry has to drastically alter messages due to dated references that the staff does not understand. Many of these dated references result in snickers and eye-rolls from the crew.

    In addition to a lack of understanding of references, Perry feels like there is a lack of attentiveness on the floor due to smartphone dependence. The young staff insist that they are doing their job just fine, but Perry thinks otherwise. One day, Perry lectured them about interpersonal skills and said, “we need to know how to talk to real people in person rather than texting on the screen”. One of the staff members, Skylar remarked, “Ok, Boomer” and Perry lost patience and sent Skylar home for the day.

    Negative communication

    Sexual harassment, discrimination and hostile work environment are a few examples of negative communication that may occur in the workplace.

    Madison is having a difficult time working at a retail clothing store. On a daily basis Madison has to hear sexually explicit comments from co-workers about their relationships. Kennedy and Max are the worst offenders as they discuss subjects not meant for the workplace.

    Madison is often teased about being uptight and refusing to answer questions about her/his sex life. In addition, Kennedy and Max gossip about Madison to their employees and even customers. Madison wants to quit or file a complaint but is reluctant because she/he needs to continue to stay current on bills and school expenses.

    While many organizations provide their employees with training on these topics, there are also many resources available online such as:


    Communication skills are essential to building strong relationships, fostering greater collaboration and meeting organizational goals. This module described different types of communication skills needed in the workplace, the dynamics of workplace relationships and a variety of issues that may occur in a work environment. In the workplace, as with other communication contexts, it is important to be aware of other perspectives and adapt to the situation in a professional manner.


    1. Dream Job

    Think about your dream job. What skills are necessary to be valuable to the company or organization? With these skills in mind, pair up with a partner and discuss traits and skills desired to acquire the position.

    2. Customer Relationships

    Is the customer, always right? Ask students to discuss in groups whether (or not) they think the customer is always right. Have them list potential scenarios/issues a customer could face and bring to the attention of a business or organization. Then ask the groups to come up with solutions to those issues and be prepared to defend their answers.

    3. Bridging the Gap

    Assign students in the class a context based on cultural background, generation, gender, etc. (this should be an attribute that is different than their own background). Ask students to form groups (3-5 students ) and construct a story using those contexts to describe a situation where miscommunication may occur in the workplace. The story should describe the situation and provide a resolution. Groups may choose whether the resolution is positive or negative.

    Ask each group to present/role pay their story. When each group is done, they should share with the class how they made decisions about how they told their story and why they chose to write it that ways.

    After all groups have presented, the instructor should discuss with students some of the broader topics related to working with people from different backgrounds.

    4. Workplace Communication

    In this activity, the instructor will need to prepare the classroom in advance by moving the desks or chairs into three distinct groups (in different parts of the room). The desks or chairs within a group should be organized in three rows:

    · The first row should have one chair,

    · The second row should have two chairs and

    · The third row should have three chairs.

    Repeat this organization for all three groups. If the class is larger, the instructor can add a fourth group or readjust the numbers in each row (keeping in mind, row three should be the biggest, followed by row 2 and row 1 should be the smallest).

    Using index cards, write the letter A, B, or C on each card. Note: ‘A’ corresponds with the first row. “B’ corresponds with the second row. “C’ corresponds with the third row. Make sure that you have enough index cards with the appropriate letter to fit with the number of desks or chairs in each row (for all groups).

    When students enter the room, hand them one index card and ask them to find a group and sit in an appropriate chair. For example, if a student has a ‘B’ on her/his card, s/he should find a seat in row 2 of one of the groups.

    Ask all the A’s to come to a part of the room that is away from the rest of the class and provide them with a business context.


    Your organization just received a huge order for widgets that needs to be filled by the end of next week. You agreed to rush the order because this is an important client. But it will be stressful and difficult to fill this order on time. There may be other clients who are unhappy that their order is being delayed. Your job, as the leaders of the organization, is to accurately communicate what needs to happen with the managers (those sitting in the second row of their group).

    Tell them (that much like a CEO of a company), they can only communicate with their managers. They cannot communicate with the employees directly, even if they see them doing something wrong. Ask them to return to their groups and wait for the signal to begin.

    Then, ask all the B’s to join you. Tell them some variation of what you told the A’s, leaving out some of the details. Example:

    Someone in the business office make a mistake and your team is behind on several orders. Your job is to listen to your leaders (the A’s) and communicate information to your team members (the C’s) as needed.

    Tell them, they can only listen to their leaders, but they speak and listen to their team member. Ask them to return to their groups and wait for the signal to begin.

    Now the instructor is ready to start the activity (the instructor does not need to speak to the C’s). Begin by asking the leaders to speak with their managers about an important business situation.

    As the activity goes, the instructor should move around the room to observe each group. If needed, the instructor can add an inject into the activity (such as an angry client threats to…). Note: Once the activity has started, the instructor should only provide injects to the A’s (it will be their job to share information with the B’s and so on).

    The goal of this activity is to learn about workplace communication and some of the difficulties that can emerge as a result of the business structure.


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    Brooks, C. (2013). 10 Job skills every employer wants. Retrieved from

    Communication Theory. (n.d.) Groupthink. Retrieved from

    Communication Theory. (n.d.). Interpersonal communication skills in workplace. Retrieved from

    Doyle, A. (2019). Top skills and attributes employers look for. Retrieved from

    Floyd, K. (2017). Interpersonal communication (3rd edition). McGraw-Hill.

    Gabriel Dumont Institute. (2016). Written communication in the Workplace. Retrieved from

    Gregory, A. (2019). Relationships with your clients. The Balance Small Business. Retrieved from,

    Moore, K. (2016). Study: 73% of employers want candidates with this skill. Retrieved from

    National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2020). Job outlook 2020. Retrieved from

    Neo, S. (2015). 4 Types of communication challenges in multicultural organizations. Retrieved from

    Rider University (2020). Intergenerational communication issues: Management tips for a more effective workplace. Retrieved from

    Srivastava, R. (2016). Role of communication in employee engagement. Retrieved from


    Downward communication are messages sent by people at higher levels in an organization to people at lower levels.

    Groupthink describes an occurrence in groups where consensus becomes more important than carefully considering all options.

    Lateral communication are messages sent and received by people at the same level in an organization.

    Upward communication are messages sent by people at lower levels in an organization to people at higher levels.

    This page titled 11.4: Workplace Relationships is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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