Faculty & Research -Researching Interpersonal Relationships at Work

Researching Interpersonal Relationships at Work

Friendships at work can boost employee morale, well-being and cohesion within groups. However, being too friendly with colleagues can have a potential downside, and this can be even more problematic when that relationship includes customers. In this longitudinal study of home care workers published in Organization Studies, Dermot Breslin found that interpersonal relationships can negatively affect service quality by resisting change. The findings of the study show that developing a trusting relationship helped to stabilize the activities of the care worker, creating the basis for a continuity of service. However, as these friendships deepened, established care routines persisted, acting to resist change, with behaviors becoming increasingly routinized and predictable.

Interpersonal relationships resist change

Interpersonal relationships acted to lock in ways of working, as both the carer and client engaged in reciprocal interactions, with neither party wishing to ask for change or give feedback on poor performance. Doing so was seen to undermine the trust between carer and client, formalizing an informal personal interaction. Each side therefore became trapped in a cycle of mutual unspoken expectations about how the care should be delivered.

The study thus shows that both carer and client became resistant to change, even as the care provision no longer met the changing needs of that client. Trusting relationships that were initially seen as critical to the functioning of care, later acted to undermine the quality of that care provision.

The findings of this study have implications for relationships at work in other sectors. Trusting relationships can form through intimacy and the disclosure of personal details, as each side lets their guard down with respect to another. In certain industries such as social care, trust facilitates communication, interactions and collective behaviors. But these same trusting relationships can also get in the way. In the study above, care workers talked about maintaining distance or “professional friendships”. At what point then do friendships at work become dysfunctional and disruptive?

The dark side of interpersonal relationships at work

The study thus highlights the potential downside of personal relationships in organizations, and in particular, care organizations. Whilst interpersonal relationships are critical to the functioning of the latter, it is seen that these relationships can get in the way of continual change and adaptation. These findings thus build on prior research exploring the dark side of the blurring of work and personal relationships in care. Such blurring can result both in the client losing control as employer in contractual arrangements, and in the care worker experiencing emotional burnout.

This research further points to the role played by interpersonal relationships in resisting change over time, and thus, adapting to the changing needs of clients. Therein lays the paradox in care provision. Whilst trusting relationships are needed to deliver care, deepening interactions can undermine the quality of that care provision.


This research used a longitudinal ethnographic approach, in which the emerging practices between groups of carers were studied in a newly formed regional UK home care company. Different means of inquiry were used including daily logs, observations, in-depth interviews with carers and clients, and company documentation. Data was gathered on numerous carer-client visits, across a range of participants working in different care teams totaling 94 hours of observation split over the first two years of the company’s operation and the studied care teams. During this time, the researcher kept a detailed journal, including observations notes and conversations with care workers and clients.

Applications and beneficiaries

The findings of this study have implications for other industries which involve close personal contact between employees and customers, such as hairdressing or sports therapy. Such organizations could try to manage relationships between employees and customers by creating and respecting personal boundaries, and ensuring interpersonal interactions are seen to be ‘professional’. The findings also have implications for employees in general, as they develop interpersonal relationships at work. Trust within working relationships can be seen to vary on a continuum between deep intimate friendships and cold formal exchanges. Neither extreme is beneficial for the working environment. Consider for example, the rise of home working and the increased use of virtual interactions between colleagues. In virtual environments there is an absence of nonverbal social cues, which creates challenges for the development of functional interpersonal relationships at work. This explains why so many organizations are moving back to in-person exchanges since the end of the Covid crisis. Trusting relationships improve morale, wellbeing and cohesion at work, and facilitate communication and the exchange of ideas between work colleagues, driving creativity and innovation. However, as this study shows, deepening levels of interpersonal trust can constrain group behaviors, especially when those behaviors deviate from the norms and expectations of the relationship. This highlights the importance of defining and maintaining interpersonal boundaries at work.

  • Discipline: Management & Organisations
  • Keywords: emergence, interpersonal relations, organizational routines, path dependence, self-reinforcing processes, social care

Breslin, Dermot (2022) When Relationships Get in the Way: The Emergence and Persistence of Care Routines. Organization Studies, 2022, Vol. 43(12) 1869–1890, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/01708406211053227

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