Quality Work Relationships Lead to Effective Problem Solving

group of employees meeting
Topic(s): leadership, work environment
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2013)
Article: The Relational Antecedents of Voice Targeted at Different Leaders
Authors: W. Liu, S. Tangirala, R. Ramanujam
Reviewed by: Cynthia Maupin

When it comes to problem solving at work, it doesn’t necessarily matter what you know as much as who you know.

Employees who work directly with products or customers have first-hand experience with some of their company’s biggest problems. But many don’t have the influence or resources to solve those problems without assistance from organizational leaders. Which organizational leaders do they decide to turn to for help? The answer may have more to do with the quality of relationships than with the formal positions that people occupy or company protocols. 

A recent study (Liu, Tangirala, & Ramanujam, 2013) examined the role supervisors have on problem solving at work, both within and between organizations. The authors found that employees who have strong relationships with their direct supervisor feel more comfortable communicating issues with them, which ultimately promotes positive organizational change.


The study also found that the strength of workplace communication depends on how close the employee’s direct supervisor is with his or her boss. If employees are comfortable with their direct supervisor, but perceive the supervisor’s relationship with their boss as weak, they tend to share less with their supervisor, because they don’t believe their boss has the influence needed to initiate meaningful organizational change.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the study found that, with the flattening of organizational hierarchies, more employees are comfortable with going to their boss’s boss in order to get things done, especially if the employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor was poor.


This study shows that the opportunity to communicate with more than one level of leadership within an organization gives employees a better chance to solve critical problems. Why is this important?

For frontline employees: Your position within a company and the relationships you make are valuable to the organization’s ultimate success. You can utilize your relationships–not only with your supervisor, but also with your supervisor’s boss if necessary–in order to get important problems solved.

For first-level supervisors: It is imperative to build strong relationships with both your subordinates and your own supervisor in order to properly manage your leadership resources.

For second level supervisors: Having a strong relationship with the supervisors you manage will enable employees to trust their ability to solve problems. But if employees are continually escalating issues to you, instead of their direct supervisor, it may indicate problems with that supervisor’s management style.

In sum, better relationships build better organizations. In order solve workplace problems more efficiently and effectively, leaders and employees should start investing in the people they work with.


Liu, W., Tangirala, S., & Ramanujam, R. (2013). The Relational Antecedents of Voice Targeted at Different Leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(5), 841-851.