Nanometer-thick reconstruction layers on layered cathode surfaces have been widely observed on both pristine and cycled materials. However, the mechanisms of reconstruction and the role that these structures play in electrochemical performance are not fully understood. From a crystallographic perspective, such surface reconstruction layers result from cation site-mixing between Li and transition-metal ions, but it remains far from clear as to what the critical factors are that control such cation mixing for various cathode chemistries. Here, we report observations on surface transformations during cycling of a Ni-rich cathode-oxide that are governed by direct contact with the liquid electrolyte. Specifically, within a secondary particle, the three-dimensional hierarchical aggregate of primary particles leads to the formation of grain boundaries of different characteristics, including open grain boundaries that allow the permeation of liquid electrolyte, and closed grain boundaries that exclude liquid electrolyte penetration. Upon battery cycling, surfaces in direct contact with the liquid electrolyte showed a surface reconstruction layer while the surfaces that did not have contact with the electrolyte showed no such reconstructions. In addition, the critical role of oxygen in reconstruction of grain boundaries is demonstrated, and the unexpected oxygen depletion at twin boundaries result in severe phase transitions. The present work provides further insights into phase transitions at solid–solid and solid–liquid interfaces within secondary cathode particles and suggests strategies for mitigating surface/interfacial degradation.