As I See It: The Finer Points of Relating
May 23, 2011 Victor Rozek
“How you do anything is how you do everything.” This is one of those intriguing truisms that grew out of the personal growth movement. Although by no means absolute, there is enough verity in the observation to make it useful for identifying patterns of behavior. For example, it could explain the irritable workplace demeanor of a parent with a teenager at home.
To understand why, you have to reference the work of John Gottman, a psychologist who has spent the better part of his career studying the nuances of relationships. He analyzes married couples the way an entomologist would consider the behavior of beetles–through a combination of laboratory and field observation. Gottman found that one of the most vulnerable times in a marriage is when teenagers reach the age of 14. That’s when couples reported having the least satisfaction with their relationship. And if things aren’t going well at home, chances are some spillover will occur in the workplace, because how you treat your colleagues is reflective of how your treat your partner. In other words, how you do anything is how you do everything.
There is little actual scientific data about relationships at work. As William Greider noted: “When most people go to work, they submit to a master-servant relationship in which a few people determine everyone else’s behavior and most employees are denied a voice in the matter and have no right to object or criticize.” That dismal state of affairs is seldom challenged. At best, how-to-succeed books regularly tout the latest can’t-miss management theory. But they primarily focus on how the author thinks people should behave, not how they actually do. And while case studies certainly exist, there is little rigorous scientific evidence for what makes working relationships succeed or fail.
In spite of corporate guidelines, people who are sullen and angry at home are likely to be sullen and angry at work. People remote by nature will tend to isolate, while engaging people will bring their exuberance to work with them. Most companies dump all this effusive diversity into a blender we call the office, let it churn for eight to 10 hours a day, and hope something palatable emerges. And if that fails, it’s off to Human Resources for a shaming lecture on inappropriate behavior.
Making relationships work is made even more challenging by the fact that there is really no such thing as a “relationship.” It can’t be measured, or weighed, or put in a box. What we call “relationships” are simply two people relating. But how they relate is an observable phenomenon which is why, when the Harvard Business Review wanted hard data on what makes relationships work, it consulted Gottman, the man who has observed more people relating than perhaps any human on earth.
Twenty-five years ago, Gottman joined the University of Washington Department of Psychology and started the Family Research Laboratory, affectionately known as “The Love Lab.” Here he would screen, interview, and observe the interactions of thousands of couples. Over the years, he added biofeedback systems to further nuance his findings. Clients were wired with equipment measuring such variables as heart rate, jitteriness, and skin conductivity. They were also videotaped and Gottman used facial expression coding to interpret unconscious microexpressions. In conflict and in harmony, at home and in the lab, Gottman observed and tabulated, and now is able to predict with over 90 percent certainty if a relationship is likely to succeed or fail.rn rnBeing the dutiful scientist, Gottman refused to speculate on workplace relationships (not his field of study), but much can be extrapolated from his research. The simplest way to make relationships work, says Gottman, is to say “yes” as often as you can without sacrificing an important part of yourself in the process. Yes, that’s a good idea. Yes, I can help you. Yes, I have time to meet with you this afternoon.
Saying yes, Gottman believes, is especially important for men “whose ability to accept influence from women is really one of the most critical issues in a relationship.” Women are ascending in the management ranks in no small part because they are naturally more collaborative. The command-and-control model is breaking down in an interdependent world. “If men want to have a good relationship with women,” says Gottman, “they have to be sensitive to the changing dimensions of power and control in the Western world. And they have to accept the asymmetry in our relationships for the time being.”
Gottman argues that agreement (saying yes) is not the same as compliance (becoming who someone else wants you to be). In personal relationships, excessive compliance is a soul-killer. But at work, a certain amount of compliance is expected. From dress code, to guidelines for interactions with customers, corporations have thick employee handbooks that outline what you can, can’t, and are expected to do. Authenticity is less valued than obedience, which makes an honest “yes” all the more valuable.
For long-term relationships, Gottman says the key is to “look for the positive in each other.” At work, as at home, praise and acknowledgment offers the reassurance that the person has value and that their contribution matters. Over and over, Gottman reports finding that “respect and affection” are key success factors. Stopping whatever you’re doing before engaging in conversation; listening without interruption; making eye contact; refusing to listen to gossip; giving and sharing credit, are all small ways to show respect in the workplace. Affection, however, is a loaded word in the office, but kindness can be substituted without fear of corporate reprisal: Can I get you a cup of coffee? I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s illness. Is there anything I can do to help you prepare for the meeting? In this context, “affection” means caring about the other person beyond their title or function.
One of Gottman’s most surprising findings is that “good relationships aren’t about clear communication–they’re about small moments of attachment and intimacy.” Communication, so valued in the workplace, apparently builds understanding but not necessarily connection. The willingness to self disclose (which is the essence of intimacy) creates a stronger bond than the clearest communication about middleware options for high performance computing.
Gottman has four predictors of relationship failure which he refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (just in case you are tempted to doubt their seriousness). They are, he claims, “the best predictors of breakup or continued misery,” and include “criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.” The most destructive, he says, is contempt.
For people on all sides of the public employee battle in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the Four Horsemen perfectly describe the devolution of their relationships. It will take many years–if it’s even possible–to rebuild the social bonds that have been shattered.
Nic Marks, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation in London, and founder of its Center for Well-Being, notes that “our well-being is much more driven by relationships than by our household income.” Given that we spend nearly a third of our lives at work, they are worth nurturing.