Making Relationships Work
The Latest Research: Women and Gender
It has become common to extol the value of human relationships in the workplace. We all agree that managers need to connect deeply with followers to ensure outstanding performance, and we celebrate leaders who have the emotional intelligence to engage and inspire their people by creating bonds that are authentic and reliable. There’s a large and fast-growing support industry to help us develop our “softer” relationship skills; many CEOs hire executive coaches, and libraries of self-help books detail how best to build and manage relationships on the way to the top.
Despite all the importance attached to interpersonal dynamics in the workplace, however, surprisingly little hard scientific evidence identifies what makes or breaks work relationships. We know, for instance, that the personal chemistry between a mentor and his or her protégé is critical to that relationship’s success, but we don’t try to work out what the magic is, at least not in any rigorous way.
The absence of hard data and painstaking analysis exacts a heavy price: When relationships sour, as they easily can, there’s little guidance on what you can do to patch things up. Even the best human resources officers may not know how or when to stage an intervention. If companies were more effective in helping executives handle their relationships through difficult times, they would see the company’s productivity soar and find it much easier to retain leadership talent.
But if there’s little research on relationships at work, some is beginning to emerge on relationships at home. That’s good news because the way that people manage their work relationships is closely linked to the way they manage their personal ones. People who are abusive at home, for example, are likely to be abusive at work. If you believe that—as most psychologists do—then the relevance of the work of those who study relationships at home immediately becomes obvious.
Few people can tell us more about how to maintain good personal relationships than John M. Gottman, the executive director of the Relationship Research Institute. At the institute’s Family Research Laboratory—known as the “Love Lab”—Gottman has been studying marriage and divorce for the past 35 years. He has screened thousands of couples, interviewed them, and tracked their interactions over time. He and his colleagues use video cameras, heart monitors, and other biofeedback equipment to measure what goes on when couples experience moments of conflict and closeness. By mathematically analyzing the data, Gottman has generated hard scientific evidence on what makes good relationships.
HBR senior editor Diane Coutu went to the Seattle headquarters of the Relationship Research Institute to discuss that evidence with Gottman and to ask about the implications of his research for the work environment. As a scientist, he refuses to extrapolate beyond his research on couples to relationships in the workplace. The media have sensationalized as they often do; his work, he says. However, he was willing to talk freely about what makes for good relationships in our personal lives. Successful couples, he notes, look for ways to accentuate the positive. They try to say “yes” as often as possible. That doesn’t mean good relationships have no room for conflict. On the contrary, individuals in thriving relationships embrace conflict over personality differences as a way to work them through. Gottman adds that good relationships aren’t about clear communication—they’re about small moments of attachment and intimacy. It takes time and work to make such moments part of the fabric of everyday life. Gottman discusses these and other nuances of his wisdom, acquired from experience and research, in this edited version of Coutu’s conversation with him.
You’re said to be able to predict, in a very short amount of time and with a high degree of accuracy, whether couples will stay together for the long term. How do you manage that?
“Let me put it this way: If I had three hours with a couple, and if I could interview them and tape them interacting—in positive ways as well as in conflict—then I would say that I could predict a couple’s success rate for staying together in the next three to five years with more than 90% accuracy. I’ve worked with 3,000 couples over 35 years, and the data support this claim, which have now been replicated by other scientists” states Gottman.
Could you train me to decide whether I should hire Dick or Jane?
For instance, one test we’ve used for years is the “paper tower task.” We give couples a bunch of materials, such as newspaper, scissors, Scotch tape, and string. We tell them to go build a paper tower that is freestanding, strong, and beautiful, and they have half an hour to do it. Then we watch the way the couples work. It’s the very simple things that determine success. One time we had three Australian couples do the task. Beforehand, we had the couples talk on tape about each other and about a major conflict in their relationship that they were trying to resolve. So we had some data about how relatively happy or unhappy they were. When one couple who came across as happy started building their paper tower, the man said, “So, how are we going to do this?” The woman replied, “You know, we can fold the paper, we can turn the paper, we can make structures out of the paper.” He said, “Really? Great.” It took them something like ten seconds to build a tower. The wife in an unhappily married couple started by saying, “So how are we going to do this?” Her husband said, “Just a minute, can you be quiet while I figure out the design?” It didn’t take much time to see that this couple would run into some difficulties down the line.
Your work depends heavily on your interviewing technique. How did you develop it?
My hero was Studs Terkel. In one interview, he went into a woman’s attic and said to her, “Give me a tour, tell me what’s up here.” He had a big cigar in his mouth, but he was really interested. Acting as the tour guide, she said, “Well, I don’t talk much about this doll.” Terkel pointed out that it was not a new doll. “No,” she said, “my first fiancé gave me this doll, before he was killed in a car accident. He was the only man I’ve ever loved.” Surprised, Terkel remarked, “You’re a grandmother; you must have married.” She replied, “Yeah, and I love my husband, but just not like I loved Jack.” The woman then launched into a great monologue, prompted by Terkel. We studied his tapes and based our interview technique on his approach.
What’s your biggest discovery?
It sounds simple, but in fact you could capture all of my research findings with the metaphor of a saltshaker. Instead of filling it with salt, fill it with all the ways you can say yes, and that’s what a good relationship is. “Yes,” you say, “that is a good idea.” “Yes, that’s a great point, I never thought of that.” “Yes, let’s do that if you think it’s important.” You sprinkle yes throughout your interactions—that’s what a good relationship is. This is particularly important for men, whose ability to accept influence from women is really one of the most critical issues in a relationship. Marriages where the men say to their partners, “Gee, that’s a good point” or “Yeah, I guess we could do that” are much more likely to succeed. In contrast, in a partnership that’s troubled, the saltshaker is filled with all the ways you can say no. In violent relationships, for example, we see men responding to their wives’ requests by saying, “No way,” “It’s just not going to happen,” “You’re not going to control me,” or simply “Shut up.” When a man is not willing to share power with his wife, our research shows, there is an 81% chance that the marriage will self-destruct.
Does that mean that there’s no room for conflict in a good relationship?
Absolutely not. Having a conflict-free relationship does not mean having a happy one, and when I tell you to say yes a lot, I’m not advising simple compliance. Agreement is not the same as compliance, so if people think they’re giving in all the time, then their relationships are never going to work. There are conflicts that you absolutely must have because to give in is to give up some of your personality.
Another common issue in many relationships is punctuality. People have huge differences in their attitudes toward it and fight about it constantly. And they should—because unless you do, you can’t arrive at an understanding of your differences, which means you can’t work out how to live with them.
What else do people in relationships fight about?
I actually analyzed arguments last summer, interviewed people about their fights—we saw them fighting in the public and then inside the home, and we talked about the issue. What we learned from measuring all these interactions is that most people fight about nothing. Their fights are not about money, or sex, or in-laws—none of that stuff. The vast majority of conflicts are about the way people in the relationship fight. One fight we studied was about a remote control. The couple was watching television, and the man said, “OK, let me see what’s on,” and started channel surfing. At one point the woman said, “Wait, leave it on that program, it’s kind of interesting.” He replied, “OK, but first let me see what else is on.” She kept objecting until he finally said, “Fine, here!” and handed her the remote. She bristled and said, “The way you said ‘fine,’ that kind of hurt my feelings.” He shot back with, “You’ve always got to have it your way.” It may seem really elementary, but that’s what people fight about. Unfortunately, most of these issues never get resolved at all. Most couples don’t go back and say, “You know, we should really discuss that remote control issue.” They don’t try to repair the relationship. But repair is the sine qua non of relationships, so everybody needs to know how to process those regrettable moments.
I want to stress that good relationships are not just about knowing when to fight and how to patch things up. We also need humor, affection, playing, silliness, exploration, adventure, lust, touching—all those positive emotional things that we share with all mammals. Something that’s been so hard for me to convey is that trivial moments provide opportunities for profound connection. For example, if you’re giving your little kid a bath and he splashes and you’re impatient, you miss an opportunity to play with him. But if you splash back and you clean up later, you have some fun together and you both get really wet, laugh, and have a beautiful moment. It’s ephemeral, small, even trivial—yet it builds trust and connection. In couples who divorce or who live together unhappily, such small moments of connection are rare.
Good relationships aren’t about clear communication—they’re about small moments of attachment and intimacy.
We can’t splash around at work. Are there equivalent ways to achieve connections there?
There are many similar things you can do in a work environment. You can go into your friend David’s office and say, “How’s little Harry doing?” And he might say, “You know, he really likes his new school. He’s excited by it, and in fact you know what he’s doing now…?” The conversation might take five or ten minutes, but you’ve made a connection. This goes for the boss, too. A lot of times the person who’s running an organization is pretty lonely, and if somebody walks into her office and doesn’t talk about work but instead asks about her weekend, the message is, “Hey, I like you. I notice you independent of your position.” Within organizations, people have to see each other as human beings or there will be no social glue.
Within organizations, people have to see each other as human beings or there will be no social glue.
About Affairs in the Work place or Otherwise.
Most affairs are not about sex at all; they’re about friendship. They’re about finding somebody who finds you interesting, attractive, fascinating. This can be on a physical or an emotional level—it all boils down to the same thing. It can be about leaving behind one identity of yourself for another.
What contributes to a successful long-term relationship?
Is there such a thing as an ideal relationship?
I don’t really know. Somebody I admired a long time ago was Harold Rausch, now retired, from the University of Massachusetts, who studied relationships and decided there was an optimal level of intimacy and friendship—and of conflict. He called couples who had achieved those levels “harmonious.” He said that couples who preferred some emotional distance in their relationships were psychologically brittle and not very oriented toward insight and deep understanding. Rausch identified another type of couple—those who fought a lot and were really passionate—and he said they’re messed up, too.
We studied those three groups of couples as well, showed that they could all be successful. The people who wanted more distant relationships and friendships valued loyalty, commitment, and dedication but weren’t so interested in intimacy. Still, they could have very happy marriages. You might think, “OK, they don’t fight a lot in order to avoid conflict, and maybe that’s bad for the kids.” It turns out that wasn’t true at all. We followed the kids’ emotional and intellectual development, and a distant relationship between the parents turned out to be fine for the children. Our research showed that bickering a lot can be fine, too, provided that both people in the relationship agree to it. People have different capacities for how much intimacy and passion they want and how much togetherness they want. The problem is when there’s a mismatch.
Are the short-term factors for success in relationships different from the factors that make for long-term success?
We face this question about short- and long-term success when we study adolescents and their relationships.
Whether we look at teenagers or at older couples, it turns out again and again that respect and affection are the two most important things. Whatever your age, there are so many ways you can show respect for your partner. Express interest in the story she’s telling at dinner, pay him compliments, listen to her ideas, ask him to watch a Nova special with you so that you can discuss it later. The possibilities abound.
What other advice emerges from your study of good relationships?
I think that men need to learn how to embrace their wives’ anger. This message is particularly pertinent today because women are now being educated and empowered to achieve more economically, politically, and socially.
But our culture still teaches women that when they assert themselves they are being pushy, hysterical or obnoxious. Women who get angry when their goals are blocked are labeled as bitchy or rude. If men want to have a good relationship with women, 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. The good news is that embracing your wife’s anger just a little bit can go a long way toward unleashing feelings of appreciation and affection.
What would you suggest we be on guard against in relationships?
I consider contempt to be the worst: It destroys relationships because it communicates disgust. You can’t resolve a conflict with your partner when you’re conveying the message that you’re disgusted with her. Inevitably, contempt leads to greater conflict and negativity. Much research also shows that people in contemptuous relationships are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses—flu, colds, and so on—than other people. Contempt attacks the immune system; fondness and admiration are the antidotes. Food for for thought and a deliciously lovely February.