For Better or for Work
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Leadership Oct 6, 2014

For Better or for Work

Insights from intimate relationships could soon find their way into the office

Relationships at work must be nurtured, too.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Eli J Finkel

Erica B. Slotter

Laura B. Luchies

Gregory M. Walton

James J. Gross

Can research on marriage help us sustain a more satisfied work force?

Eli Finkel wants to know. Widely recognized for his work on intimate relationships, in 2013 he joined the Kellogg School as a professor of management and organizations. He also remains a professor of psychology at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Finkel’s new business ties arise from a strong hunch that the relationships we build with people share some key similarities with those we build with organizations. “Principles or phenomena that have interested me are interesting to me in other contexts too,” says Finkel. And the business world may soon have reason to return the interest.

Motivated Cognition

Consider, for one, the value of commitment in the workplace. Management scholars have identified links between commitment to an organization and positive outcomes, both for the organization and for individuals (findings that should come as no surprise to anyone). But does this commitment actually change how we interpret our experiences at work—and therefore how we respond to everyday challenges?

“There are personal risks to employees who are blindly committed to a company that is not committed to them.”

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Here is one of many places where studies on intimate relationships may prove relevant. “There’s a lot of research in the marriage literature, the dating literature, and the close-relationships literature more generally that really emphasizes the importance of commitment,” says Finkel. Research suggests that the degree to which people strongly agree with statements like “I’m determined to make this relationship last forever” does in fact seem to predict a relationship’s duration.

Why? In part, we can thank a phenomenon known as “motivated cognition”: a tendency for us to perceive events in ways that align with our goals. Partners in a committed relationship are motivated to unconsciously champion their relationship’s strengths and to discount its weaknesses—in other words, explains Finkel, “to overweight the extent to which their relationship is better than everyone else’s relationship.” And the rose-colored lenses get even rosier when a relationship comes under fire. Remind a college student in a committed relationship about just how few college relationships withstand the test of time, and they will describe their own relationship as stronger than if it had not been questioned.

If these properties also hold true for our commitments to organizations, this could have a big impact on how employees respond to setbacks at work or job offers from a rival firm. A more committed workforce would obviously be a boon for organizations. But for individuals, commitment might be more of a mixed bag.

“Feeling like the place you work has value, and is the sort of place you’d like to stay, is probably healthy for people on average,” says Finkel. So long as a job is a good fit for your skillset, pays fairly, and aligns with your worldview, feeling motivated to see your organization in its best light may be key for finding meaning in what you do and flourishing professionally. But there’s a point where motivated cognition may become self-defeating for employees. “There are personal risks to employees who are blindly committed to a company that is not committed to them,” says Finkel. Motivated cognition could give employees the mistaken belief that they would never be happier, more fulfilled, or better compensated elsewhere, leading to a workforce more susceptible to exploitation.

Staying Satisfied

Commitment is by no means the only parallel to be made between our business lives and our personal ones. Another example: the risks associated with “helicopter helping”—where the assistance we provide others actually torpedoes their ability to achieve on their own—could apply as easily to our coworkers as it does to our spouses and children. But perhaps few of Finkel’s studies have as much potential to rock the business world so immediately as his recent work on preserving marital satisfaction.

Over time, marriages have a stubborn tendency to decrease in quality. Even well-adjusted couples can find themselves in a downward spiral of “You upset me, so I’ll upset you,” which leaves both partners increasingly distressed. But in a 2013 study, Finkel, along with colleagues from Villanova University, Redeemer University College, and Stanford University, tested whether it was possible to disrupt the mounting dissatisfaction.

Participants—120 married couples from the greater Chicago area—individually assessed the quality of their relationship along a number of dimensions: satisfaction, love, intimacy, commitment, and the like. Every four months, participants completed the same questionnaire; they also described the most significant spat that had occurred between them in the intervening months.

Sure enough, over the course of a year, “marital satisfaction was down in our study, just like in every other study,” says Finkel.

But then, as the study entered its second year, half of the participants received an additional set of instructions: to describe the conflict from a “neutral third party” perspective, to identify obstacles, and to consider how the obstacles might be overcome. The instructions were given just thrice, in months 12, 16, and 20. And the manipulation was short. “On average, people wrote for a total of seven minutes,” says Finkel. But the intervention worked. “Among people in the experimental condition, as you get to year two”—when the additional exercise kicked in—“the trend diverges.”

That is, the simple reminder to consider conflicts more neutrally curbs the decline in marital satisfaction. “Couples who completed the extra writing task had just as much conflict as those in the control condition, and the conflict was just as severe,” says Finkel, “but they simply didn’t become as angry and upset about it.”

Finkel’s intervention is already starting to make its way into clinical practice and couples counseling. So might a similar technique—asking employees to consider organizational conflict from a respected, neutral perspective—lead to greater satisfaction in the workplace?

At least some management research identifies a “honeymoon” period after a new employee comes on board, followed by a dip in job satisfaction. An intervention like Finkel’s has the potential to arrest the decline. Sure, some staffers may pooh-pooh the exercise as pointless or absurd, but “it’s not exactly a big time commitment,” Finkel points out, and it might just lead to a more satisfied work force.

“One thing that amazed me about the results of our first study,” says Finkel, “is that the intervention not only made people happier in their marriages, it made them happier with their lives in general. If workforce interventions have similar results, that’s an astounding return on a 21-minute annual investment.”

Featured Faculty

Eli J Finkel

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Jessica Love is the staff science writer and editor at Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Finkel, Eli J., Erica B. Slotter, Laura B. Luchies, Gregory M. Walton, and James J. Gross. 2013. “A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time.” Psychological Science 24: 1595–1601.

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