Leadership Oct 6, 2014

For Bet­ter or for Work

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

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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