Most of us can agree that when we give attention, thought, planning, and deep care to the significant personal relationships in our lives—with our parents, spouses, children—those relationships thrive and give us great, fulfilling outcomes. But I wonder how many of us view our relationships at work that way? I know many people who draw a distinct social and emotional line between work and their personal lives, but those hard lines are getting harder to maintain—because of the way we work, our accessibility, and the amount of collaboration required in our day-to-day compared with even a decade ago. (And let’s face it, drawing that line and suppressing our true selves and our real lives at the office might not be so healthy for us, anyway.) In fact, the work we do with colleagues is often much like a marriage or other partner contract that says, I’m committed to you and doing what it takes to reach our mutual goals.
With that in mind, I dug up an article I read in The Atlantic a couple of years ago called “Masters of Love.” It’s about the social science research conducted over the past several decades by the renowned experts on marital stability at The Gottman Institute. The mission of the Institute is to help couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships using insights from their scientific studies. As someone devoted to understanding the behavioral science behind relationships, I was, of course, drawn to its findings about what behaviors led to stronger, happier marriages. I imagined there would be something to learn from the article about how we can thrive and be more successful with our professional colleagues. And there was.
Turn To, Not Away
The first applicable notion was the concept of how people respond to “bids” from another person. John Gottman, founder of the Institute, coined the term “bid” during his 1990 study of the interactions of newlywed couples on a simulated vacation. He noticed that over the course of a day, one spouse would naturally make a request, or a “bid,” for connection. A “bid” could be something as small as pointing out a bird flitting across the yard. It was then up to his or her spouse to respond. The study proved that those daily bids—simply reaching out to share something—matter; they are statistically significant to building the kind of relationships that can withstand life’s trials.
Couples who more often than not sincerely engaged, or, using Gottman’s term, “turned to” the partner making the bid, were the same couples who proved to be solid in the second phase of the study six years later. The newlyweds that “turned away” from a bid by his or her new spouse, either by making an excuse not to engage, or by showing only perfunctory interest, failed at a disproportionate rate.
Applying this to our colleagues is an interesting idea. Think back to a time when you were stressed at work. Maybe you needed some help, maybe someone asked you for help. How did you respond? Were you rebuffed or made to feel inadequate because you needed help? Did you agree to partner with a co-worker then passed the task along to someone else? These small moments—perfectly normal responses that are not done out of malice—can over the long run undermine what you can achieve compared to building your level of attention and care to others who are committed to the same goals as you are.
Treating small interactions as significant also provides a path for communication that can keep a relationship on course. If someone asks for your help, and you really don’t have time, putting more thought into your response can make your colleague feel as well as hear that you want to be supportive and you value his or her contribution, even if you can’t say yes this time.
A Culture of Purposeful Respect
In another set of findings from the same study, Gottman separated the newlyweds into two groups he called “masters” and “disasters.” Masters, according to Gottman, had a positive outlook on the relationship and sought to validate that outlook regularly. He said, “there’s a habit of mind that the masters have which is this: they are scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.” As with the “bids,” these expressions of appreciation weren’t intense or over the top: even something as simple as complimenting a floral arrangement from a spouse’s garden was enough to foster the respect and appreciation needed for relationships to flourish.
Imagine if more of us applied this behavior to our work relationships?
Technology has made our work life more productive, but it has also fundamentally changed how work gets done and how much we interact. Success now depends on the fluidity of teams and working relationships, whether those relationships are external or internal to the business. We no longer have the luxury to work in our own little groups, or alone, doing only our own part before passing the responsibility along to the next group or individual. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; we’re often on more than one team, playing more than one role.
This interdependent work flow requires the consideration of different approaches and mindsets, some of which, at first, may seem foreign, or even wrong. But we can’t just walk away; we need to make the effort to learn from others, regardless of who they report to in the corporate structure. This is where building a purposeful culture of respect and appreciation can transform your team from people who, seeing their position within the team or organization as a zero-sum game, either avoid conflict or resort to finger-pointing, to people who publicly acknowledge a teammate’s good idea—and ask questions when they don’t understand. This kind of culture also builds the psychological safety needed for all team members to speak up and offer the best of their knowledge and talent.
Like a good marriage, your teams can create great things, weather disruption, and contribute to a stronger future. You won’t even need special coaching to get there. You just need apply the same respect and attention to small, daily details that build and strengthen relationships as you do to the bigger picture, because any great accomplishment, like any successful marriage, begins with a committed and supportive team.