What the science of close relationships can teach us about forging strong business ties

Mark Travers
Written by Mark Travers
on February 22, 2022

New studies in psychology offer insight into how to strengthen your connections with clients and coworkers.

We all know it is important to pursue a career that we are passionate about. Research shows that passion is a strong predictor of career success, especially in Western cultures such as the United States and Europe.

But it’s just as important that we like the people we work with — and that we are liked in return.

Here are two insights from the science of close relationships to help you improve the quality of your connections with your clients and coworkers. 

#1 Commit to your work colleagues for the long-term

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed data from over 11,000 romantic couples to uncover the key ingredients of a healthy relationship. They found the top predictor of a healthy relationship to be perceived partner commitment (e.g., “My partner wants our relationship to last forever”). Partner commitment was more important to the quality of a relationship than a slew of other factors, such as appreciation (“I feel very lucky to have my partner in my life”), perceived partner satisfaction (“Our relationship makes my partner very happy”), and conflict (“How often do you have fights with your partner?”).

While there are obvious differences between romantic relationships and work relationships, there is something to be said for elevating the level of commitment you show your work colleagues and collaborators. This can be expressed in a number of ways, such as setting up a recurring virtual lunch meeting or simply acknowledging that someone helps you stay positive in your role, especially when the work gets tough.

In fact, finding ways to express commitment to our work colleagues helps us all feel more secure in our jobs, which is one of the foundations of job satisfaction and, by extension, life satisfaction. This year’s World Happiness Report estimated that the life satisfaction of employed people was approximately 1.2 points higher on a 0 to 10 life satisfaction scale. That’s quite a difference. One has to imagine that the happiness boost one receives from feeling secure in one’s job is even greater.

Moreover, a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people who experienced prolonged episodes of job insecurity became less agreeable, less conscientious, and more neurotic over time. This was based on data collected from over 1,000 employees participating in the Household, Income, and Labor Dynamics in Australia survey over a 9-year period. Stable terms of employment can ameliorate this problem, but so can stable work relationships.

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#2: Give colleagues space to travel their own path

Cultivating lasting relationships at work is one way to improve the quality of our work connections, but there are others. Relationship science also suggests we need to give colleagues space to be their own person and reach their own conclusions, even when we may disagree with them.

For example, a new study appearing in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science suggests while successful romantic couples tend to be more similar to each other than different, they don’t always share the same beliefs and worldviews. And, it is often the case that their views on important issues evolve along different paths over time.

To come to this conclusion, the authors examined data from 171 mixed-gender couples who took part in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey over a four-year time period (from 2015-2018). They tracked how couples’ responded to questions regarding their psychological and physical health, relationship well-being, personality traits, political beliefs, environmental attitudes, religiosity, and gender and sexuality attitudes. 

They found limited evidence that couples’ experiences and worldviews converged over time. For instance, there were some instances of short-term attitude convergence, such as the synchronizing of political opinions during an election year. But these effects were short-lived. More often than not, couples’ attitudes evolved independently from one another.

The same principle applies in a work setting. It is normal, and even healthy, for you and your colleagues to reach different conclusions about work-related (and non-work-related) issues. The important thing is that you respect each others’ positions and don’t lose sight of the many similarities you share with your colleagues.

Final thoughts

You owe it to yourself to cultivate great relationships with the people you work with. If you need more convincing, consider this: a recent study published in the journal Psychology and Aging found that being in a healthy romantic relationship added, on average, about 1.2 years of longevity to a person’s life per decade lived. Creating positive relationships at work will likely give you a similar longevity boost.

 

About Mark

Mark Travers, Ph.D., is an American Psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Xolo helps him run his online therapy practice, www.awake-therapy.me, from whatever part of the world he is currently living in.

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