In a New Yorker cartoon, a bored-looking couple are sitting apart on a couch, facing a smiling therapist who says, “Any healthy relationship requires fundamental acting skills.” Clearly the Michelangelo Effect is not in play.
Couples who affirm and support each other’s best side also “sculpt” each other in beneficial ways. They become deeply committed and enjoy fresh experiences and learning – through and with their partner, according to researchers, Arthur Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr. In psychology, this is called self-expansion – growing through experiences with others. Not surprisingly, the dissolution of such relationships is especially devastating to one’s sense of self.
Reading this research, it dawned on me that the behaviors that build sustainable marriages could also help leaders model relationship-building that enables colleagues to optimize their talents for each other and their organization.
Leaders who encourage colleagues to support each other’s strongest talents and to introduce each other to new topics may also spur workers to self-organize around vital projects where they can use their disparate, best talents together. In so doing colleagues sculpt each other’s strengths as they succeed at projects they could not have accomplished alone.
Such experiences whet the appetite for further deeply engaged work together. Many of the happy couples turned their differences into sources of interest rather than conflict, enabling them to learn from each other. Leaders might evoke a similar effect by first inviting their colleagues to join in reading Marcus Buckingham’s classic book, Now Discover Your Strengths.
To understand the power of diverse people working together around sweet spots of shared interest, they might then read Morton Hanson’s Collaboration, Scott Page’s The Difference and Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius. After that the leader could champion discussions on how colleagues can dovetail their strengths on specific work projects.
As in a sustainable marriage, what’s key for relationship-building leaders to model are three traits: a strongly felt, shared mission; a mutual understanding and expressed support of each other’s strengths and a desire to learn, grow and create with others.
As a relationship-building leader, you can measure how well you are doing by adapting a few questions from the marriage researchers, Aron and Lewandowski:
• How much has working with this colleague resulted in your learning and doing new things?
• How much has knowing this colleague made you a better person?
From other marriage researchers, we can glean further insights into how leaders can grow their organization by enabling colleagues to do greater work together through passionately engaged and sustained relationships at work.
The renowned Gottmans believe that those in happy marriages exhibit certain behaviors with each other. While some researchers criticize the Gottmans for scant proof that marital happiness can be connected to these behaviors, they seem worth considering for building closer, productive engagement at work. I have adapted some of them, slightly for modeling relationship-strengthening leadership at work:
• Know each other. Discover and be mindful of their strongest likes and dislikes, greatest talents and passionate interests.
• Focus on each other’s best qualities and opinions of each other, and the rewarding times you have shared.
• Interact as frequently as needed to stay engaged in the shared work. Speak forthrightly about differences so you experience working disagreement and can trust that you know where you stand with each other.
• Allow your partner to influence you so you both can feel heard and can learn from each other.
• Solve your solvable problems. Don’t try for complete agreement on everything. Consider, does this difference between us affect our top goal or can we work around it?
• Understand your partner’s underlying conflict that is preventing resolution. Either find a way to address it directly or offer an alternative that can overcome it. If you two are disagreeing for more than ten minutes, by the way, you are probably not discussing the underlying problem. Not resolving it means it will probably grow.
• Create shared meaning. Find strong sweet spots of shared interests, values, past experiences, needs or traditions.
Since many of us spend the majority of our waking hours working, the leaders that show us how to accomplish greater things through stronger relationships will probably become increasingly sought-after. Perhaps it is not too odd to look to the secrets of lovingly engaged couples for insights about how we can make our work more meaningful and satisfying together.