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Lessons Learned

What Your Failed Relationships Can Teach You About Leadership

Everyone wants the genuine interest and respect of others. Don't leave it back at home in the morning.

[Photo: Flickr user Bernd Zube]

Your eyes roll. Your significant other is mad at you—again. They told you about their new promotion. You barely looked up from your computer. "Huh? Sorry, I was just in the middle of something."

The next day, you’re in the office. People are chattering and scribbling at the whiteboards. Then there’s a knock at your door. One of your star performers is leaving because of "leadership issues."

You just got dumped at work, and you’re about to get dumped at home. And they’re for the same reasons.

What It Takes To Stay Together

People don't just leave their jobs because they want better salaries or benefits. Fifty-four percent of people in a Gallup survey of over 7,000 adults have quit a job "to get away from their manager." We've by now grown used to hearing how the relationships between managers and their teams are critical to performance, productivity, and employee retention; there's now even an app to help make it better. But getting that personal dimension right is still something leaders struggle with.

Doctors John and Julie Gottman and Robert Levenson are psychologists long known for analyzing the nature of romantic relationships. Their work gives us the most detailed understanding we have into what causes certain relationships to blossom and others wither.

To study this, they brought newlyweds into their labs and simply watched them interact. What they found was that divorce could be predicted by how the parties responded to "bids," moments in which one partner expresses emotional vulnerability or an opinion to the other. The other party then reacts to that bid with one of four types of responses: from "passive destructive" or "active destructive" to "passive constructive," and (ideally) "active constructive."

An "active constructive" is when someone is not only excited about what you've shared, but is engaged in learning more. Think about when you gave someone good news. Maybe you got a promotion and told a friend. An active constructive response means that not only was your friend excited, they also wanted to know the details: When did you find out? When do you start?

For couples that divorced within six years, only 33% of the time did one partner respond to the other's bid in a positive and supportive way. On the other hand, couples that stayed together traded "active constructive" responses 87% of the time.

Your ability to be supportive and compassionate won’t just spare you from ending up lonely, research shows it can also make you a more effective leader.

The Science Of Leadership

Google did a study not long ago to find what traits great bosses share. The researchers identified eight, with these being the top three: "Be a good coach, empower your team and don’t micromanage, and express interest in team members' success and personal well-being." It’s not a deep bench of technical skills that makes a great leader. Rather, it’s the care, compassion, and support that he or she shows for team members.

What's more, this focus on soft skills isn’t just for Silicon Valley. The O.C. Tanner Institute surveyed 980 people who worked at companies with over 1,000 employees and found that recognition was key to motivation. According to that research, of the people who get recognized by their bosses, 70% are satisfied with their jobs. On the other hand, only 39% of those who don’t get recognition feel satisfied. Giving people positive, meaningful attention and constructive support is the key, not just to a healthy love life, but also to healthy working relationships.

How often are you recognizing your team? Think about formal and informal recognition alike; Everyone loves a trophy, but don’t forget to walk around and make sure people know that you’ve noticed their work. If someone is overachieving, don’t wait for a quarterly award. Take them out to lunch or, even easier, just go on a walk and tell them you appreciate what they're doing. Learn more about their aspirations. Make sure they know you care. And if you truly don’t care, don’t be surprised when your top talent leaves you.

The Four Horsemen Of Employee Attrition

The links between love and leadership don’t stop at recognition. Gottman’s other research found four other negative behaviors that also tend to lead to early divorce. He calls these "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse":

  1. Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. ("You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.")
  2. Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. ("You’re an idiot.")
  3. Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. ("It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.")
  4. Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. (The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is "tracking" the speaker.)

Do these horsemen sound familiar? Most of us have seen one or all of these behaviors in offices we’ve worked at. Stonewalling is especially prevalent—in startups and Fortune 500s alike. A survey by CPP Global found that 89% of workplace conflicts escalate rather than get resolved immediately. Rather than confront an issue head-on, people let things fester, until one day they’re leaving a job because their manager "just doesn’t get me."

Six Words That Can Save Your Company (And Your Relationship)

It’s up to leaders to build work cultures where issues don’t fester. That starts by being an example. If you see someone who seems upset, ask them immediately what’s wrong. Make sure they feel immediately that you're committed to resolving the issue, then see it through. If you offended someone, apologize right away. When someone raises an issue with you, make sure they know you appreciate them doing it. When I first started leading teams, I often got defensive when people gave me feedback. But then I realized my mistake: How could I expect others to be open to feedback if I wasn’t?

Over time, I learned to control my reaction with one simple step: When someone gives you feedback, reply immediately with, "First, thank you for the feedback." It gives your mind a second to turn off that fight-or-flight response and instead cultivate a willingness to resolve the problem. It’s not that you don’t want to resolve it, it's just that countless generations of evolution have ingrained in us an instant defensive reaction.

Whether you're leading a startup, a nonprofit, a big corporation, or just one team within any of them, it all comes down to human relationships—which all rest on the same foundations. Everyone wants the genuine interest and recognition of others. That's what we all want in our personal lives. Don’t leave it at home in the morning.

Allen Gannett is the CEO of TrackMaven, a content and social marketing analytics company. Follow him on Twitter @Allen.