Insights on Cultivating Professional Relationships

Individual Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.

People, to state the obvious, are not one-dimensional creatures. So, your relationships do not all fall into one category. You may have a romantic relationship, but you also have relationships with family members and friends, along with casual relationships based on membership in clubs or social groups. Finally, you almost undoubtedly have another kind of relationship — one with professional colleagues.

Two professional women chatting

Interestingly, though, while there are literal bookshelves full of research on romantic and familial relationships, there is scant research on professional relationships. Questions in this field abound. How can you nurture a professional relationship? Is that even possible? Can leaders develop their emotional intelligence in order to better relate to their employees and thus be better leaders? Does emotional intelligence even have an effect on leadership ability?

Pursuing this line of thought, Diane Coutu from the Harvard Business Review ventured out to interview John M. Gottman, renowned for his rigorous research on marriage and divorce. Coutu writes that “The way that people manage their work relationships is closely linked to the way they manage their personal ones. People who are abusive at home, for example, are likely to be abusive at work. If you believe that — as most psychologists do — then the relevance of the work of those who study relationships at home immediately becomes obvious.”

Gottman, however, is a careful researcher and refuses to apply data from research with couples to professional relationships. Consequently, when Coutu asks if she could use his technique that predicts long-term success in a relationship to predict success in the workplace, Gottman replies: “I know this question has come up in the media, which have tried to sex up my work. But the reliability you see in my research has to do with studying relationships specifically. Just to predict whether an interviewee would be a good fit for a job — you couldn’t do it. At least I know I couldn’t do it. I rely on my research to be able to look at couples. And even with couples, I need to witness a sample interaction. The more emotional and the more realistic the situation is, the better I am at predicting with a high level of accuracy.”

So, can Gottman offer any advice that might apply in the workplace? Absolutely. In reply to a question about simple ways to build trust in a relationship, he says, “There are many similar things you can do in a work environment. You can go into your friend David’s office and say, ‘How’s little Harry doing?’ And he might say, ‘You know, he really likes his new school. He’s excited by it, and in fact you know what he’s doing now…?’ The conversation might take five or ten minutes, but you’ve made a connection. This goes for the boss, too. A lot of times the person who’s running an organization is pretty lonely, and if somebody walks into her office and doesn’t talk about work but instead asks about her weekend, the message is, ‘Hey, I like you. I notice you independent of your position.’ Within organizations, people have to see each other as human beings or there will be no social glue.”

For anecdotes from Gottman that might apply to your professional situation, read the full interview here.