Productivity is more than a well-managed email inbox and a comprehensive to-do list. Those things are important, but workplace relationships can dramatically affect not only our job satisfaction, but our ability to get our work done.
Dr. John Gottman studied married couples for over four decades and was able to predict divorce based on communication patterns that couples display. His work led to multiple models to help reduce behaviors that lead to relationship instability.
In the workplace, we don’t so much divorce each other as display passive aggression or even outright hostility. There is a saying that people quit bad bosses, not bad jobs. With these negative outcomes in mind, let’s examine how Gottman’s research can be applied toward improving workplace relationships, and thus productivity.
Gottman’s concept of sentiment override consists of two categories: negative sentiment override (NSO) and positive sentiment override (PSO).
Negative sentiment override occurs when one or both persons in the relationship perceive most, if not all, of their interactions with a negative lens. Actions or statements by one person, even if completely neutral in nature, are experienced negatively by the other party.
NSO is reflected in how the dyad thinks of each other as well. An account manager experiencing NSO with their team leader will remember the times the leader ignored their contributions in a meeting, failed to recognize their performance, or did not respond to a request for help. The account manager will forget or ignore any positive interactions because the negative sentiments override those memories.
Positive sentiment override is the goal of healthy relationships. Dyads operating in PSO give each other “the benefit of the doubt” and tend to perceive that the other person operates with positive intent. Even negative situations are not seen as negatively for two people in a PSO situation.
Imagine a customer service representative working diligently in his cubicle. His cube neighbor returns to work after an extended leave, but the rep fails to notice. In PSO, the returning worker will think, “Wow, he must be having a busy day. I’ll catch up with him at lunch.” Rather than viewing the silence as a snub, PSO causes the colleague to assume the best of the coworker.
Both PSO and NSO contribute to self-fulfilling prophesies in relationships. If I view a coworker as irresponsible, I will inevitably treat them as such. In turn, my colleague will likely behave more irresponsibly in my presence, thus fulfilling my predictions about them. I feel justified in my opinions of them, and the cycle continues.
Breaking a Cycle of Negativity in a Work Relationship
Relationships require effort. We acknowledge that fact readily when it comes to our families and friends. In the workplace we often assume that because we are compensated to be there, everyone should just “suck it up” and behave, no matter how we feel about each other.
Our one-to-one relationships with coworkers are worthy targets of improved communication, conflict resolution, and efforts toward building more positive perspectives of each other. Some of Gottman’s recommendations for marriage enhancement can also address these needs in work dyads.
First, be open to mutual influence.
Allow a colleague’s perspective of the relationship to influence or even change your mind about what is going right or wrong. Don’t dismiss their perceptions and do apologize where necessary.
Conversely, ask the colleague to hear you out on your perceptions of the relationship. In this conversation, you must model the communication behavior you want them to give back to you.
The purpose of discussing relationship conflict is to address the NSO that persists and, with effort, redefine the relationship positively.
Second, focus on the positive.
Gottman and colleagues studied thousands of couples over decades. Their research revealed that the key to happy marriages is a “magic ratio” of 5 to 1. Lasting relationships have five (or more) positive interactions for every negative one.
In the workplace, attaining the magic ratio starts with feedback. In my two-hour seminar, Positive and Productive Communication, I show the following image:
Bottom line, say more nice things to your colleagues! That way, when you need to give corrective feedback, you have a positive balance in your relationship bank account.
Third, respond to “bids” for attention.
In most failed relationships, there were early warning signs. One or both partners gave verbal or nonverbal cues that indicated dissatisfaction or distress. Ignoring, or as Gottman calls it, “turning away” from these bids for attention is what leads to the severing of the connection.
At work, bids for attention can be a sigh during a meeting, a troubling statement made during lunch, or a tersely worded email. Ignoring these bids will likely put your work relationship in an NSO mode.
To stay positive, ask questions and provide safe spaces for colleagues to communicate what they feel, without telling them how they should feel. You don’t have to agree with or coddle each other, but acknowledging these bids is critical to a successful and productive relationship.
Relationships can be tricky, but humans are built to be connected to each other. I’m fond of telling clients that “You don’t hang up your humanity when you enter your workplace.” Although I typically say this when discussing work/life balance, it is also applicable to workplace relationships.
Like it or not, we may spend more time with work colleagues than personal friends. These work relationships are as worthy of the attention and care we give our non-work friendships and partnerships.
If you want to bring more productive communication tactics to your organization, contact me and ask about my seminar, Positive and Productive Communication, which can be delivered online or in person.
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Melissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at email@example.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.
In my old career, I worked in a few places where that cycle of negativity was a whirlwind. Learning about negative sentiment override can have so many useful workplace applications. I think we should all be considering that Magic Ratio when interacting with others.
I’m a big fan of a “benefit of the doubt” mindset. I tell myself that the person who is being difficult could have a number of reasons for this behavior, and then I try and think of a few. This is easier when it is a “one off” experience, harder when the behavior repeats.
However, if someone is “testy” for a long period of time, something has probably brought that person to this point. Maybe they have a sick family member, a bad marriage, are near bankruptcy, or whatever.
If giving them this benefit helps us remain positive and move forward in a good way, I think it is worth it, even if we never know what is really going on.
You remind me of my husband who is a health care executive. In a sometimes contentious field, his mantra is “Assume positive intent.”
Great advice! Thanks for sharing. I found open-ended questions work best to engage in conversations with coworkers. If the answer is yes or no, the conversation never gets started.
Absolutely! Conversations should not be cross examinations.
I learned a lot. I never heard of negative or positive sentiment override. Gives me a lot to think about.
I learned a lot too. I like realizing that I only have to find 5 positive attributes before I can stew on one negative one. lol. Looking for the positive in every situation isn’t as hard as it sounds once you look for them you continue to find all the positive things the person does. It is when you don’t look or stop looking at the positive, big or small, that the negative starts to take over. Practice, practice practice seeing the positive.
This post is so timely. Some situations have come up lately with someone close to me, and I know this piece would be so helpful for them to read. So I’m going to forward it. I’ve always recognized how important the lens we see others with is. If we’re wearing the negative glasses, then everything that person does is seen in not a good light. And as you said, the opposite of that is true too. It’s not that it means we excuse bad or harmful behavior, but by being direct and having an open dialogue, hopefully, you can improve the more challenging relationships.
I’m so glad the post hit home for you, Linda. Thank you for sharing it.
I’ve never heard a specific term for this type of mindset. It makes total sense, especially in a professional setting. Moral boosting is so important because getting caught in the net of negative thinking is so easy. The cycle can take a complete hold of your psyche if you’re not careful! Great post.
Love the 5:1 ratio and have used that with my kids over the years – I really like the way you applied this to our work environment. Being conscious and actually counting out the 5 “catching the positive” examples before reacting in a client situation is going to be a great practice.