What Entrepreneurs and Leaders Can Learn From Happy Marriages

As a happily married man, I can confirm what the latest research indicates: The secret to a happy marriage is kindness and generosity.

When I was a kid, I was mystified by altruism; I couldn’t understand why my parents would always let me have the best share.  At the time, I just figured that they were suckers, and that I ought to take advantage of the situation (sorry, Mom and Dad!).  As far as I was concerned, they were “support staff,” there to cater to my needs.

Needless to say, I was kind of a self-centered kid!

Today, while I’m still a self-centered something or other, I always try to be kind and generous to my wife and kids.  The key is consistency:

Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

Any factor that has 94% predictive power is one hell of a lever.  So why limit it to marriages?

Barbara Fredrickson’s work on the positivity ratio shows that the same effect can be found in the workplace.  Unless positive interactions outnumber negative ones by at least 3:1, the culture withers and dies.

Here in Silicon Valley, we focus an awful lot on hiring smart people and adopting fancy management practices like agile development.  I don’t hear that much about being nice to each other.  Sometimes, it’s almost as if being nice is considered a negative, because it prevents “honesty.”

If you want your company to last like a successful marriage, ask yourself if your people bring kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism, and hostility.  If the answer is the latter, it’s time to make a change.

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