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Can This Marriage Be Saved?

The National Institute of Mental Health spent millions of your tax dollars to build John and Julie Gottman a Love Lab. At the lab, personnel observed thousands of couples. They shot video, monitored heart rates, jitteriness and skin conductivity. They amassed recordings of hundreds of couples interacting at different times in their relationships.

The couples in the videos were engaged in 15-minute conversations — with their clothes on. Nonetheless, the results were quite revealing.

John Gottman ran the numbers and isolated one factor that enabled him to correctly predict which marriages would end in divorce nine times out of 10. Julie kids John that this is why they are not invited to dinner parties. His first study predicted divorce rates with 93.6 percent accuracy.

John Gottman has written 40 books and 190 academic articles on marital relationships and has appeared on the “Today” show and “Oprah,” and in The New York Times, Psychology Today and the Ladies Home Journal. Nobody knows more about what makes or breaks a relationship.

The Gottmans found that:

• Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
• Happily married couples are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and they are able to process negative emotions fully.

Here’s how to predict the success or failure of a marriage: While watching the 45 minutes of video conversation, count the number of times positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment or love are expressed. Then count negatives like anxiety, sadness, anger and despair. If the ratio of positive to negative emotions falls below 3, this marriage is doomed. Most marriages rate a 5.

Why is this earth-shatteringly important to a CLO? Because the same scheme can predict the likelihood a work team will thrive or languish. The CLO’s role is to ensure that individuals, teams and their entire organization are productive. Influencing their emotional well-being does precisely that.

Most real work and learning these days takes place in close-knit teams. In business, no single person creates value; it takes a village. If teams become dispirited, ideas cease to flow, morale plummets and productivity disappears in a downward spiral of gloom. Many companies are dying a slow, lingering death because their teams lost their way as the world changed from logical and predictable to random and full of surprises.

Keeping teams energized is everyone’s job in a networked organization. We’ve got to help one another. Members of teams need to act like wives and husbands in flourishing marriages. Behave like good friends. Watch out for negatives — they are toxic and contagious. Encourage positive emotion. Be considerate.

Researcher Marcial Losada and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that the ratio of positive to negative emotions, known as the positivity ratio, predicts the success or failure of business teams.

Losada invited 60 business teams to use his executive conference room for strategy sessions. Observers coded positive and negative emotions from behind two-way mirrors. When they ran the data, they found that a positivity ratio of 2.9013 was a tipping point. Any less positivity than that, and if the team does not change, it fails. The more positive members are, the better the team.

Gottman and Losada show us it takes three or more positive outbursts to make the same impact as one negative one. Anthropologists explain that we evolved to trust negative information more than positive. Back on the savanna, people who avoided danger by taking threats seriously had better odds of surviving to contribute to the gene pool.

The word “businesslike” is almost universally taken to mean free from emotion. That’s why workers are disengaged and that’s what’s been wrong in general: we’ve treated people like cogs in the business machine. If we treat people — leaders, workers, managers, customers, all of us — like people, everyone will prosper.

Have you taken the emotional pulse of your critical teams lately? Saving important corporate marriages and accelerating the breakup of doomed relationships could be the one of the most important contributions you can make.

Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.