A method of successfully predicting divorce is being applied to workplaces to discover how likely it is that an employee will quit their job.
The research, wonderfully titled My lawfully wedded workplace: identifying relational similarities of marriage and employment uses methodology from 30 years of research by the Gottman Institute which is now so refined, it can accurately predict a married couple will divorce 80 to 90 per cent of the time – based on listening to only three minutes of them arguing.
Academic, Dr Irit Alony Sydney Business School at the University of Wollongong, looked at this research and thought that it was too useful not to have wider application.
And while employment and marriage are very different relationships, they do share similarities. “In both cases, the parties establish mutually loyal and trusting relationships over time, based on the exchange of resources,” says Alony. “These resources can be material, such as money or goods, or social, such as love, status or information.”
Like in marriage, not all negativity is a bad thing in business. For example, when someone expressed despair at a colleague, manager or senior leadership, “I thought, my God, that person is going to leave,” says Alony, “but a year later they were still there and some reported better attitudes towards their workplace.”
Participants were first interviewed and asked to talk about their past experiences with the organisations they worked for, and their attitudes (towards job satisfaction, commitment, intentions to quit, engagement, and burnout) were measured. Two years’ later, retention rates were measured, looking at who left and who stayed.
“The kind of negativity that is harmful is when it goes to the core of the person or the organisation, when it’s demeaning or when a person expresses disappointment, anger, ridicule or contempt,” says Alony. People were also more likely to leave when they focused on the negatives rather than the positives within their organisation (the same went for marriage).
The study found that the employees who left their jobs lacked certain coping mechanisms. They found it hard to balance the good with the bad, for example.
“An employee who said, ‘Well, I don’t get paid very well, but at least I don’t have to commute to work’, can see both advantages and disadvantages,” explains Alony.
Taking a philosophical approach to their work situation was another effective coping mechanism, as was simply avoiding dwelling on the negative by not talking about it. People who expressed hope were, by contrast, resilient and more likely to stay in their jobs.
How can HR influence positive attitudes to work, and reduce staff turnover?
Employers and HR can use the same tools that save a marriage to increase their employee retention rates. The research shows that for a relationship to survive, there needs to be a balance of positive and negative emotions.
“If you want to keep your employees and reduce staff turnover, you need to either reduce the negative emotions, or increase positive emotions they experience at work. What creates positive or negative emotions varies from one employee to another, so it’s important to know what works for yours,” Alony wrote for an article last year in The Conversation.
One of the key tenets of positive psychology is to counteract dark thoughts by increasing the light. Similarly, relationships research has found that gratitude is an effective way for increasing positive emotions.
“People who expressed gratitude towards others felt that their relationship with them was stronger. When people actually felt this gratitude, and not only expressed it, their spouses echo this gratitude with greater satisfaction,” explains Alony.
“So a good step forward to increasing employee retention is to start saying ‘thank you’, and mean it,” she adds.
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