Is Your Spouse to Blame for Your Lack of Success?



Are you as successful as you think you should be at work?

If not, a pair of studies suggest the blame might not be yours alone. Instead, it might be your spouse’s fault–or boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other, etc.

(Quick time-out: Honey, they are NOT talking about us.)

What we are talking about however, is two academic studies. The first studied how well married people do at work when things aren’t going well at home. The second evaluated personality traits in men and women, and correlated them to their spouses’ professional performance.

Combined, these two studies form the basis for the most popular article on Harvard Business Review right now, by Andrew O’Connell. Here’s what they have to say.

Bonus content: 7 Things Great Leaders Always Do (But Mere Managers Always Fear) (free infographic).

Happy home life? Happy work life.

The first study is pretty straightforward. German psychology professors studied 76 couples. They found that “relationship quality was positively and relationship hassles were negatively associated with time spent on work.”

(By the way, doesn’t “relationship hassles” sound like it should be a single German word, like schadenfreude?)

Regardless, people with happier home lives were happier at work, too. Of course, that doesn’t prove that happy home lives actually caused happy work lives–or vice-versa, for that matter.

Conscientiousness matters.

For that, we go to the second study, in which researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, Brittany C. Solomon and Joshua J. Jackson, studied Australian couples. (Why Australia? That’s where the data existed already.)

Solomon and Jackson set out to correlate professional success with each of five personality traits in their spouses: extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. 

The somewhat surprising result? Only one of these five attributes–conscientiousness–had any effect on success. Success in turn was measured as being a factor of “employee income, number of promotions, and job satisfaction.”

The criterion applied regardless of whether we were talking about husbands or wives, and the effects were profound. As O’Connell wrote:

[W]ith ​every 1-standard-deviation increase in a spouse’s conscientiousness, an individual is likely to earn approximately $4,000 more per year, [and] employees with extremely conscientious spouses (two standard deviations above the mean) are 50% more likely to get promoted than those with extremely unconscientious spouses.

Three key findings.

There are some other questions here too–a correlation vs. causation question once again, for example. Maybe people who are more successful at work are simply more likely to have happy home lives, rather than the other way around. 

However, the Australian data led the researchers to three specific conclusions:

  1. Conscientious spouses handle a lot of the work of the household, which leaves their spouses free to focus their attention on work.
  2. Conscientious spouses simply leave their spouses feeling secure at home–thus reducing the “relationship hassles” mentioned in the German study.
  3. Finally, workers whose spouses are conscientious wind up emulating their spouses’ conscientiousness at work–which in itself leads them to be more successful.

The ultimate point, O’Connell concludes, is that successful professional people who are in long-term relationships are most often part of successful teams–“two person teams that are based out of the office.”

So if you’re not as successful as you think you should be, maybe step back and ask yourself whether you’re doing enough to make your significant other successful. The positive results effects might come back to shine on you as well. 

Is happiness at home a precursor to happiness at work? Let me know what you think, and don’t forget to download the bonus infographic: 7 Things Great Leaders Always Do (But Mere Managers Always Fear).



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February 19, 2016

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