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How Relationships at Home Affect Leaders at Work


Research shows why companies should offer more personal support to people in leadership roles

Buisnesswoman climbing career steps

If you’ve ever argued with your spouse, then carried that tension to work, you may have noticed that it negatively affected your behaviour as a leader. On the other hand, if things at home are going great with your partner, you may have found it easier to lead with confidence and compassion at work. This may be especially true if you are a woman. 

New research on the impact of romantic relationships on leaders suggests that women are more readily impacted at work by the quality of their connection to their significant other. 

Anika Cloutier, who completed the research as part of her PhD dissertation at Smith School of Business, says that “when females feel emotionally drained, they engage in less effective leadership behaviours. When they are not—or when they have a positive relational experience with their partner—they engage in the most positive leadership behaviours.” 

Men, although experiencing similar emotional reactions as women, seem less inclined to carry these emotions into their leadership behaviours, according to the research.

Cloutier, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business, admits the findings are not a surprise. It is a well-studied phenomenon that women experience more “spillover” from their personal lives to their work lives than men.

What is different with Cloutier’s research, however, is its focus on primary romantic relationships and their impact on leadership.

“The experiences that we have at home do matter for how we engage in our work,” she says, pointing out that women with unsupportive partners may lose emotional resources that result in a less effective leadership style.

Implications for businesses 

Cloutier conducted her research with 93 undergraduate couples who had been in monogamous, heterosexual romantic relationships for at least a year. She had the couples do either a “conflict task”—such as describing a recent disagreement—a neutral task, like reading an article and summarizing it, or a positive task, like planning a date or naming what they love about their partners. The students then completed a self-assessment on how they felt after the exercise, followed by a leadership task.

Cloutier focused on looking at leadership behaviours in her interview subjects, rather than seeking out students in specific leadership roles. She intends to replicate the research with organizational leaders. 

Her findings have implications for businesses that want more women to step into leadership positions. These firms must recognize the role that personal relationships have in leaders’ lives and behaviours, then adapt accordingly.

The key to supporting women as they climb the corporate ladder is for employers to show concern for their well-being outside of work. “Lowering the amount of work that we expect people to engage in at all hours of the day would probably be a good place to start,” she says.

Cloutier suggests that organizations ensure that their employee assistance programs offer help. Family-friendly work policies typically geared at lower-tier employees—like additional personal days or greater flexibility about how and when to complete work—should be extended to and, in turn, modelled by leaders. 

By not acknowledging the external burdens that female leaders carry—in their roles as partners, mothers and caregivers—companies may ultimately discourage women from seeking these roles in the first place.

While many organizations have been reluctant to get involved in their employees’ personal lives, Cloutier says that the benefits to doing so can be significant. Women who are well-supported at home can become some of the most effective leaders in the workplace. 

“The more we engage with and benefit from the parts of ourselves outside of work, like having good moments with our partners, the better. Doing things that make you feel good will make you a better leader.”