Check-Mate your career

Conscious Coupling: How your mate can affect your career

There is a wide range of factors that affect an individual's career and professional success: an Ivy League education, first job with a leading organization and a highly developed skill set often set the foundation for getting ahead. There are also a large number of sources claiming that lesser known factors can influence career trajectory, including your birth order, whether you went to public or private school, how tall or attractive you are, and if you have healthy sleeping habits, among countless others. While many of these factors, big and small, could indeed play a part in guiding your career trajectory, there is one component not frequently covered that could actually have a significant impact: your choice of mate.

While this topic has only recently seen a surge in coverage, it was at least touched on in journalist Napoleon Hill's 1937 self-improvement bestseller "Think and Grow Rich." It may seem obvious today, but one of Hill's 13 principles for success is having a supportive partner and studies have shown that this rings true for both men and women. More recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stated at the 2011 IGNITION conference, "The most important career choice you'll make is who you marry."

Odds are that your husband, wife, or partner doesn't go to work with you each day, or any day for that matter. But we typically spend the majority of our time outside of the workplace with our partners, and their influence does accompany one to the office. And it appears that science supports this.

In the Harvard Business review, writer Andrew O'Connell imparts that a 2013 study of dual-earner couples showed that "people put more time in at work when their intimate relationships are going well because the absence of drama at home gives them greater emotional, cognitive, and physical vigor to bring to the workplace." The study highlights what many of us often take for granted: That being happy at home leads to being happier, more productive, and more successful at work. In other words, contented cows give more milk.

Even more remarkable are the findings of a 2014 study by Washington University in St. Louis, led by Brittany C. Solomon and Joshua J. Jackson (no, not the actor). They analyzed both the careers and personalities of thousands of married couples, aged 19 to 89, of which approximately 75% were two-career couples. The personality data covered what psychologists term the "big five" dimensions: extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. The authors say that previous studies show that "people tend to look for a potential mate with a high degree of agreeableness and low neuroticism."

However, when evaluating three components of occupational success - salary increases, promotions, and job satisfaction - their findings "suggest that anyone with ambitious career goals "would be better off looking for a supportive partner with a highly conscientious personality."

Conscientiousness is defined as wishing to do what is right, do it well, and to be thorough, especially in regards to one's work or duty. Andrew O'Connell highlights the three primary reasons that a diligent, industrious, dedicated, attentive, and hardworking mate can so positively affect one's professional life.

First, conscientious mates handle many of the household tasks, freeing employees (their partner) to concentrate on work. Second, conscientious partners make their partners feel more satisfied in their relationships (which ties back into the first study mentioned above). And third, employees tend to emulate their conscientious spouse's habits, leading to increased productivity at the office.

Of course, none of this means that success depends on being in a relationship. There are plenty of "unattached" people who excel in their chosen profession and there are and have been, innumerable business leaders who thrived with a "single status" tag. It's safe to say that Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, legendary designer Coco Chanel, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, along with multiple U.S. Presidents, a bevy of historical figures and celebrities, and many others, have achieved quite a bit.

However, should you chose a partner, be sure that he or she has the traits - diligent, industrious, hardworking - of a highly conscientious individual and strive to emulate them. Hopefully, these findings can be utilized to help individuals and organizations better understand how relationships outside of the workplace can positively affect success in it.

All articles
James Irvine

James W. Irvine

Senior Associate