Photo courtesy of Viktor Hanacek

How To Get Practical Leadership Advice From Marriage Therapy

We hear people joke that they are married to their job. They spend nearly all of their time at work or working from home, and think of little else outside of their duties. We may laugh at the concept of being betrothed to your place of employment, but there is some truth to the intimacy that we have with our workplace.

In fact, through my experience studying marriages and families, I have found many striking resemblances between a workplace and a family, and employee-employer relationships and marriage. Sounds weird? Just take a look.

The Second Family

Full-time work often requires us to spend about 40 hours completing our responsibilities each week. Some people work less, and many people work more, but the sentiment of a full-time job indicates about 40 hours per week. That is a lot of time to spend at a place without developing some kind of connection with it.

Events at work can often be brought home through stress, anger, depression, or joy, and vice-versa. Relationships develop in workplaces that can last a lifetime. People share intimate details of their lives with their co-workers. In many respects, work teams can become a second family, however dysfunctional.

Everything we experience in a family is experienced at the workplace. And many theories that help improve the functioning of a family are directly applicable to a workplace. Healthy families succeed under democratic rather than authoritarian parenting. Similarly, workplace culture is healthier when employees feel they have a voice as compared to workplaces where orders must be followed without question.

The Second Marriage

The same similarities occur when comparing our relationship with leadership and the functioning of a marriage. A healthy pattern of communication and positive interaction between staff and leadership is vital to the health of a workplace and the longevity of employee engagement.

When there are an unhealthy balance between leaders and their staff, the turnover rate increases. Similarly, in a marriage chance for divorce increases when positive interactions reduce and communication becomes limited and hostile.


Okay, at this point I can feel a question building up in many of you. Let me take a moment and say that no, not every aspect of the employee-employer relationship is similar to marriage. The most important difference is that a marriage does not have the hierarchy found in a workplace. A marriage is between two equals while a workplace maintains a clear staff-supervisor separation.

This connection between marriage and family theories and workplace culture has its limitations, so don’t go down the rabbit-hole trying to connect every single aspect of a family to a workplace. Now that I’ve cleared that up, let’s continue.


Kinds of Leadership

When it comes to effectiveness, not every leader is created equal. Some demand much and give little, some give too much and demand too little. Maintaining healthy, effective leadership can often seem just as challenging as finding your true love.

Similar to a marriage, you need that perfect balance of care and challenge to be an effective leader. Employees require challenging work that connects them to their job but need to feel supported and safe within the workplace. Leadership needs to be challenged to continually improve the workplace and maintain the vision for the company. Similarly, in a healthy marriage, the two people challenge each other to continually improve and support each other when times become difficult.


Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 9.46.55 AM*

This grid expresses the outcomes of a leader-employee relationship, depending on the behavior and attitude of the leader, over time. Basically, you have four kinds of leaders, as labeled above. They are separated by how much they care for their staff and how skilled they are in responding to workplace issues and within their interactions with their employees. This is how each of the four leadership styles would hypothetically act within a workplace.

Unskilled and Uncaring

An unskilled and uncaring leader will utilize forceful behaviors to obtain the submission of their employees. Cooperation is not the desired outcome, but rather the unquestioning following of their orders. Their behavior is chaotic and unwieldy; often changing to maintain an immediate sense of control.
For these leaders, not looking like a fool is the most important aspect of their job. They don’t know how to effectively accomplish their job, thus they attempt to distance themselves from their staff by being forceful and unapproachable. Through this behavior, they are able to maintain an appearance of control.

Skilled and Uncaring

A skilled and uncaring leader will use manipulation to gain supremacy over their employees. While these individuals are skilled at connecting with their employees, control is still the main desire. Due to this, they often manipulate their staff into doing their bidding. They lack the empathy to care for their staff’s experiences.

These leaders often seem approachable, but through your conversations with them, they look for ways to improve their standing. If you benefit from their actions, it is often unintentional. An example would be you receiving a promotion after they were to get promoted. Most likely, you were promoted only because there was an opening left by this individual’s promotion rather than any strings they may have pulled on your behalf.

Unskilled and Caring

An unskilled but caring leader will often waste precious time attempting to support their staff. They often struggle to understand the needs of their staff, but sincerely desire to improve their experiences at work. In their eyes, this is the most important aspect of their job; to cure the woes and ease the suffering of their staff. Sadly, they will struggle to effectively meet their team’s needs.

They repeatedly fail to meet the staff’s needs because they are unable to truly understand the issues and they lack the skill required to provide powerful change. This is often indicated by their attempts to fix an issue themselves rather than working with their team to develop a lasting shift.

Skilled and Caring

A skilled and caring leader is able to effectively hear the true needs of their staff. This ability to empathize with those under their care allows them to better connect with them, creating a safe and authentic relationship for the staff to openly communicate with their supervisors. However, the most important quality of a skilled and caring leader is their understanding that they don’t need to hand out band-aids to their staff.

These leaders view the most important aspect of their job as maintaining authentic and open communication. They know that they are not the heroes of the office, saving their staff from the evils around the building. Instead, they understand that their employees want to be included in making decisions that directly affect them. Thus, the collaboration between staff and management creates the lasting change and healthy work culture being strived for in each business.


Like I said before, similarities between marriage and family therapy theories and healthy workplace culture and leadership can be striking. There are aspects that absolutely do not translate, but that is the greatness and challenge of personal or professional growth: to apply truths where you find them and leave the inapplicable aspects behind.



*Grid from: Miller, S., Miller P., Nunnally, E.W., & Wackman, D.B. (2007). Collaborative marriage skills: couple communication I. Evergreen, CO: Interpersonal Communication Programs.

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  1. Pingback: How Gottman's '4 Horseman Of The Apocalypse' Can Destroy An Office - Inciting Purpose

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