Angela Neff and her colleagues monitored the self-esteem of 102 working couples over five days (mostly German academics), getting them to answer questions about their work-related self-esteem when they got home, and then again at bed-time (e.g. they rated their agreement with statements like "I feel as smart as others"). They also completed a measure of their general self-esteem levels and their empathy.
The key finding was that a person's after-work self-esteem was positively related to their partner's self-esteem at bed-time that same day. In other words, when one person came home with a spring in their step, feeling confident about their ability at work, this seemed to infect their partner, so that by bed-time, the partner too was feeling more confident about their own work-related abilities. This transfer of positive self-esteem was more pronounced when the receiving partner tended to be of lower self-esteem more generally and was more empathic.
"This finding supports the notion that work and family do not necessarily have to be conflicting domains," the researchers said, "but can also be mutually enriching." That said, there's a negative interpretation of these results. If one person comes to depend on their partner's after-work positivity, this can backfire on those occasions that the partner has a bad day.
Neff and her colleagues said their finding was important because research shows that high work-related self-esteem tends to go hand in hand with better job performance and satisfaction. In this sense, the psychological effect of one person's success at work can filter its way through to their partner, in turn boosting his or her work performance the next day. From a practical perspective, this shows managers how important and far-reaching the effects can be of providing their employees with positive (self-esteem enhancing) feedback.
On a more sober note, the study has several limitations, as the authors realise. This includes the fact that they have no idea of the mechanism by which self-esteem passes from one person to the other. And the sample was narrow, made up of highly-educated people who nearly all came from one field of work. It remains to be seen if the same result will be found with more diverse participants.
Neff, A., Sonnentag, S., Niessen, C., and Unger, D. (2012). What's mine is yours: The crossover of day-specific self-esteem Journal of Vocational Behavior, 81 (3), 385-394 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2012.10.002
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.