Interpersonal harmony on the worksite is an admirable but often elusive goal. And, when work requires difficult-interactions and high-maintenance behavior, we often feel drained and unproductive at work and perhaps at home. But, is this perception accurate? Does the social conflict really affect our lives in this manner?

According to new research from Northwestern University, the answer is affirmative. Confirming what many of us have suspected anecdotally, researchers have found that high-maintenance or difficult interactions do influence our subsequent behavior. Most importantly, the study demonstrates how those draining social dynamics, in which an individual is trying so hard to regulate his or her behavior, can impair success on subsequent unrelated tasks.

“Luckily, humans are exceptionally social beings equipped with remarkable behavioral repertoires for engaging in effective interpersonal relationships,” said Eli Finkel, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern and the study’s main investigator. “But there are plenty of inefficient interpersonal interactions that we engage in every day, and those draining dynamics have significant consequences.”

To be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the “High-Maintenance Interaction” paper offers a significant contribution to sparse research on how draining social interactions affect self-regulation (the ability to make sound decisions, initiate action and, in general, exert self-control) on later tasks.

The implications for the workplace are significant. “Imagine performing a task with a co-worker whose social dynamics are so inefficient that you are left mentally exhausted afterward,” Finkel said.

“Focusing on the next task becomes a huge exertion, and you might find yourself instead surfing the Web because of your depleted mental resources.”

Though there is extensive literature on the consequences of social conflict, Finkel said, little research has been conducted on the effects of ineffective social coordination. “That’s surprising given the pervasiveness of tasks requiring social coordination. As our research clearly shows, ineffective social coordination consumes a great deal of mental resources and has high costs for subsequent self-regulation. Self-regulation is essential to living life well and to the existence of a well functioning civilization.”

Across the five studies, participants experienced either a high-maintenance (inefficient and effortful) or low-maintenance (efficient and effortless) interaction with a “partner” (or research confederate working with the experimenter but posing as a na├»ve subject) before engaging in an individual task requiring self-regulation.

Finkel’s body of research builds upon accumulating evidence that demonstrates that self-regulatory strength is a limited resource that fluctuates markedly, depending on prior willpower exertion, exhaustion and stress. The five experiments demonstrate that when individuals exert self-regulatory strength in dealing with inefficient or difficult social interactions, their energy is sapped and they have fewer resources available for separate tasks performed moments later.

“Self-regulation functions like a muscle,” Finkel said. “If you exert yourself in one domain, psychologically speaking, you then have few self-regulatory resources left over for exertions in other domains.”

In the first of the study’s five experiments, each participant maneuvered a computer maze relying on a “partner” who was either efficient or inefficient. A divider was put between the person working the maze and the computer screen so that he or she operated the joystick blindly, responding to the partner’s instructions to “go up, down, left, right, slower, faster.”

The inefficient or difficult “partner” offered confusing directions such as “left, no wait, I meant right, no, I meant left.” The partner then left the lab, and the experimenter offered each participant a choice of anagram tasks (unscrambling words) to perform. Participants were told that one task was easy to solve, and one was difficult but much more rewarding.

Study participants who chose the more difficult anagram task included 62 percent of those who had the low-maintenance interaction vs. only 15 percent who had the high-maintenance interaction.

“Those who had the efficient interaction were more than four more times as likely to elect to do the challenging anagram task,” Finkel said. “The effect was, I believe, the most substantial that I have found in my career.”

To minimize the effects of performance anxiety, all study participants, whether they had engaged in the high-maintenance or low-maintenance interactions, were told that they had scored somewhat above average. The experimenter then told each of them, no matter what level of difficulty they had chosen, that only a moderately challenging set of anagrams was available. But, in fact, all participants were given an anagram task pre-tested to be of intermediate difficulty.

Even though every participant took the same anagram test, those who experienced the low-maintenance interaction solved 56 percent more of the problems. Other studies demonstrate that this impairment in task performance even extends to important life tasks such as performance on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

Source: Northwestern University