One of the biggest influencers on a person’s decision-making is the spouse, and how that can make or break a deal


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Opinion Piece by Tang Li

One of my former juniors from my last PR agency job just had an unpleasant evening at a restaurant that’s owned by a friend of mind. He has come out to state that not only was the food and service at a sub-par level, but the manager was also insensitive to feedback that he provided.

Unfortunately for him, the manager in question is the wife of the owner. Sure, he’s the customer. He had taken to social media to complain and had gained the support of a prominent former journalist but at the end of the day, the manager in question is the wife of the owner and between worrying about the potential loss of business which might only be reflected at the end of year accounts and an unpleasant home life, the owner would choose the latter.

Let’s face it, life is about organising relationships and interestingly that is never truer than in the business world.

In business, how you are known is often a crucial part of getting or not getting the job. Like it or not, logic and rational thinking about dollars and cents aren’t always the key factors in the creation of a business decision.

Much as my friends in finance and law may beg to disagree, brand and communications consultants are as important to the business process because intangible things like the chemistry between people can make or break a deal, even if that deal makes perfect sense from the financial and legal perspective.

So, when we look at people, particularly the people who have a say in how things can turn out for us, we need to look at them in their entirety. You have to understand how a person will react in a certain situation and what influences that person will push him or her to react in a certain way. One of the biggest influencers on a person’s decision-making is the spouse.

Let’s take a look at American Presidential Elections. The wife (or husband in the case of Hillary Clinton) of every candidate gives a speech at their respective party conventions. They give media appearances and everyone listens.

Now, here’s the thing – the “First Lady” is not actually a government post. Americans don’t vote for the “First Lady” – they vote for a President. However, the candidate for “First Lady” is placed under the same spotlight as the candidate for President because the voting public wants to know who is the person that will have probably the most direct influence on the president.

Look at the pairings. Ronald Reagan was from Hollywood. His first wife became a bigger star than him and left him in the dust. His second wife, however, knew how to make him shine on the global stage. Both George Bush’s had women who knew how to look pretty without taking too much of the spotlight, thus helping boost credentials as conservatives.

On the other side, there were the “first” First Ladies with professional careers in their own right. Bill Clinton famously asserted that he and Hillary were part of a package back in 1992. Upset a few people (he’s on the ticket, not her) but ended up working well. Hillary, the policy wonk who prepares for everything, supported Bill, who embodies charisma. Eight years later, there were the Obamas, who were two intellectuals supporting each other.

Even Donald Trump’s choice of Melania helped. A section of the voting population liked the fact that this overweight seventy plus year-old man had “delicious arm-candy” and it helped him seem a wee bit more virile.

A spouse can be an asset or a liability. In the case of the Clintons, they worked well because their strengths complemented each other. However, Hillary was also a liability in her ability to get healthcare passed, and her fingers were quite visible in the scandals that were brought up during the Clinton Presidency.

In the case of the Trumps, there were those who respected Donald for having Melania draped on his arm, but there were those who felt that her choice of wardrobe was an expression of his attitude towards certain groups:

While the example of American political spouses is the most visible example of the important role a spouse (or for want of a better term – unofficial influence) on a particularly prominent figure, this, however, isn’t limited to America. Here in Singapore, we have the example of Madam Kwa Geok Choo or Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.

Unlike the American First Ladies, the late Mrs Lee stayed away from the limelight. Unlike her daughter-in-law, the late Mrs Lee never took on a position with the government or any company related to the government. Yet, Mr Lee would admit in his book that he relied on her judgement when dealing with world leaders, and nobody doubts that she played a role in shaping much of what you see in Singapore.

As my favourite Flesh Ball said from her perch in Geylang, “The real boss of Singapore is Mrs Lee. Mr Lee controls us, but Mrs Lee controls Mr Lee.”

Singapore’s Boss watched over by his boss

Many prominent people will claim that they only get influenced by official influences. However, nobody actually believes that.

My mother used to be obsessed with the first wife’s inability to groom herself properly. Her argument was simple – “No point getting you to care for your image if she doesn’t care about hers.”

People were inevitably going to judge me through her. Unfortunately, my parents proved to be wise in this matter. My biggest triumphs in PR came when the first wife ceased to be a wife.

However, while nobody doubts that a person will have unofficial influences, it’s usually best that those unofficial influences remain apart from the business that a person is running.

America’s first ladies are not part of the American government. The lines are clear as to who is the president. Likewise, the first Mrs Lee never held any official post. She was a sharp lawyer and mother, whom the Prime Minister talked to about his day when he went home.

Unless lines are clearly drawn, things can get complicated when the family gets involved. Family politics becomes company politics, or worse – country politics.

When you hire a relative, are you hiring them because they are your relative or because they are the right person for the job? Can you disagree with a relative?

In my personal experience, the relative I worked for could. He made it clear during the interview – “I am not your uncle, and it is unprofessional to call me uncle.” (Something I reminded him of when he asked why I called everyone else uncle except him). My personal case is unusual.

It gets worse when wives and mistresses get involved. Then the business is no longer a business, but a power play between the wife and whatever mistresses are involved.

So, when dealing with a person, always understand that they don’t make decisions in a silo. However, also be on the lookout and see whether there are proper lines drawn between the unofficial influences and the person or organisation that you are dealing with.

A version of this article first appeared at

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