Work / Life

10 Lessons for Navigating Workplace Relationships from Esther Perel

Illustration: Natalia Ramos

“We take home to work and we take work home,” begins Esther Perel in her newest podcast series, How’s Work?

Perel is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author who is perhaps best known for her work on romantic relationships. In this podcast, however, she brings her expertise on modern relationships to the workplace. 

Through unscripted, one-time counseling sessions with co-workers and co-founders, Perel introduces the “relational dowry” of expectations, behaviors and anxieties that we carry to work.

Workplace relationships matter

In the last three generations, according to Perel, work has integrated within an identity economy in which we expect our emotional, physical and psychological needs to be met.

Work is no longer just work: We want to feel both a sense of belonging and a space to grow in, which is important to demand from something we dedicate so many hours to. At the same time, this gives us more reasons to experience disillusion, fear and resentment when those desires are not fulfilled in the workplace.

We have a relationship resume alongside our professional resumes, to use Perel’s terminology. This resume is built from the cultures and communities that we grew up in. All of that influences the dynamics in the workplace and our workplace relationships.

Understanding these interpersonal dynamics is especially important now that so many are engaged in remote work, often with less methods to connect personally. The first season of How’s Work, which ended on March 31, 2020, contains numerous lessons on how to better navigate the workplace and all the relationships that come with it. Here are my top 10 takeaways from the first season. 

1. Reflect on your childhood

This is not to say that your childhood completely determines who you are, but many of the underlying tensions and fears informing your workplace relationships may be rooted in experiences you had when you were younger.

In episode four, Perel asks two business partners who are trying to reconcile a delicate past whether they were raised for autonomy or loyalty. This orientation can change as you grow older, but the environment in which you grew up influences how you trust, delegate tasks, and communicate. If you were raised for autonomy, you were taught to operate independently, so it can be difficult to rely on others and trust that they can produce quality work. Asking for help may translate to having a personal weakness.

Other questions Perel asks in the podcast include: Are you afraid of or easily resent authority figures? Who do they resemble from your past? What is your relationship to praise and pride? 

Episode six features a businesswoman who has spent her whole life working hard to prove that she is worthy, often because men have left her professionally and personally, starting with her father when she was young. Perel helps her understand that while it’s great to fight for recognition, it’s also important to celebrate her value and to also recognize the accomplishments of those around her.

2. Accept that your work is not your worth

Accept that someone might disagree with an idea you had or something you did without it meaning that you are not good enough. At the same time, do the same for others. Separate a person’s work from their personhood.

Seeing someone as nothing more than their work might happen more often if you already dislike the person that is presenting. But there’s a tip for dislike, too.

3. Repair broken relationships

Perel references a classic saying about resentment, comparing it to swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. Resentful energy will spread to your colleagues, manifest in the work itself and potentially even push you to leave.

If something negative happened in the past, can you do something to symbolically make peace with the incident? If the situation is ongoing, how can you restore a sense of community and trust?

While an apology is appreciated, taking responsibility is more important. Depending on your role, can you encourage an acknowledgment of harm and tangible commitment to doing better?

4. You are not solely responsible for your successes–or failures

Believing that you are the only cause for a success or failure is a hyper individualistic point of view. “The lone genius is often lonely,” says Perel.

In episode one of How’s Work, a co-founder feels crushed by the responsibilities of employing two of his brothers. The sense of dependency makes him falsely believe that he is responsible for creating success for his whole family. 

If you accept that you are not the source of all failure, you also must recognize that you are not the source of all success. This will alleviate unnecessary burdens and generate a culture of support.

5. Build workplace relationships that operate from abundance

Does your workplace function from a mentality of scarcity or one of abundance? Every space negotiates between the two, but a culture of scarcity produces a competitive environment that pits colleagues against each other. On the other hand, a culture of abundance encourages people to offer support and work in solidarity.

In episode two, Perel explores the dynamic between two sex workers that have to create that abundance mindset for themselves, as they ultimately reach the understanding that they are personally happier and will succeed more when they are not fighting over clients.

6. Learn to establish boundaries

Understand that you can care, but you do not always have to be responsible. You can say no and even if the other person is frustrated, that is okay. The relationship does not have to fall apart because of that.

Overstepping boundaries because “we’re all a family” is not justifiable. If you find yourself often over-giving to please other people, you may be organizing yourself around a fear of rejection or humiliation. Are you actually just trying to avoid conflict? In these situations, check in with yourself more.

7. Understand true transparency

In some workplaces, transparency means sharing your calendar so that everyone can see what you are doing at any time. However, this is not transparency. This is surveillance. Surveillance is the opposite of trust. Trust exists when you live with what you do not know.

For those leading projects, you do not have to give people autonomy over the goals if you give them autonomy over the means. If you have shared objectives, according to Perel, let people pave their own way there.

8. Acknowledge gender, racial, and power dynamics

One important theme in Perel’s work is that power is intrinsic to all of our relationships, even at work. Our workplace relationships carry expectations and with that comes dependency, accountability and power. We have to ask ourselves: Is the power helping people and the system thrive, or has it become oppressive?

In episode six, Perel addresses the fact that the business partnership in front of her consists of an immigrant Latina woman and a younger white man, and how their roles and perceptions are affected by their particular backgrounds. 

Can you have an open conversation about the role of gender, race, religion, caste, etc., with your team? Especially when working with clients, it is inevitable that your gender, ethnic and racial identities affect how you are perceived. It is helpful if you have already had these conversations.

9. Humanize your co-workers and clients

If you see your colleagues as people with personal lives, complexities and crises, you are more likely to respond compassionately when disagreements arise. Otherwise, it is easier for you to dismiss them and create tension. Can you approach the other person with curiosity, asks Perel.

For team bonding, shared business activities cannot replace actual relationship-building. In an era where we stare more at screens than people, how can you create activities that evoke real emotions like joy, laughter and surprise?

10. Look for mentorship networks

Mentorship doesn’t have to come from those who work in the same industry, but it can. For people who have been historically marginalized, these connections can function as peer support and a place to learn about new opportunities, skills and funding.

For example, there are professional organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists and Asian American Journalists Association, but also networks like Ladies Get Paid, which is an online group of 70,000 women worldwide where people discuss equal pay, workplace issues, and entrepreneurship. Other digital spaces focus more on specific topics, such as Sapling Collective, an interdisciplinary community sharing knowledge on sustainability and environmental justice.

If you are looking to transition out of a job or start a new venture, you can also join these profession or identity-based communities to access more resources. Connect with your communities!

August 31, 2020