Esther Perel is an internationally acclaimed relationship psychotherapist and bestselling author. Her high paced keynote at UNLEASH and the different conversations during the day, gave whistle-stop insights into cultural, economic and social change and the impact these have had on modern relationships. More importantly she explains, with clarity, how the framework we once applied to our personal lives is becoming increasingly relevant to organisations. She suggests that relationships have now become the latest workplace revolution.
Fluent in nine languages, Perel runs a couples therapy practice in New York City. Her TED talks have attracted more than 20 million views and her international bestseller Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence has been translated into 25 languages. Her latest book is the New York Times bestseller The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. But increasingly she is working with multi-national organisations as a relationship consultant rather than individuals.
Changing relationship dynamics
Perel’s high paced observations comment on the changing dynamics of relationships in our personal lives, communities and now workplaces, with the neutral detachment of a psychotherapist. She points out anomalies where established notions that we can all relate to have been reconfigured. She cites trust as a good example, where it has taken on a whole new meaning. At one time trust was built up over time. But today, although we may not trust our boss, we will let our houses and cars to total strangers. We know an increasing number of people, but are surprised when our good “friends” announce their divorce, something we never saw coming.
These dramatic changes are the reason she is being called into organisations as a consultant. “As someone who has been a clinician for 35 years, that in itself is very telling. It points to the fact that a big change is taking place, a change that I did not create”
Perel has found that workplaces are looking for a certain kind of specific knowledge, the expertise of people who have sat in the “trenches of relationships with all the issues that come with that.” What they are looking for is expertise in dealing with polarised workplace interaction.
She identifies three main relationship drivers – power, validation and recognition that underpin modern relationship dynamics. They have become more central to the way workplaces function because of the repositioning of our relationships in the traditional infrastructures (communities, church and family.) Here boundaries have shifted or disappeared. At the same time relationships between and employers and employees are also responding to other wider cultural, economic and technological shifts.
Understanding our relationship history
She notes that our relationship vocabulary has always been rooted in our personal lives. We tend not apply it to the workplace: trust, authenticity, jealousy, power dynamics, aggression, possessiveness and gossip which are all major parts of our everyday lives, but something we deal with less effectively or can’t recognise in our business relationships.
We all tend to be unaware of the significance of our relationship history. We bring our role in our primary relationships to our business world even if we think we are not, or don’t realise we are doing so. She cites examples of how family roles play out in our working lives. The favourite (self or perception of others) or responsible adult child transposed from a family system to workplace interaction. This accounts for the person who won’t leave a difficult boss or willingly accepts an abusive co-worker. It explains a jealous colleague who perceives someone as getting preferential treatment or the seemingly entitled employee who was indulged as a child.
We can’t leave our biases, filters and expectations at the office door and managing these presents a leadership challenge. Gaining an understanding of what each of us brings to the workplace from our key historical relationships is vital to healthy team dynamics and the ultimate success of any organisation. Relational distress impacts personal wellbeing and by default team effectiveness.
Relationships and the bottom line
What has changed, as Perel sees it, and why organisations need a Chief Relationship Officer, is that leaders are starting to buy-in to the concept. She believes it’s not because a sudden value is being placed on “relationship intelligence” as she calls it, but because this is now seen as being key to the bottom line rather than part of a crisis management initiative. “We hire people for skills, but they are let go for their behaviour”
Role of HR
How HR features in this is that much of the fall-out from low “relationship intelligence” manifests itself in HR issues. Retention, attrition, absenteeism, employee engagement and experience, health and well-being and the ultimate impact on productivity.
Central to this is the question of trust. This comes at a time when trust in HR is reported to be hitting a significant low. Moving forward Perel suggests that HR practitioners need to focus on ensuring the good and correct functioning of the relationship culture in the way that the CFO manages the financial health of an organisation. It should be about daily management of relationships rather than dealing by exception with deviance, which can lead to a culture of toxicity. This means upstanding rather than bystanding which many HR professionals might say is easier said than done.
Her resounding soundbite is “The quality of our relationships will determine the quality of our lives.”
If individuals thrive, so will organisations.