Expert Esther Perel on what companies can learn from relationships

Interpersonal relationships—between partners, friends, or parents and children—have a natural dichotomy: They can bring “bliss or almost extreme polarization,” said renowned relationship expert Esther Perel at Culture Amp’s recent global conference.

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And organizations can learn quite a lot from these relationship dynamics.

“The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our life. And I don’t think this is any different at work,” she said. No matter how much someone enjoys their work, its benefits and perks, she noted that if the “people you’re working with are keeping you up at night,” it threatens the entire experience.

“In the end, you love your job in large part because you love the people you’re working with and how you feel loved by them,” she said.

In conversation with Culture Amp’s Didier Elzinga, Perel shared how the realities of our non-professional relationships can mirror those at work—and what HR can do to strengthen them.

Talk with maturity

Relationship expert Esther Perel
Relationship expert Esther Perel

Workers today are stressed—fueled by economic concerns, global instability and layoffs that have heightened their workload. But too often, leaders aren’t addressing those elephants in the room, Perel said.

“We can’t pretend it’s not happening because people will think we’re idiots,” she said. “They’ll think we don’t get it, but we do get it; we get it very well.”

Leaders need to consider addressing these ongoing challenges as they would in a marital conflict or an issue with a child: Talk with maturity, she said.

Perel noted that the best leaders excelled at this during the pandemic. They didn’t run from the pressures of the uncertainty or simply ask their teams to march on. “They showed vulnerability,” she said. “They said, ‘No leaders have ever had to deal with this before, but we need you to do what we need you to do,’ and ‘We’re relying on you for this.’ It sounded real, and people respected it.”

Create connections

Divorced parents can likely attest: Those who see their children every day versus perhaps just once a week feel the difference in the relationships. The same can hold true for work.

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With the rise of hybrid and remote setups, Perel said, leaders are facing “different pressures” to create meaningful connections with their workforces.

“We don’t have enough contact with the people we’re working with,” she said. “The majority don’t meet, don’t see each other, don’t have proximity. If we don’t see them often, they’re in tiny boxes, or they have their attention half-distracted, on what basis are we going to create engagement, loyalty and accountability?”

These “relational dimensions,” Perel added, are “going to connect with performance.”

Balance accountability and empathy

Today’s workers, especially from younger generations, are craving empathetic leadership—largely, Perel said, because they were raised by a generation that grew up in a very disciplinarian society and aimed to teach their children the value of compassion. But now, she noted, that has created expectations in the workplace that many leaders don’t know how to meet.

“What we’re seeing in companies is what we’re seeing in families, between parents and children, teachers and students: this debate about compassion and accountability, or empathy and responsibility—as if these things are mutually exclusive,” Perel noted.

A parent who’s only empathetic, however, isn’t very effective—just like a parent who’s only focused on accountability, but lacking compassion, won’t get the results they’re looking for.

Perel noted she works with many parents and teachers to get them more comfortable saying “no” to their kids when needed—and leaders also need to flex that skill. That may involve turning to peer groups to share experiences and build understanding about balancing accountability and empathy.

“A relationship needs both—and a system or company needs both,” she said.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].