For author and psychotherapist Esther Perel, work is personal, like any other close relationship.
Perel, who has practiced in New York City for 35 years, made a name talking about how we navigate personal relationships by ourselves and in therapy. Her TED Talks on romantic relationship woes like infidelity and the secret to desire in long-term relationships have been viewed, in total, more than 28 million times.
In her new podcast starting this November, she’s turning her attention to professional relationships. Each episode of “How’s Work?” is a one-time therapy session between Perel and various co-founders, members of family businesses and partners with a thriving operation but deteriorating relations on the job.
In her prologue episode, Perel notes how each of us learns a set of messages in childhood that influences how we work. In a later episode, for example, that showcases two company co-founders who are splitting up, it’s clear that one of them makes business choices based on his family’s relationship to money when he was young.
“Everybody has a relationship résumé that they got from home, from their culture, their community, their society where they grew up. They bring it to work,” Perel says in the podcast. “It interacts as an invisible force underneath all of the manifest dynamics that take place at work.”
HuffPost interviewed Perel for her take on when you should work alone, what happens when you befriend your colleagues, and more.
On the podcast, you talk about relational habits as part of the “unconscious and conscious forces” that influence how we work. What questions should teams ask themselves to build awareness of this?
We all come with a relational legacy to work and that shapes our interactions with others.
I’m going to read you some questions to give you a sense of how I go at doing that sleuth work: “Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with a teammate and how you reached consensus and forged a path [forward].” I’m less interested in the particular story they’re going to tell me but I am going to listen for [how] do they define disagreement. How do they position themselves vis-à-vis it? What did it do to the relationship with the other teammate? And then what did it mean for them that they resolved it? What was their conception of repair in relationships? This is about rupture and repair.
“What do you do in a group discussion when one person systematically hijacks the conversation? What goes through your head? And what do you think is the impact of this on the group dynamics?” This is also about dominance, about power to versus power over. About how people then perceive themselves: Are they active or passive in relation to this? Do they see themselves as unable to change the course of a situation?
“Family is one word with multiple realities. Does that mean that therefore you can ask people to be there for you anytime you want?”
In the prologue, we hear a professional call the people she employs “like an extension of [her] family.” What would you advise someone who thinks this way?
What does family conjure for you? That’s the first thing. Family is one word with multiple realities.
Does that mean that therefore you can ask people to be there for you anytime you want, at 11 o’clock at night, because there should be no boundaries because we’re family? Does it mean that they should care about the company as if it were theirs, even though you’re the founder and they’re your employee? Does it mean you demand a level of loyalty because it’s family?
Give me a sense of what you think family entitles you to and demands from you. Sometimes, it may mean it’s a highly intrusive system. Sometimes it may mean it’s a system where people are constantly backbiting. Sometimes it’s a system where there is intense solidarity.
But I ask. Before I say anything, I ask. My counsel is 90% asking questions.
You talk about the need for stability and change, two things that seem contradictory. How do employees straddle that?
People need stability. They need an anchor and then they can ride the waves. If you have no anchor, it’s just like nobody knows what are the rules, what is the structure, who do you report to, what actually is expected of me. You get a little lost.
If you have no change, you feel like there’s no point in coming up with any creative idea because there is no room for it. I think that that happens on a management level and it happens to companies as a whole.
Good managers help, like good parents help, you to use what you know in order to access what you are going to learn. It’s a both/and stance. A good manager provides the container for people to be able to straddle this polarity.
When should someone work alone?
I remember thinking when I started out, I need security and I need freedom. But I can tolerate the lack of security better than I can tolerate the lack of freedom. The thought that someone would tell me when I can go on vacation ― I felt like I already had parents once and I had a child, too. I knew I was going to probably be self-employed my whole life. I would rather struggle with not knowing where the next check comes from but do what I want.
Now, I think that that is a real information piece for so many people, because I had a lot of friends around me and the security of knowing where the check came from was more important, and they were willing to accept all kind of constraints in order to have that stability. And I didn’t. I can’t stand rules. At least I set up my own rules and I have to deal with the consequences of that.
I think that some people are better in a group, some people are better in small groups, some people are better in hierarchal structures where it’s very clear what’s expected of them, and some people are much better on their own. You find that out as you work.
I have seen people in my office go back and forth. People who were alone who now want team. And people who work with team and now want alone. People who’ve made money and now want meaning. And people who’ve worked for meaning and now want money.
What’s your advice for people who befriend their colleagues?
Sometimes, you realize that you’re staying [at work] because you like the people. The work is not meaningful anymore.
What’s very interesting is how many people have friends at work and when they change the work, the friends don’t go with them. It’s a really powerful thing to see how much of these relationships are actually circumstantial. One or two people may continue with you in life, and the others you probably will not see again.
You’ve talked about how language reinforces reality. The vocabulary of work is getting more personal. Is this useful?
We are doing it because of work having become such an enormous source of self-worth. Work is imbued with a mission to build our identity. Work is not just about putting food on the table. Work is about purpose. Work is about identity, work is about fulfillment, growth ― all things people used to come to religion and community for.
I tend to shy away from “Is it useful or not?” It is, and let me see what it means, why it’s happening, and what are the consequences. It’s never either/or necessarily. The meaning of work and the role that work plays in people’s lives is going through a revolution.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.