Letters from Esther #4

Relationship Dynamics in the Workplace

My monthly newsletter to stay in touch and inspire reflection and action in areas that are important for your relational intelligence. In celebration of the  release of my new podcast, How’s Work, this month's theme is: Relationship Dynamics in the Workplace.


Shall We Begin?

I created a new podcast about what couples therapy can teach about relationship dynamics in the workplace. It’s made me think about my own professional trajectory. I’d like to share some of those reflections with you today.

This is how it all began. At least, the version of me you have come to know. 

For thirty years, I was a therapist in private practice which meant I worked alone. I still see patients weekly, but back then, I did my own scheduling and accounting, and booked my own lectures and flights. As I’ve said before, we all need both security and freedom. But I figured out early on that I tolerate a lack of security better than a lack of freedom. It’s why I’ve always been self-employed. As any entrepreneur knows, self-employment is a double-edged sword. I had independence, but the office could be isolating. I created a reliable stream of income to support my family, but I was losing some of my enthusiasm and energy. I had built a foundation and achieved stability, but I was longing for creativity and community. 

So I took stock of what I had built up, and decided it was time to build out. The first person I hired never showed up. The person who did show up that day—to interview me about work—decided to stay and help while she was between jobs. Well, now she had one. Together, we began to translate the analog, solitary experience of therapy for the digital, community-based landscapes of webinars and social media. Everything was new in those early days. And luckily, I had a list of people who had told me over the years “the day you scale, call me.” And so we picked up the phone. 

There was a new dynamic emerging, too: for the first time in my life, I had a business partner, a “co-founder.” For a person whose work primarily concerns relationships, this was a brand new kind of relationship to explore. And in our modern world—in which many of us have severed ties to the geographies, communities, institutions, and family obligations that gave previous generations their sense of belonging and identity—there’s never been more pressure on our interpersonal relationships and work lives. We used to go to work to “make a living.” Now we go to work to “make meaning.” I had wanted more creativity and community in my work and I was getting it. 

As we learned, we grew. It soon became clear: it was time to go from two to three and more. At the end of this summer, at our second company retreat, as I sat surrounded by my team of twelve—most of whom are entrepreneurs in their own right—I saw for the first time the map of what we have built and the potential for where we have yet to go. On this map are business milestones, yes, but also discoveries about the importance of working together to raise our relational index. 

People want to feel seen, valued, and included. As Dr. Howard Markman has said, there are three main hidden dimensions under most relationship impasses: power and control (who has influence and decision-making power); care and closeness (do you have my back?); and respect and recognition (integrity and value). When issues come up, we have to ask ourselves which dimension is at play. It may feel safer to gossip about a meeting than say “when I’m not listened to in a meeting, it makes me feel unimportant,” but calling it like it is fosters relational accountability. 

Calling it like it is may mean grabbing coffee with a colleague and talking out your issues. Listening to each other, not just waiting for your turn to talk. Apologizing without having to agree. Acknowledging that we may have offended the other person even if it wasn’t the intention. These are the ways in which we avoid what I call “kitchen sinking,” our tendency to let issues compound. We can’t wash one dish if we pile it all up. 

Building my business hasn’t always felt the way I thought it would. I set out to take psychotherapeutic ideas and practices out of the office and into the public square, and hopefully expand the scope of my usefulness. My goal was never to build a brand. It was to counter the ever-growing privatization of problems that we all experience.

Maybe that’s where you are now: reflecting on your own professional development or perhaps building something that feels bigger than yourself. Maybe you, too, are eager to raise the relational index of your work life. After all, we spend a lot of time there.  

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

Raising the relational index of your work life starts with communication.

  • If you’re building your team, surround yourself with people who know what you don’t. I can help someone navigate their relationship, but I need help navigating SEO and sales. My team is made up of experts who complement my gaps. 
  • As you develop these relationships, ask “how are we doing?” Not just “how is the product doing?” 
  • In fact, add a relationship check-in to your weekly agenda. Ask “what is the status and quality of the relational dimensions of our team?” It’s something I’m trying to remind myself to do more, too.
  • Talk aloud. Email and slack are convenient, but insufficient for interpersonal communication and productivity. 
  • Role play. At a certain level, colleagues are not entirely unlike couples. I often make partners switch seats and talk to me from the point of view of the other person.
  • Start with what you agree with; then tackle the disagreements. 
  • Ask “what am I not asking?” Instead of pretending you have it all figured out, invite others to help you better define your goals, values, and identity.
  • Stay humble. Whether you’re investing in building a career, a business, or a project, it demands focus; sometimes this focus can turn into self-absorption—whether it’s arrogance or anxiety. Remain curious about others.

Watch and Listen

How’s Work? / Season 1

All the relational habits you built in life don’t immediately disappear the moment you walk in the office door. My new podcast, “How’s Work?,” brings new perspective to the invisible forces that shape workplace connections. Available November 5 on Spotify.

On Security and Freedom / A Recent Article

As our social landscapes evolve, we are trying, more and more, to reconcile the tension between our need for security and our need for freedom by putting too much pressure on our external relationships when we should be looking within ourselves. 

Anticipation for "How's Work?" / Quartz 

Lila MacLellan tees up what’s to come on “How’s Work?,” and reacts to my recent interview with The Cut on Tuesday’s podcast about our shifting professional needs. 

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

I’m Reading: 

I’m Watching: 

  • Prune Nourry’s new documentary “Serendipity,” a chronicle of the treatment she underwent for breast cancer and its effect on her art. 
  • Baratunde Thurston’s TED Talk
  • Anna Ginsburg’s explanation of her approach to animation 
  • The Century of the Self, a docu-series about “psychoanalysis as a powerful means of persuasion for both governments and corporations.”
  • ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch,” a documentary about humanity’s massive reengineering of the planet. 
  • The Family,” a documentary about one group’s insidious influence in Washington, D.C.
  • Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about the ruthless lawyer and mentor to Donald Trump. 

 I’m Listening To: