Say you are having a crummy day at work. Or a crummy month. Or a crummy year. You might think that has to do with your scatterbrained boss, your irksome clients, your grueling schedule or your no-good colleagues. Maybe. But it also has to do with you — and the web of past experiences that influence your emotions, habits and perspective.
In a new podcast, “How’s Work?,” celebrated psychotherapist and author Esther Perel speaks with employees who are stuck, anxious, in conflict or otherwise navigating choppy waters in the workplace. Perel — who has another podcast, “Where Should We Begin?,” about romantic partnerships — is renowned for her relationship expertise. With her clients’ permission, she records their therapy sessions (often removing identifying details) and uses them as the basis of some of her podcast episodes. As any listener can ascertain, work troubles and intimacy quandaries aren’t that different: When we show up at our jobs (where many of us spend the majority of our days), and in our relationships, we bring the totality of who we are, for better or worse.
The first episode of “How’s Work?” was released Tuesday as a Spotify exclusive. (In February 2020, the podcast will be available on other platforms.) Perel recently spoke with The Lily about the critical importance of relationships at work, why our self-worth is often entangled with our professional success, and the differences between millennial employees and older generations.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nneka McGuire: On your website, you write, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” I suspect that the same may be true of work, that the quality of our work relationships determines the quality of our work lives.
Esther Perel: You actually are quoting me.
NM: I am quoting you, yes. But when we think of work, we think of goals, strategies, plans. I don’t think we typically default to thinking about relationships, and I wonder why you think that is.
EP: Interestingly, when people come back from work, they talk about their work with their family or their friends. What they’re talking about is often who they’re working with, and what they’re experiencing at work in relation to their boss, their manager, their colleagues, their team. So I do think people talk about their relationships at work, but the workplace has not until recently emphasized the relationship culture as an essential ingredient of the workplace.
You have CFOs, CMOs, ‘C’ of all kinds. You don’t have a CRO: chief relationship officer. And HR has often been about benefit packages and avoiding lawsuits. The concept of relationship culture in the workplace is really a product of the last few years. That’s why I often say my work hasn’t really changed. I’ve worked with the workplace for a long time — it’s the workplace that is coming to me, because its priorities are shifting. It has always talked about relationship skills as soft skills, and soft skills were feminine skills, and feminine skills you can idealize in principle, but you disregard them in reality.
So this notion that relational skills are becoming part of the new bottom line, (A) has to do with the changing nature of the kind of work we do, and (B) with the fact that in a technological economy and in a service economy, you need people who have communicative skills. You don’t need people who have strong hands. Those are still massively needed, but less in these corners.
What are the types of accountability that people are expected to demonstrate? How do you establish trust? How do you straddle between tradition and novelty? How do people balance their individual needs with the needs of the collective? All the big relational questions have always been there, but now they’re given a vocabulary and they’re given a priority. The words transparency, trust, empathy, vulnerability, relational intelligence — people did not bring those to work necessarily. And it wasn’t that necessary, when you entered the factory and you stayed there until you went on retirement.
NM: I think for many of us, our sense of self-worth is entangled with the work that we do. Ultimately, is that is a useful way of thinking?
EP: I think that it is not about useful or not useful. Many things that people used to experience in community and in religion have today been transposed to love and work. We want our love and our work lives to give us a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of self-worth, a sense of purpose. And those things used to come, in the past, from traditional structures. Your grandparents and my great-grandparents not only worked in the same place, but may have lived and worked in the place where they grew up.
They knew who they were because they didn’t have to create their identity. It wasn’t a project of self-definition. Their identity was ascribed by virtue of where they were from and where they grew up and whose children they were, who their parents were. Today, work is the place you turn for that. It’s less about what you’re going to do, but who you’re going to be.
NM: I listened to the first episode of your podcast, which is about two men who are going through a separation after being lifelong business partners and friends. I was struck by their openness and generosity in speaking with each other. How can people approach work conversations where the opposite is true — one party is passive-aggressive or closed off?
EP: I think that I’m going to get to more of that in Season 2, because people will have heard Season 1. But you’re going to hear other episodes where people are not nearly that nice. But if you come to me in a situation, in a relational impasse or conflict with somebody you work with — equal or hierarchical — I would ask you to analyze with me what is happening. But I won’t just want to hear the narrative, the story. I’m going to start to help you think in relational systems. So first of all, I’m going to say, is this really a situation between two people, or is there a third party that is invisible? The person that was before you and left, or before them and left, a person in another department who has a very long arm that you don’t see, but who is having a direct impact on what’s happening. The legal department, the financial department — who else is involved in this situation? What makes this situation static and unable to change?
The typical notion is to think that the relationship is just between two people. But what is the map? And what’s underneath here that you think is driving this? What is the battle about? Is it a battle for power? Is it a battle for respect? Is it a battle for recognition? Is it a battle for trust?
When relationships go sour, people are notorious for looking at what the other person is doing to them, and they have zero sense of what they’re doing to the other person. So what I try to do is to give you a different reading of what’s going on. If you’re alone and you can’t bring in that person, we’re going to strategize together. Sometimes you can change things and sometimes you can’t. You can change your reaction to what’s going on, even if you can’t change the situation. That’s the only freedom you have: to change the meaning that you’re going to give to what’s happening.
NM: There’s been much debate about how millennials approach work versus older generations. I’m wondering, in your practice, have you seen any different trends between how younger and older clients think about their relationship to work?
EP: I had an earlier interview today and I didn’t have to ask the age of the interviewer. She came from a perspective of, sometimes you just have to do your job. What you feel, what you think — since when is that important? You’re here to work. And when I go into some of the millennial companies, sometimes they can’t function because everybody’s feelings matter.
But the sort of people who believe everybody’s feelings matters, those are my children. I raised them differently than I was raised. You think that what I felt about everything mattered to my parents? No. You’re not happy? Well, too bad. You’re bored? Do something. You don’t like it? That’s how it is. You want to eat something else? There is nothing else. But we raised a generation of children who, from the beginning, we asked: “How do you feel? What do you want? What do you like? Use your words. Tell me what you want. Tell me what you need.”
Well, if you have raised people to think that everything they say and feel and want is important, that is your next workforce. I can criticize them, but they are my children, like many other people’s children. Today, I don’t think people are working more or working less. I think that there is a different sense of how much discomfort people are willing to live with. We were definitely trained for more discomfort. We were also probably more raised thinking about what other people need from us and not just what we need. You know, this concept of self-help and self-care has rendered us sometimes very selfish. When you were still part of a more communal structure of thinking, you didn’t just think about self-care and individualistic responses, you thought more in structural, political responses.
So, to me, younger people are more invested in work, but they’re invested differently. They see work as an identity project, not just as a way of making a living so that they can have a nice life.