Relationships at Work: Power, Trust and Peek-a-boo!

I’m working from home during the coronavirus shutdown and I’ve got into the habit of taking a long walk around my neighborhood at the end of each day.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my daily walks is WorkLife, hosted by Adam Grant.  He’s an author and organizational psychologist who studies “how to make work not suck.”

Worklife_Podcast

The March 29, 2020 episode features a brilliant discussion with couples therapist Esther Perel about relationships at work.  It called, strangely enough, Relationships at work with Esther Perel.

The two of them come at this topic from very different backgrounds and approaches, but that just makes for an even livelier discussion.  There were so many fascinating ideas and insights packed into this episode.  It left me feeling energized and exhilarated, like a runner’s high but without the sweat.

Adam Grant Esther Perel

Context

Adam Grant kicks of the discussion by asking if there are differences between work relationships and romantic or personal relationships.

Esther Perel answers that all relationships exist within a context — cultural, political, or socio-economic.  Actually, context is a recurring theme for her. Work relationships have a different context than romantic relationships, but they have many common elements.  All relationships come with boundaries and expectations especially around accountability, responsibility and communication.  Good relationships are built on a foundation of trust.  It’s the context that’s different.

Power

All relationships have a power element too.  That’s because relationships come with expectations, and expectations imply some level of dependency.  Dependency confers power on the other person.  But trust can neutralize that power, transform it from “power over” into “power to”.

I love this distinction: “power over” meaning domination and coercion, “power to” implying agency and tinfluence.

Power is a two-way street, it creates interdependence, Perel says.  In some ways the CEO is really the weakest person in any organization since they depend for success on the performance of everyone else in the hierarchy.  But, as Grant points out, CEOs have control over resources like salary, promotions, status, and ultimately, continued employment, so they of course have overriding power.

Trust

Grant and Perel agree that trust is intrinsic to all healthy relationships.  But what is trust?  Perel calls it a concept “swimming in vagueness.”  She quotes Rachel Botsman who defines trust as a “confident engagement with the unknown.”  (I reviewed Botsman’s book Who Can You Trust? about a year ago, here.).

Another definition, kind of poetic, is “Trust is a risk masquerading as a promise.”

This element of risk is critical.  Grant and Perel agree that trust implies a willingness to be vulnerable, and that implies taking a risk on the other person.

This leads to my favorite part of the podcast about how we develop the ability to trust in the first place.

Peek-a-boo!

You know the peek-a-boo game we all play with little children? The one where you put your hands over your eyes then quickly pull them away and call out “peek-a-boo!” The kids giggle with delight. Perel says this silly little game is played all over the world.  She calls it the universal foundation of trust.

At a certain age, around eight or nine months, children learn that objects continue to exist even when they’re out of sight.  A spoon falls off the child’s tray onto the floor. The child can’t see it.  For them, it ceases to exist until you bend down and pick it up.  Wow!  The spoon pops back into existence.  Then the child deliberately drops the spoon onto the floor and watches you pick it up.  Over and over again.  They’re not being annoying little rascals, they’re learning.  They’re learning something called “object constancy” or “object permanence”.

Peek-a-boo is object constancy for people.  It teaches children that people, especially their parents, continue to exist even when they’re out of sight.  It helps children overcome the fear of abandonment.  It is the foundation of trust.

As toddlers, children sit in your lap and then jump down into the world.  They venture a little bit away from you but frequently check back to see if you’re still there.  As they gain confidence in your continued presence they move a little farther.  Eventually, as young adults, they strike out on their own completely.  But it’s this basic trust that you’re still there, that you haven’t abandoned them, that provides the safety that enables them to confidently take risks, to learn and to grow.

Trust enables us to take risks in the workplace too, to take a new job that may or may not work out, or start a new project that may or may not succeed or to voice an opinion that may or may not be accepted.

And it all starts with peek-a-boo.

Autonomy vs. Loyalty

Perel asks the audience if they were raised for autonomy or loyalty.  Were the primary messages you received as a child telling you that you are fundamentally alone in the world, that you must be self-reliant?  Or did those messages tell you that you were never alone, that there were lots of people who could help you and likewise that you were obliged to help others?

Perel says the US is the Mecca of individualism and autonomy, but having been raised in Europe, and being the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, she herself knows that we depend on others.  We live in a communal structure.  There is no such thing as a self-made person.

Passion

Finally, Grant and Perel talk about passion at work. These days, we’re often told that passion should be our guiding compass in work and career, that we should follow our passion and seek out jobs where we feel intensity and engagement.  Only then can we do our best work.  Only then can we be fulfilled.

Perel points out that historically, passion at work was the privilege of artists and artisans.  Nobody ever felt passion about subsistence farming or working in a factory.

But today, we expect things from work that most of us used to get from religion and community; things like belonging, purpose and meaning.

“Never have we expected more from work,” she says.

Yet ironically, never have we been more transient.  We leave one job and move to the next after just two or three years, even jobs we were once passionate about.

Coming full circle, Perel warns that the quest for passion at work needs to be taken in context. Not everyone can afford to make self-centered decisions to follow their passion, especially when they have families who depend upon them for support.  Context matters.

There are some jobs, and some relationships that we wish we had left sooner, and some that we wish we had stayed longer.  This, she says, is the story of our lives.

 

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