Esther Perel: how to navigate the ‘next normal’ at work
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Some people say: after a crisis, you should be able to go back to how things were before. Others say: the essence of a crisis is that you fundamentally change. The reality is we are all experiencing both a desire to go back and an urgency to adapt. But when faced with this uncertainty, people polarise. Instead of holding the ambivalence, we split the dilemma into two opposing forces, internalising one side and projecting the other.
The workplace is no exception to this. Age-old paradoxes are rearranging into discrete binaries. Do we want to make money or do we want to have meaning? Do we want to return to the office or do we want to remote work? And if we are able to be anywhere, can we still belong somewhere?
Increasingly, I am asked to meet business leaders who have been tasked with the Herculean paradox of doubling growth while minimising attrition during a period that is being referred to as “the Great Resignation”. Workers from across industries, hierarchies and the spectrum of privilege are quitting at a record rate. Why? What can business leaders do to meet this challenge without burning out? And what does any of this have to do with relationship therapy?
There are many differences between my therapy practice and the mostly white-collar offices at which I tend to speak. But this pandemic era has shown us more acutely how the topics that come up in my office don’t go away when people go to theirs (especially not if their office is the kitchen table). Much as we might try, we do not disassociate from the outside world — or from our internal states — between 9am and 5pm. When people say you should bring your whole self to work, I say they already do, just not consciously.
This is heightened during times of crisis because disaster amplifies our deepest fears and accelerates our greatest desires. Why are so many people questioning the relevance of their jobs, transitioning to new careers, or demanding more flexibility? Because crisis makes us ask the big questions. And the answers tend to fall along those “all or nothing” binaries.
Why am I doing this? To what end?
Is the boss who expects me to meet their needs meeting mine?
To what degree does this company see the wellbeing of its people as central to its success?
Are the sacrifices I’m making worth it for my family?
If I did something else, what would I want to do?
These are major philosophical questions and existential dilemmas that we are meant to figure out with our managers and employees. But no one can do that alone or without resources — and much of what can help, believe it or not, is in relationship therapy. Part of the reason I have two podcasts — one for personal and another for professional relationships — is because understanding relational intelligence is the tide that lifts all boats. Cultivating a deeper understanding of how we build trust, overcome betrayal, and engage in or avoid conflict, enhances the bonds we create in all aspects of our lives.
Relational intelligence does not just take into account how one person relates to another; it also examines the systems in which connections take place. What are the power dynamics and hierarchies? What are the mandates around equity and inclusion? Is it taboo for colleagues to discuss psychological safety? What about salaries? Unlike performance and productivity, relationships are much harder to measure, sustain and repair. But there are concrete ways to foster a professional environment in which relationships thrive.
Relational intelligence ultimately is about balance. It combines self- and systemic-awareness. You can invite your colleagues to be vulnerable about the pandemic, racial reckoning, or climate crises without losing professional boundaries. You can start a meeting with a check in without going into overtime. You can create a compassionate workplace without sacrificing productivity. The compassionate statement says, “I understand what you’re feeling. Tell me more.” The productive question asks, “What can I do?” or “What do we need to make available for you so that you can do your work as well?”
These questions may lead to simple solutions. Perhaps an employee who keeps dropping out of video meetings just needs help getting better Wi-Fi. But these inquiries could also reveal adaptive challenges, which have no known procedures or outcomes. As leadership expert Ronald Heifetz explains, such matters require us to review our fundamental assumptions and values, develop new skills, take divergent positions and tolerate uncertainty. One manager cannot change the reality that more women than men have dropped out of the workforce during this pandemic. But they can ask the working mother on their team juggling remote work and home-schooling if it would help if they had more flexible working hours.
The “next normal” at work is about balancing productivity and compassion, valuing outcome over hours and embracing adaptive challenges as opportunities for innovation. Many of the dilemmas I have confronted in my work have been surprisingly beneficial and, when they haven’t, I’ve at least learnt to tolerate uncertainty more comfortably, alongside people who are also adapting. And if ever there was a time to become more comfortable with uncertainty and change — to become more nimble, flexible or “to pivot,” as businesspeople like to say — it is now.
Learn more about Esther Perel
Primarily a relationships expert, the psychotherapist Esther Perel is host of the hit podcast Where Should We Begin? where real couples anonymously reveal the intimate details of their story — from infidelity and problems within their sex lives, to dealing with traumatic family histories.
In 2019, she launched a second podcast, How’s Work?, where couples, co-workers or co-founders seek resolution on professional problems.
Her books include Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, which explores the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire, and explains what it takes to keep desire alive. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, published in 2017, examines relationships through the lens of cheating, which Perel argues has a lot to teach us.
The psychotherapist’s TED talks, which draw on the themes of her books, have had more than 20m views.
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