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Getting personal at work — why cultivating emotional intelligence at the workplace matters

The world of work has changed dramatically since the start of this millennium, never mind fifty years ago. The jobs that exist now are wildly different from those of previous generations, where people used to have jobs for life and rarely moved away from their homes and communities.

These changes in working practices have had significant implications, not only on how we work but what we are looking for work to do for us - to fulfil us, nurture us and fill the holes that a lack of community has left behind. It’s something that psychotherapist Esther Perel, known for her work on relationship counselling, has turned her expertise to. Perel rose to fame as the author of Mating in Captivity, and as host of the hit podcast Where Should We Begin? which lets listeners eavesdrop on counselling sessions between couples.

In this episode of FT Culture Call, Perel talks about her new podcast How’s Work and outlines her thoughts on the changing nature of work and what it means for us and our relationships at work.

Opportunities, but also challenges

Our grandparents worked in a production economy; our parents in a service economy. Now, Perel explains, we’re living in an identity economy. This means we’re looking to find ourselves at work and do work that matters to us. We need work to do much more for us, even fill those gaps left behind by our eroded communities.

Nowadays we have the flexibility to move up and across roles and industries. Ease of travel has made relocation easier and the internet has facilitated remote working. Previous generations had a solid understanding of the rules they were to abide by and of the expectations placed upon them. They knew their place in the world. Now that’s mostly gone. For this generation, there’s no longer a cookie-cutter shape in society to fit into.

We’re free from constraints and expectations, but it can lead to dissatisfaction, frustration and a sense of destabilisation. We can feel unsure of our place in society and at work.

Understanding all this is the first step to creating healthy workplace cultures. It can help leaders and managers figure out what they need to do to make work work, where organisations build solid relationships and nurture their people. And - importantly - retain people.

Helping people flourish

Now we’re needing work to help uncover who we are; to help us develop as human beings. It’s the concept of us as individuals - our authenticity and identity - that we bring to the office. And as such, Perel says we need to believe that employers are invested in us. We want our bosses to acknowledge our potential and then to help us flourish.

The need for emotional investment

Expressing emotion used to be anathema within the business world. These days we talk about “psychological safety in the same breath that we talk about performance indicators,” says Perel. People want to feel they can be their authentic selves at work, that they belong and can be vulnerable if they need to.

The two events that are particular pressure points for organisations (the same as those in life) - that of joining and leaving (birth and death). Perel says that onboarding rituals are really important: when someone new joins the organisation, they need to know their existence is acknowledged and they are welcomed. Of course, it’s harder to motivate and retain someone if they feel no-one’s bothered about them.

The stories of our lives

We bring much more to the workspace than we are even aware of - all of our ingrained beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world. We carry with us all the messages we were given growing up. For every issue at work, there is so much more than surface tension - there is a story behind the issue. And so, in Perel’s words, “we co-define each other” - our attitudes and beliefs shape how others react to us, and vice versa.

A strong sense of community and connection fosters that sense of being supported and nurtured. But how do we do that? One way Perel says is to find out what’s going on in our colleagues’ lives - ask meaningful questions and dig deep about the things that are affecting them and what’s on their minds. And when we do that we get answers that tell us where that person came from and where they see themselves in the world.

“It’s like reading a book,” Perel says. “We’re curious, we are drawn to stories.”

Foster better relationships

It’s vital to create healthier workplaces that honour the individual, that are safe so people can truly be themselves and feel understood and supported. Where you can retain people and get the best out of them. Where empathetic bosses have as much emotional intelligence as operational knowledge. As Perel says, if we can foster better relationships - at work and in all areas of our lives - we’re going to make for ourselves a better world:

“The workplace has opened itself up: relational skills are not seen as just soft skills or feminine skills in contrast to the real bottom line. Relational skills have become the new bottom line.”

So what steps could leaders and management teams do to cultivate emotional intelligence in the workplace? Here are some questions to ask inside your organisation:

  1. How can you nurture a culture of curiosity and thoughtfulness, and what questions can you ask to really know your colleagues?
  2. Are your workplace rituals fit for purpose? For example, do you recognise milestones and welcome new colleagues into the fold?
  3. How can people be encouraged to do their best work in accordance with their own needs and preferred ways of working? What ingredients do they need in order to do their best work?
  4. Does your organisational culture allow you to really hear what people have to say - open, honestly and non-judgmentally?
  5. What changes do you need to make in order that your colleagues can bring their whole selves to work?
  6. Do you have a psychologically safe environment that allows people to be vulnerable and feel supported? Do you encourage the sharing of stories?

The Ian Sanders Company has two sessions to help create a more emotionally intelligent workplace: i) Fuelling Your Best Work gets team members thinking about what behaviours they can adopt to work better and smarter and ii) our Power of Stories workshop/awayday session is designed for teams to share stories and build a human-centric, open and authentic culture (read what happened at Thomas Cook Money’s awayday when they shared stories around a roaring fire.)

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