5 Pieces of Advice For Improving Your Work Relationships, According to Esther Perel

Ernesto Urdaneta

Esther Perel is a world-famous psychotherapist who has made her mark on the world by studying how relationships work. Over the past several years she’s published best-selling books about romantic and erotic relationships, delivered talks on desire and infidelity that have gone viral, and hosted a podcast from inside her office as she counsels couples on intimate matters.

Now, Perel has turned her attention to another complex and under-explored arena: relationships at work. While most adults spend close to half of their waking hours working, many of us don’t take the time to think about how the connections we form in the office impact our emotional and mental health. But, if we spend as much time — if not more — with co-workers as we do with intimate partners, don’t these relationships deserve some consideration?

That’s why Perel has partnered with Spotify/Gimlet Podcasts to launch the new series How’s Work?, in which she counsels real people on their professional relationships. By counseling people in a wide range of work situations — including a pair of business partners considering splitting off for the first time, two sex workers on knowing and setting their own limits, and two sister-entrepreneurs with differing levels of success — Perel helps us to understand why we behave the way we do while we're on the clock.

Scroll down to discover five of Esther Perel’s key insights from How’s Work?, and then head over to Spotify, the exclusive source for each new episode.

1. Understand Your Relationship Resume

In the first episode of How’s Work?, Esther Perel establishes the fundamentals of all interpersonal relationships: individuals’ “relational dowries.” These dowries, or relationship resumes, are formed through the early foundational relationships in every person’s life — most often through family units — and they ultimately impact all relationships, including and especially relationships at work.

Perel highlights two main categories of relational dowries. In one category are people who are more relationally oriented. These people tend to prize collaboration and interconnectedness, fundamentally understanding that they rely on other people and other people rely on them. In the second category are people who see relationships as more peripheral and task-oriented; these people believe that they can rely only on themselves and that ultimately they are on their own. As Perel puts it, the more independent types were likely "raised for autonomy," whereas the more collectivist types were "raised for loyalty." While these categories are not stable or mutually exclusive, understanding where you fall on this spectrum can help you to understand your own emotional and relational tendencies, as well as those of your co-workers.

Understanding your own emotional dowry, and the emotional dowries of your colleagues, allows you to better understand social dynamics within your organization and how best to resolve conflicts and move through impasses.

2. Acknowledge That Your Work = Your Identity

In the prologue episode of How’s Work?, Esther Perel provides a comprehensive look at how the professional lives of Americans have evolved over generations. Whereas for previous generations a worker might have spent their whole life at one company or in one line of work — often the same line of work that had occupied previous generations of their family — we now see professional commitments as more temporary and fleeting, and more reflective of who we are as individuals. Central to this new, more casual relationship to the workplace is the contemporary view that our work is a central component of our identity and a source of personal fulfillment, rather than simply a source of income.

Perel equates this new sense of personal fulfillment at work with how we’ve previously understood intimate relationships. “Today we don’t just leave a marriage because we are unhappy, we leave marriages because we could be happier,” says Perel. “But the same thing is true of work: We used to leave when the factory closed. Today, we leave because our potential isn’t being recognized or we aren’t being promoted enough. … We see both our jobs and our relationships as a place for identity fulfillment.”

3. Consider Your Family Dynamics

Through How’s Work?, Perel counsels working professionals who are experiencing conflict in their work lives. As she uncovers the root of their conflicts in the workplace, she often transitions to a line of questioning concerning their family history. In episode one, The Break-Up, she counsels business partners who are considering parting ways as one prepares to launch a new venture. As she begins to understand their interpersonal dynamics, she pauses to ask each of them where they reside in their family line. As it turns out, one of the partners is one of five siblings, while the other is an only child.

Perel understands this instantly as an underlying factor in how they behave toward one another: One learned to solve problems alone, while the other learned to think about how his decisions and behavior affect others. Further, she highlights that only children often have difficulty forming opinions that contradict their parents, which tends to make them develop a “go along to get along” approach at work.

By understanding these basic family dynamics, you can begin to understand how your deeply ingrained social behaviors interact with those of your colleagues.

4. Know The Difference Between Workplaces As “Structure” Or “Network”

One of the many broad, compelling insights that Perel provides in How’s Work? is the historical shift of workplaces from “structures” to “networks.”

To explain this shift, Perel uses a metaphor of knots. In the “structure” model, the knot is tightly bound. The “structure” workplace is one that is relatively fixed and stable: Hierarchies are established, boundaries are delineated, the rules are set, and individual workers’ roles are clear. While structured workplaces still exist, many organizations — especially newer ventures — are being transformed into “network” workplaces.

In the network workplace, knots are more loosely tied. In fact, the knot is just tight enough so that the worker feels anchored to a sense of belonging, but loose enough that the worker can quickly detach from it and reattach to another workplace. In the “network” model, everything is up for negotiation and everything is a conversation. In this model, workers have a lot more freedom, but they also have to continuously evaluate their values, their priorities, and what it is they are looking for in their professional life.

Understanding whether you thrive more in a structure or a network, depending on where you are in your life and your career, will help you find alignment and satisfaction at work.

5. Don’t Confuse “Venting” With “Venture”

In the prologue episode of How’s Work?, Perel highlights a forthcoming conversation on the podcast that will feature two sisters, both of whom are entrepreneurs. One sister has been highly successful and launched her own flourishing business, while the other has been struggling to get a venture off the ground for more than two decades.

In summarizing the difference between these two sisters’ approaches, Perel highlights that while one sister has been highly active and motivated, the other has begun to confuse “venting” with “venture.” This sister has begun to expend all her energy on complaining and coming up with excuses for why she cannot succeed. When she solicits advice from family and friends, she always has an excuse ready for why each piece of advice does not apply to her, and she even begins to drag down those around with her own negative reinforcement.

Perel uses this example to suggest that power dynamics in interpersonal relationships are not “top-down.” In fact, the weaker person in a relationship can exert considerable power by dragging down those around them and rendering otherwise happy and competent people helpless.

Stay tuned for this episode, in which Perel will unpack the dynamics at play in these sisters’ relationship and help them find ways to break the cycle.

How’s Work? with Esther Perel is available exclusively on Spotify/Gimlet Podcasts. New episodes are released each Tuesday.

This article is sponsored by "How's Work" on Spotify/Gimlet Podcasts.