Relational IQ Is Key to a Leader's Success. Here's How to Master It, According to Esther Perel

Photo Credit: iStock Photo

By Courtney Connley

Mastering the art of relationship building can be complicated for many leaders, with specified gender norms often limiting how one shows up in a relationship inside and outside of the home. In the workplace, the nurturing aspects of cultivating relationships are often left to women leaders, forcing them to carry the weight of showing empathy and compassion to others all while making tough decisions from the top. But today, psychotherapist Esther Perel says, these relational skills that were relegated as “soft” and not critical to career advancement are now being viewed as necessary skills that all executives need to lead their teams successfully.

“Historically, relational intelligence was associated with feminine skills and ergo devalued in the workplace. But, fortunately, things are changing fast,” said Perel. “The pandemic highlighted the importance of social connections and relationships. More companies say they could not keep employees at work, engaged, and performing without first addressing their humanity. Today, most leaders recognize that these ‘soft skills’ are becoming a part of the new bottom line and that there is nothing soft about them. They are essential.”

In an exclusive conversation with Chief Members, The New York Times bestselling author shares the pivotal steps leaders can take today to build up their relational intelligence in order to not only elevate themselves, but also their teams at work.

Stop Privatizing Your Problems and Ask for Help

According to Perel, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one going through a specific problem or issue when experiencing turbulent times. But what we are experiencing individually, she says, is often a reflection of cultural and social issues. And, it is only when we lose sight of this perspective that we feel isolated in our own pain.

For female leaders in particular, this can show up in feelings of overwhelm and the well worn phrase, “I feel like I am doing it all on my own.” In acute circumstances, this can feel like a failure, a shortcoming, or being let down by those around you. But taken from a broader perspective, it is a reflection of a cultural challenge for female leaders that creates hesitancy around asking for help.

According to Perel, asking for help is at odds with the older concepts of power and leadership. As a result, female leaders are often left in a double bind: desperately wanting help but unable to ask for it. “Have you ever found yourself resenting others for not offering help because you don’t want to have to ask for it,” Perel says. “And have you ever found that you’re angry at them that you have to ask, but then also angry at yourself for needing it in the first place?” This, she says, reflects a cultural challenge that has been privatized. And the solution requires a relational intervention.

If this sounds like you, then Perel encourages you to do a relational self-awareness test to get to the root cause for why you’re hesitant to rely on your relationships for assistance.

Ask yourself, she says, “Was I raised primarily for autonomy and self-reliance? Or, was I raised primarily for loyalty?” If raised for self-reliance, then she says you’ve likely been in situations where you’ve been forced to figure things out and lead on your own. No one was coming to save you. And if you were raised for loyalty then you were likely raised with a sense of belonging and a belief that people around you are eager and willing to help. Answering these questions, she explains, will give you the foundational information you need to inspect the dynamics of the relationships you have not just at work but in every aspect of your life.

Use Crisis Moments to Gain Clarity

“A crisis is a relationship accelerator,” Perel says. “It puts us in touch with our morality, making us hyper aware of life’s fragility. A crisis gives us glimmers of clarity of what really matters.” For many of us, she says, it causes us to shift our priorities, as we ask the vital question, What’s important to me?

This “demand for clarity and certainty,” Perel says, is evoked by moments of crisis, which can actually be a powerful opportunity for leaders to foster better relationships inside and outside the workplace. At work, this could mean gaining a clearer understanding from your team on what they need from you as a leader, or what you need from them as their manager. And at home, this could mean setting clear boundaries with your spouse and family on what you do and don’t need help with so that you can better juggle your responsibilities.

Evaluate How Relational Verbs Are Used and Received at Work

In order to develop positive work relationships , Perel says there are a few essential verbs that shape how we relate to others and ourselves: “to ask, to give, to receive, to share, to refuse, to imagine, to create, and to take.”

To better understand your relational dynamics at work, and to gain a deeper awareness in specific situations, Perel suggests asking questions like, Which verbs come easily for you and your team? What verbs are at the root of friction, delays, or stress for you and your team?

As you identify these strengths and weaknesses you develop language and context to understand the interpersonal dynamics at play. You may see that your team struggles with asking — specifically asking for help or clarification — and start to develop norms or practices that make it easier for people to ask before things go south.

While perfecting relationships can be challenging for some, Perel says it’s important for all leaders to realize that relationships are “less about skills and more about stories” — even the ones at work.

“We live in relationships,” she says. “We are born and we die in relationships and they are our stories. The focus in the workplace is too often about professional skills, and yet work and our company is a story of relationships.” Shifting this perspective, she says, will pull us away from overthinking the tactical aspects of relationship-building, and it will help us tap into the more creative, free-flowing part of building genuine connections with those around us.

Have you listened to the Chief podcast? Tune into "The New Rules of Business" as Chief Co-Founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan unpack today's most challenging leadership questions. Be sure to leave a review and follow wherever you get your podcasts.