How Relationships Shape The Way We Work

Were you raised for Loyalty or Autonomy?

By Kaleena Murray | Chief Culture Officer

Esther Perel: what a privilege to listen to her speak at Culture First 2019. The audience was so captivated, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Some of you might not know that my own educational and work background lies in mental health and counseling, so there’s a soft spot in my heart when others talk about the role of relationships and emotions in our workplaces. Psychotherapist and Relationship Philosopher Esther Perel laid it out simply and definitively:

“The quality of our relationships affects the quality of our lives, happiness, and our work.”

Yes! We are in what Perel calls the “Identity Economy – it’s not who I am but who I can be,” with our workplaces playing a major role in helping others be their identity, their best self. It’s not about looking for the job anymore. People are looking for who they will be next, looking for opportunities to be happier, grow more, gain more opportunity. We are the engineers of identity formation, and must recognize our physical, emotional, and mental balance to understand how they show up and integrate in the workplace.

She bridged the gap so beautifully between personal and professional identities, recognizing work as a fundamental piece of how we define ourselves. We are shaped by how we were raised: the messages we received and the narratives we got about relationships.

Relationships are hard, am I right? They’re complex. They’re joyful, messy, multi-layered, and full of raw human emotion. We’re not robots. Our “relationship resume” impacts the expectations we have for others and how we communicate with one another, and this in turn influences how we manage, how we lead, and how we work with others.

Think back to your childhood for a moment: how you were raised. What’s the narrative around relationships you grew up with? Perel asked us,

“Were you raised for loyalty or autonomy?”

Hmm. Interesting, isn’t it? This piece of her keynote has stayed with me, prompting me to do a bit of my own thoughtful self-reflection. If you were raised for loyalty, you were taught you are never alone. You were taught that relationships are central, and you are part of a network of connection, making you more likely to engage in collaboration because it’s safe to trust. On the other end of the spectrum, you may have been raised to be more self-reliant and independent, with the idea that relationships are more secondary with you at the center – more of an “I rely on myself” approach, or “nobody does it better than me.” If this sounds familiar, maybe you were raised for autonomy.

Neither is good or bad, neither is right or wrong. Perhaps you experienced both growing up in different capacities with different people. Her point though: your relationship resume, whether shaped by loyalty, autonomy, or some combination, doesn’t stop when you walk through the front door of your workplaces.

Ok, so how does this play out in our workplaces as leaders, managers, and contributors? Esther shared a clip of her podcast, Where Should We Begin, in which she navigated 2 co-founders through a conversation about trust and delegation, and how this idea of loyalty and autonomy has influenced the way they work with others. Making the transition from individual contributor to manager requires learning delegation. Think about this skill and the mindset of someone raised for autonomy. It’s often challenging for someone raised for autonomy to trust another person to do the project, fulfill the task, or complete the job, as well as if they had done it themselves. They are self-reliant, and perhaps enjoy taking on many responsibilities and seeing projects through from start to finish. Someone raised for loyalty relies more on others, naturally creating more space for collaboration. They reach out when problems arise and depend on the people around them. But can a person raised for autonomy trust others and be a loyal person in the relationships they have at home and in the workplace? Of course.

I can’t help but think about Esther’s words and extend them. Yes, we are humans that enter the front door of our workplaces with our whole selves. This makes sense to me, but this idea of being our whole selves at work requires organizations to share intentional thought and action to support their employees. There are hidden diversities among all of us that stem from our unique experiences. If we, consciously or not, ask that we check a piece of ourselves at the door every morning before we enter the workplace, we miss an opportunity. Embracing our whole selves encourages the best of others’ whole selves, uncovering our unique and diverse strengths and skillsets. Share them, celebrate them, and look for opportunities for people to use them.