Why Esther Perel says ‘relational intelligence’ is now part of the bottom line

Esther Perel
Author and psychotherapist Esther Perel (right) in conversation with Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit on Oct. 11, 2022.
Stuart Isett for Fortune

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught leaders, it’s that empathy is more important than ever to support employees. But getting it right—empathy, that is—has also never been harder. Cue the expert. Author and psychotherapist Esther Perel joined Fortune at its Most Powerful Women Summit on Tuesday to discuss working toward a more empathetic workplace. 

Once viewed as “soft” skills associated only with women, Perel says relation skills are now imperative for all leaders to master. The meaning of work has shifted over the past few years to an “identity economy,” she told the audience, meaning work is called on to meet more relational needs “like it never did before.” And the myth that one can either be powerful or connected, but never both, is being dispelled. Now, employers are being called on to be more vulnerable and share the stories that Perel says make up their “unofficial resume.” 

“Everyone in this room also has an unofficial resume, which is your relationship history, which are the messages that you received about how you are in the world,” Perel said. “Whether you have had a focus that emphasizes autonomy and self-reliance, or whether you grew up with a focus that emphasizes loyalty and interdependence. That unofficial resume is our story, and stories are what bind us to people.  That’s the bridge.”

Sharing where one went to school or what boards people sit on is no longer enough to connect with employees, Perel said; instead, getting vulnerable about personal life events and narratives is more effective, as it helps colleagues better understand where someone is coming from when working through conflict or challenges in the workplace.

“[Those stories] give a whole different sense of who you are working with,” said Perel. “We make assumptions about people that we can spend years with, and we project onto them a whole bunch of things.” 

Cutting through such projections and assumptions allows people to not only work better together, but work through conflict faster. Perel said that every argument a person has at work can be narrowed down to three different relationship issues that lay beneath the surface. When people deal with conflict in the workplace it’s either about power and control; care and closeness; or respect and recognition. It’s on leaders to identify which one they’re facing, to gain a more objective understanding of the real issues at play. 

Failing to do such frequently escalates into a bigger workplace issue. 

“Relational intelligence at this point is very much a part of the bottom line,” says Perel.

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