Employees who trust their leadership are twice as likely to say they will be with their company one year from now, Gallup studies show. That’s why managers are encouraged to build trust among their teammates, but all too often, their attempts to be “friendly and approachable” hit the wall.

Enter relational intelligence – a concept that sounds similar to emotional intelligence but extends beyond it. Relational intelligence is defined by Esther Perel, a leading psychotherapist and expert in personal and professional relationships, as the ability to deal with other people and become in tune with their needs.

How does it work

Relational intelligence complements emotional intelligence in achieving social competence at work – while emotional intelligence focuses on self-awareness, relational intelligence focuses on other-awareness. This helps you connect with others easily, especially when a goal must be reached together, accountability needs to be brought in, or when a problem or conflict needs resolution.

Your relational intelligence also comes to the fore when you probe to understand the relational patterns someone is bringing into the workplace from their personal life or the unspoken goals that are driving someone to act a particular way. This deeper understanding, followed by authentic communication, builds trust, leading to better engagement and results within the team.

Let’s see this in action in these two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Unmet deadlines, unclear deliverables

You have a deadline to meet and have already briefed your teammates on their deliverables, but when the work comes in for review, you are surprised to see that one of them has not followed the brief. The deadline is missed and later, another colleague tells you that your teammate had been confused about the brief right from the beginning but was reluctant to come to you and risk “sounding stupid”. You’re surprised since you have never berated anyone who has come to you before.

Applying relational intelligence: While you may have been emotionally intelligent and far from condescending towards your team, the key is to understand that the team member in question comes with her own relational baggage. Relational intelligence experts call this the relational resume – the unwritten resume of the relationships an individual has had in their lifetime and the impact it has had on them.

For instance, this team member might have had a childhood authority figure who ridiculed her for asking questions or doubts. To reassure her that asking questions does not make her look bad, you could set an example by sharing your own doubts or questions at the next town hall or multi-team briefing. When your teammate observes you and realises that she is in a safe space, she is likely to trust you and open up to you without fear or reluctance.

Scenario 2: Unshared concerns, unfulfilled potential

Your team member tells you that he wishes to quit immediately due to health reasons that he is unwilling to discuss with you. You are concerned and agree to relieve him, but you’re left scrambling to fill the position in time for a major project. You later get to know that an ex-colleague has hired him after addressing his health concerns.

Applying relational intelligence: While you did the right thing by showing concern for your team member’s health and relieving him of his duties, you might have forgotten to address his unspoken fears around remaining a productive member of the workforce and supporting himself and his family. Perhaps you could have offered him flexible projects or reskilling opportunities and retained him in the team or organization. He would have gone through less upheaval and anxiety, and made a successful transition to a productive role while managing his medical condition. Most importantly, as a leader, the simple relational act of helping your team member reach his goals while also enabling your team’s goals would have built trust and loyalty.

Ultimately, as Esther Perel explained recently in a post-pandemic article, relational intelligence is about balancing compassion and productivity. While the compassionate statement says, “I understand,” the productive statement asks, “How can we help each other?” Practising these two statements can be the start of your relational intelligence journey.

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