Furiously, I banged the table.

I actually banged the table.

I had been invited to a meeting that I thought was a waste of time. Reluctantly, I went there, and it turned out as vague and as badly prepared as I had feared.

I had already been frustrated with having too many distractions that kept me from doing “my actual work”, so when the organizer of the meeting asked me to invest more time in something that I thought was absolutely not worth it, I responded in an unusual way.

An angry man gesturing at his laptop

I lost it.

I yelled, I banged the table and used pretty — ehm — expressive language.

In any given year, you can probably count the times this happens to me on the fingers of one hand. And, you could still hold an espresso cup with the remaining fingers.

My fit was effective, however. Oh yes. It shortened the discussion, there was no additional work coming my way, and the meeting was quickly dissolved.

So far, so good.

You always meet twice

However…

What if, in the future, I have to work with the colleague who had set up this meeting again? In fact, this is almost certain. What if I need his help with something? Is he going to be willing to help me? Even when he does not have to?

Unlikely.

His last experience with me was so bad that my goodwill credit with him has turned negative. I had gone into relationship debt.

We speak of technical debt when we talk about the state of an entire codebase or software product.

We speak of organizational debt when we talk about an entire organization.

Now, relationship debt describes a state on the individual level.

All three have in common that you take shortcuts or use a workaround to meet some short-term goal, at the cost of adding to a problem that will haunt you in the future.

In a codebase, you might tweak an existing function to meet your special case at hand. The result is that everyone who touches this function in the future will have to make sure that they do not break your special case. Maintenance becomes harder, development slows down a little.

In a growing organization, you might speed up your hiring after sudden growth of profits, using the new money to attract top talent. However, this skews the salary distribution in your organization, with new hires making much more than a lot of the existing employees. If you do not correct this soon, long-term team members will feel underappreciated and might leave.

In a relationship, finally, you might do what I did: Force your way through to a decision in your favour. And, of course, there are other ways to go into relationship debt:

Not including somebody in a decision in order to get a result more quickly.

Talking to somebody’s boss without talking to the person themselves first.

Withholding information so that you get somebody to agree.

Simply not interacting with somebody for months.

Cutting somebody off in a meeting or conversation.

Or even: Threatening somebody by saying something like “If you do that, you’re going to regret it!”.

Emotions and bank accounts

A scale with boxes on it, tipped to one side to suggest that something is out of balance

All these actions reduce the level of trust between you and somebody else. Of course, I’m not the first one to observe this. In his famous classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduces the metaphor of the emotional bank account.

A real-world bank account is there to make deposits into, thus building up a reserve from which we can make withdrawals when we need to.

The emotional bank account describes the amount of trust that you have built up in a relationship. It is about the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.

If your bank account is overdrawn, there will be little trust.

There will be insecurity.

There will be tension.

Casual remarks will be interpreted as insults, so that you have to measure every word you utter. It’s like walking on a mine field. You have to watch your back, and there are large amounts of politicking. Many organizations have a lot of that.

On the other hand, when the trust level is high, then communication is easy, instant, and effective. Even if you communicate in an unclear way, or choose the wrong words, a trusted friend will still get your meaning and will not easily be insulted.

Refactoring relationship debt

Two people shaking hands

This is where you want to be. The ideal state is for us to have trustful relationships with everyone we interact with, so that communication and collaboration happen smoothly and without friction.

However, reality is different. We cannot have a high trust level with everyone at the same time. It would be too much work and too time consuming. We do not have the same level of trust with somebody we just met as with a long-time friend.

Moreover, we make mistakes. We forget to include somebody in a discussion, or to invite them to a meeting. We are in a rush and behave in an inconsiderate way to somebody. For weeks in a row, we do not take the time to catch up with an important colleague.

In other words, it is inevitable that some of our relationships do not have as high a level of trust as we would wish. We want to get out of relationship debt, or we want to increase our emotional bank account.

Technical debt is tackled through code refactoring. So how do we refactor relationship debt?

Generally, you can make these deposits through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping your commitments. Sounds easy enough, right?

So let’s get a bit more precise. Here are some practical and concrete ways to make major deposits:

Listening and understanding

A colleague, let’s call him Bill, was unhappy with the way we worked. He did not like the processes in our team, and he thought we could use certain tools in a better way.

However, since he felt he was the only one who thought that way, he did not use official ways to try to effect a change. Rather, he resorted to ranting. A snide comment here, a sarcastic remark there. He did not trust that anybody would take his complaints and ideas seriously.

In my next one-on-one with him, I asked him about his unhappiness with the situation and listened to him. Somebody merely listening to his reasoning, his frustrations, and his ideas, seemed to mean a lot to him already. Even if we did not implement his ideas in the end.

One man talking, another man listening

This case once more showed that smart people don’t always need things to happen their way — they do need to know they have been heard, though.

In a way, listening and understanding the other person is the foundation for all other deposits that you make into an emotional bank account. For example, imagine you assign an engineer to a research-heavy, greenfield project — what a dream, right? However, what if that engineer feels lost in the low-structure environment of a greenfield project, and would rather fix urgent production bugs?

What you considered a deposit is in fact a withdrawal for the engineer.

The opposite might happen, as well. When I was 16, I was working in a construction business during holidays to make some pocket money. One day, some other worker noticed that I did not have a metering rule, and he gave me one of his. It was heavily used, pretty beat-up, and had scratches all over. He probably would have thrown it away soon. However, this was the first tool I owned myself. It had been given to me by a professional craftsman, and I felt proud of it.

To this man, it did not mean much. To me, it meant a lot at that point in my life.

Understand the people you live and work with, and making deposits becomes easier and more effective.

Attending to the little things

People are often surprised when I ask them: “So, do you have plans for your birthday on Saturday?” They don’t expect me to know when their birthday is. To such questions, I get reactions ranging from a pleased smile to “How the f— do you know it’s my birthday?”.

However, it’s so easy that I’m surprised that more people are not doing this: By and by, I simply put the birthdays of most people I care about, or who I work closely with, in my calendar. That’s almost zero effort, and it’s an effective way to show people that I care about them, and that I’m interested in them as individuals.

Little things like remembering people’s birthdays can have a positive effect on your emotional bank account. If birthdays are too cheesy for you, there are a lot of other such opportunities:

  • Asking “How are you?” with genuine interest, and really listening to the answer.
  • Welcoming someone back after they were sick and telling them it’s good to have them around again.
  • Noticing somebody’s new haircut.
  • Asking how somebody’s children/parents are doing.
  • Generally, remembering what’s going on in somebody else’s life. Have they finally been able to move out of the apartment they were unhappy with? How did the sports class go that they wanted to try out? How did the weekend trip go?

It does not take much to signal to somebody that they are noticed, and that they are not just a “resource”. This feeling is important to any human, so they will appreciate you giving it to them. Your emotional bank account will go up.

Keeping Commitments

This probably does not come as a huge surprise: Keeping a commitment is a major deposit into the emotional bank account. Breaking a commitment is a major withdrawal.

At work, if you tell somebody you will finish the feature by Friday, so it can be released early next week, then they will be disappointed if you do not deliver and the release has to be postponed. Next time you commit to a due date with them, they will be cautious. Their confidence in your ability (or willingness) to deliver in time will be weakened, and they might even make a backup plan. If they feel that you did not do your best to keep the commitment, your relationship might suffer.

On the other hand, if you do deliver as agreed, they will be happy and reassured. They will perceive you as reliable and trustworthy.

The more difficult it is to keep the commitment, the higher the trust you earn by keeping it. There is a catch, though: The other person has to know about the difficulty you had to overcome. This is a challenge for a lot of engineers: Sometimes, they pull off amazing things within impossible deadlines, but, because others don’t quite understand what they do, they don’t get the credit they deserve.

Often, engineers even downplay their contribution, or forget to mention the obstacles they faced. In such cases, it takes good communication skills and some empathy to make others aware of your achievements.

Clarifying expectations

Chris and Nancy seem to have a misunderstanding.

Chris: “Nancy, we really need to get these translations done now. Can you find the time to do this today?”

Nancy: “Um, sure. But I wasn’t aware that you expected me to do this. In fact, I thought you were going to pass the translation strings on to the localization team.”

Chris: “What? But I thought we collect everything in the main task, and, since the main task is assigned to you, you then pass on the list.”

Nancy: “But wouldn’t it be way faster if you do it? After all, you did it last time and know how it works.”

In our complex work environments, misunderstandings like this happen all the time. You wait for some other person to finally do X, only to find out that they are waiting for you to do X. This does not necessarily have to be anybody’s fault, because:

Situations change. Unforeseen things happen. Uncertainty arises.

Uncertainty is the enemy of trust. And, it is unavoidable. If you want to maintain an atmosphere of trust and safety, you have to actively work against the uncertainty. You can do this by clarifying expectations.

Chris: “Nancy, about the translations, can you collect them this time, and pass them on to the localization team?”

Nancy: “Yes, sure. Can you walk me through the exact steps once more? I don’t think I know exactly what to do when.”

Chris: “Definitely. Shall we do it right now?”

Nancy: “Yes, right now is good.”

Nancy and Chris now have a clear understanding of what each other expects. They eliminated some unknowns that were hiding in the dark between them, and even discovered a training opportunity for Nancy. All this creates trust and safety.

Taking the time to clarify expectations with someone is a deposit, but also a protection against unnoticed withdrawals. If expectations are unclear or fuzzy, they have a lower chance of being met. In the example above, this leads to Chris feeling annoyed without Nancy noticing.

This is the tricky part about such situations: By the time you notice, the damage might already be done. Moreover, these unclear situations are so common that Stephen Covey noted:

The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambiguous expectations around roles and goals.

Also, even if expectations are implicit and have never been openly expressed, this does not mean they are any weaker. If they are not met, the person who holds them will still be upset.

Therefore, clarifying expectations is especially effective at the beginning of a new situation, when all expectations are implicit: You take a new role, join a new team, start working with new stakeholders, start a new project, or get new neighbours. Setting expectations straight is important also with children, because they come up with funny ideas all the time.

Apologizing sincerely when you make a withdrawal

A cup saying "I'm sorry for what I said before I had my coffee "

Unless you are a saint, you will not only make deposits into emotional bank accounts. At the beginning of this post, I told a story how I made a withdrawal by shouting somebody down. Since there were not many deposits in my emotional bank account with this person — let’s call him Harry —, I am sure I went into relationship debt due to my aggressive behaviour in the meeting.

After some nudging from a friend, I asked Harry for a conversation. In that conversation, I said (and, more importantly, meant) the following: “Harry, I’m sorry I got so aggressive in our meeting the other day. I was loud, I was angry, I overreacted. That was inappropriate, and it was not okay.”

Harry was relieved that I apologized, because up to that meeting, he had known me as a rather calm person, and was worried by my strong reaction. We talked things over, explained our different perspectives once more, and reached a conclusion. It took less than 15 minutes.

I left the table feeling better, and, I believe, so did Harry. We felt safer and more trusting with each other again, and the thought of future collaboration was pleasant instead of awkward.

When you make a withdrawal from an emotional bank account, then it’s a good idea to apologize. Careful, though: The apology might be a deposit, but that depends on how sincere it is. If you don’t really mean it, the other person will notice. It will not be the deposit you hoped for, but, instead, another withdrawal.

If you apologize unconditionally, however, your relationship might even be better afterwards than before your unlucky interaction. That’s because the other person knows you a bit better, and because you have shown vulnerability.

Conclusion

Relationships between people are the most valuable asset an organization has. They are also among the most valuable assets that you as an individual have. Therefore, good relationships are clearly desirable. However, relationships are not constant, fixed objects that you can put in a shelf.

They change over time.

They can be damaged.

They need maintenance.

If you develop a feeling for the balance of your emotional bank accounts, you will know when you risk going into relationship debt. With the ideas above, some empathy, and a little time, you can fill these accounts up again so that your interactions and communication remain smooth and positive.

Don’t go into relationship debt for too long!