My colleague Dee was a conscientious teacher – regularly going over and above expectations for her students. She loved her job, despite the bothersome bureaucracy. One Saturday evening as she sat down for a meal with her family the phone rang. Before asking whether or not it was a convenient time, let alone apologising for calling at the weekend Dee’s supervisor launched into an accusation. As it happens Dee was not the person responsible for the crisis and the conversation cleared that up – but that was not what distressed Dee. It was the fact that at no time in the previous two years had her efforts been noticed, let alone acknowledged. Not once had the supervisor had a positive communication with her, or gone out of her way to ask how she was doing or say that she was a valued member of staff. But when a problem occurred the immediate reaction was to blame and belittle rather than treat Dee with the courtesy and respect she deserved. Dee kept going in the job for many years because she was motivated by her students but the executive made her feel like an automaton, not a human being. Her work environment was toxic because no-one was paying attention to building a positive culture.
A couple of months ago Jenny confided that she was ‘running on empty’. Trying to balance the demands of being a mother to two lively small boys, building her own business and taking on some elder care responsibilities was leaving her drained. She was just about keeping it all together but needed her emotional resources topped up from time to time and this wasn’t happening. Her partner was helpful around the house and with the children but never complimented her or said she had done a good job, only bought her flowers when asked and pointed out any little thing that did not meet his pernickety standards. She was not living with violence or even verbal abuse and not planning to leave anytime soon – but nevertheless her home environment was toxic. She had tried demonstrating what she meant by doing little things for him but he seemed to think that this was sentimental clap trap. This drained her even more.
Both these relationships were running on empty. No-one was topping up the emotional bank account so there was nothing left to draw on. Dee eventually left her job and I wouldn’t bet on Jenny’s relationship lasting into a comfortable old age either. You would not expect a car to run on an empty tank – so why would you expect a relationship to do so? It eventually grinds to a halt.
So what does it mean to keep the emotional bank account topped up? It is not the big gestures on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day but the ordinary everyday things that make the biggest difference. At work it includes colleagues saying good morning with a smile and asking how you are going from time to time. It means taking notice and showing appreciation of the efforts being made. It is leaders trusting their staff to do a good job and letting them get on with it – and then leaving a note in their pigeon hole to say well done. At home it is being told that you are being a great mum or dad and that your partner admires your qualities – whatever these are. It is the appreciative ‘wow’ when you have gone to the effort to dress up for an occasion. It is bringing home a special treat from time to time or booking a night out. It is saying sorry when there is a reason to do so. It is noticing you are tired and suggesting you take it easy for a while – perhaps with a cup of tea or glass or wine. One friend regularly puts little notes under her partner’s pillow when she is away for work just reminding him how much she loves him. Shelley Gable’s research ** shows that ‘active constructive responding’ – demonstrating genuine pleasure in your partner’s achievements – has a positive impact on the longevity of the relationship.
It doesn’t take much to make deposits in the emotional piggy bank of your relationships from time to time. Some thought, some generosity of spirit and a little effort pays big dividends. And when a crisis hits you have something to draw on. If you value the people in your life show them that you do. That’s not too hard – is it?
** Gable, Shelly L., Reis, Harry T., Impett, Emily A. and Asher, Evan R. (2004) ‘What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87: 228–45.