You’ve at least heard of Stephen Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but have you heard of the principle called emotional bank accounts? I’d love to be able to claim credit for the concept, but it comes straight out of Covey’s book. If you haven’t read it, get a copy over the holidays and work through it. There’s a reason why it was on the best-seller list.

So what is this great principle?
It’s very simple, really. In any long-term relationship, you have a store of good- or ill will called an emotional bank account. Every time you do something that the other person perceives as loving or caring, you make a deposit. Every time you do something the other person perceives as unloving or uncaring, you make a withdrawal. If your account becomes overdrawn, the relationship is in danger. If the account becomes seriously overdrawn for a long period of time, the relationship may end.

A key part of the definition is “that which the other person perceives as loving or unloving.” It doesn’t matter what you think is loving; it’s what the other person perceives that counts. And of course, this means that you’ve got to know the other person well enough to know the things that person perceives as loving.

For example, I love to eat out. So, my idea of caring for my employees would be to take them out to eat on a regular basis. I bet, though, if truth were known, most of them would skip lunch in exchange for a nicer room on the road every so often. This gesture would be a good deposit into the emotional bank account, whereas taking everyone out for a $200 lunch is probably not worth as much at all, to some.

There’s a lot more to say about emotional bank accounts (read the book!), but I think you get the idea. One of Covey’s biggest points is that you can’t make up an overdrawn account with one big deposit. It takes lots of little deposits, over time, to keep that account in the black. And that’s where I want to go next.

If you are a manager
Covey’s book talks a lot about families, so as a manager, you may wonder why I’m aiming this at you. Guess what? You and the people you manage are, in many ways, like a family, because you’ve got many of the same long-term relationship issues.

The principle still applies, just like it does in all relationships. If you’re continually making withdrawals—doing things that your employees perceive as uncaring, unprofessional, or both—then eventually all your emotional bank accounts will be overdrawn. There’s a critical difference, though: Unlike the family, all of your employees can leave!

What is the poor manager to do? I can tell you one thing that won’t work: giving everyone some generic gift during the Holidays, thinking it makes up for anything. Even bonuses, as welcome as they may be, won’t be worth much as a deposit if the account is in trouble.

In fact, an interesting phenomenon takes place when an emotional bank account is overdrawn: gifts and actions meant as deposits can actually become withdrawals, because they are perceived as “buy offs!”

So managers, while you’re worrying about your fiscal accounts, here are a few guidelines for keeping those oft-neglected emotional accounts up to snuff:

  • Figure out what each member of your work family sees as loving and caring, and then figure out a way to do it. It may be making sure their travel is as easy as possible. It may be increasing their per diem to something reasonable. How about giving them a small stipend two or three times a year to buy their families something while traveling? How about making sure they have a certain amount of time at home each month, or each quarter?
  • It’s not just about money. A trainer I knew finally quit doing training for one organization, even though they paid more than anyone else. Why? The lab was never ready. All of us who trained there knew you had to arrive a couple of hours before class, because we would often have to do a panic software install. That’s a withdrawal, and for that trainer it finally was too much.

Simple things can often have great impact. Think about this: I’m in my hotel room on Sunday night, having just arrived in a town I’ve never been to before, when the phone rings. It’s my manager. “Just calling to make sure everything’s okay with the room and the flight. Need anything?” How do you think that call would make me feel? You got it: special, cared for, and important to my manager. A big deposit.

Do some year-end bookkeeping
Every one of us has relationships, and every one of these relationships varies in degrees of health. As you take some time the next few weeks to recoup and regroup, also take some time to assess your relationships. Think about each emotional bank account, business-related and personal. Is it overdrawn or comfortably in the black? What investments do you need to make in the relationship? Remember, money may come and go; it’s the relationships we have that truly make us rich.

Bruce Maples is a writer, trainer, and consultant living in Louisville, KY.