She’s A Couples Counselor, But For Your Work Relationships

Famed therapist Esther Perel is carving out a new niche as an executive coach. She insists her skills haven’t changed. The workplace has. She’s A Couples Counselor, But For Your Work Relationships

Michael Lovitch and Hollis Carter sat side-by-side on a therapist’s couch in a Manhattan office tower late one Friday, getting ready for the move that would take Mr. Carter to Utah and make theirs a long-distance relationship.

“We’ve never done this,” said Mr. Lovitch, who would be staying behind in Colorado.

You both rely on each other’s physical presence, the therapist noted, then asked: Which of you will feel the separation anxiety most?

It sounds like couples’ counseling, and in a way, it is. Messrs. Lovitch and Carter, ages 49 and 34 respectively, are the co-founders of Baby Bathwater Institute, a startup network for entrepreneurs. When they wanted to fine-tune their working relationship, rather than turning to an executive coach, they came to see Esther Perel, the psychotherapist, author and podcast host best known for helping couples heal their bonds after an affair.

The Belgian-born Ms. Perel has become one of the world’s best-known psychotherapists thanks to best-selling books like “Mating in Captivity” and the popular podcast “Where Should We Begin?,” which takes listeners into real couples’ counseling sessions. Her work centers on the dynamics of relationships and the behavior patterns that bring joy—or result in misery and divorce.

Lately, business leaders and companies seeking their own kind of relationship repair are turning up on Ms. Perel’s couch. Startup founders are calling her in for help working with their co-founders, while companies like crowdfunding website Kickstarter and X, a unit of Google-parent Alphabet Inc., have hired her to work with both rank-and-file employees and executives.

All that has made Ms. Perel, 61 years old, an unlikely but fitting management guru for an age when many workers feel married to their jobs and executives are rated on qualities like authenticity and emotional intelligence.

Ms. Perel is turning the latest twist in her career into a second podcast. “How’s Work?” made its debut on Spotify Technology SA ’s platform last week. It will feature therapy sessions for pairs of co-workers, including fighter-jet pilots, co-owners of a taqueria and a husband and wife starting a business while ending their marriage. (Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a content partnership with Gimlet Media, a unit of Spotify.)

In Ms. Perel’s view, a pair of revolutions has transformed relationships at home and work. Marriage, once an economic arrangement, is now seen as a path to self-actualization, a way for each partner to become their best self. (“We used to leave marriages because of misery,” says Ms. Perel. “Now we leave because we could be happier elsewhere.”)

At work, a similar shift is under way as white-collar employees use terms like passion, purpose and fulfillment to describe their career ideals—things individuals previously sought in their off hours. “We don’t just stay for the salary,” she says, “we leave [jobs] because we’re not growing and getting promoted.”

In this new world, relationships inside companies take on outsize importance. Yet managers’ people skills are out of practice in what Ms. Perel calls a “dehumanized” work environment. Daily conversations with co-workers occur via email and chat, candidates interview for jobs by videotaping answers to prompts on a screen and remote employees can feel, well, remote. Companies complain that young staffers seem allergic to picking up the phone and calling someone, and burnout, in the form of constant email and notifications, is a growing concern in human-resources departments.

“That’s when a therapist gets brought in,” says Ms. Perel.

Ms. Perel had counseled some nonprofits on a pro bono basis in the late 1990s. Tech companies and startup founders who listened to “Where Should We Begin?” since it launched in 2017 have brought her back to the business world, seeking their own version of the breakthroughs they heard on that podcast.

The Baby Bathwater Institute founders have worked through issues on Ms. Perel’s couch for the last couple of years. Messrs. Carter and Lovitch said she has helped them stop keeping score on who does what, instead giving each other leeway to do the things they enjoy most.

She has also taught them to repeat a mantra: “Because I do this, you can do this,” Ms. Perel’s description of how a happy, complementary partnership works.

For Baby Bathwater, that means Mr. Lovitch develops content for the group’s events while Mr. Carter spends time with musicians that perform at the gatherings. And Mr. Carter mans the fort at work when Mr. Lovitch disappears for two weeks to attend a brain-tech conference and commune with people in the field. “We treat it more like a marriage than a transactional partnership,” says Mr. Carter, who is living in Boulder again after he realized he preferred it to Utah.
Ms. Perel has pointed out that the pair’s mind-meld can make it tough for other employees to find a place in the small company. After the men complained of an employee who couldn’t read their minds after a short time on the job, she suggested moving the woman’s desk between their own to learn by osmosis. They did, and she remains at the company, Ms. Carter says. Now, whenever the two co-founders step outside for a break or a smoke, they invite other employees to join. “That’s when the ideas happen, outside official meetings,” Mr. Lovitch says.

X, Alphabet’s research-and-development subsidiary, brought Ms. Perel in for workshops with employees for two years. X is dedicated to pursuing “moonshots,” groundbreaking technologies that could take years or decades to manifest. Gina Rudan, an X employee who works on culture and diversity, says the organization aims to create a culture where employees can tackle projects of huge scope and scale, fail at them and remain eager to try something new.

“This kind of work requires emotional intelligence and the ability to feel comfortable in discomfort,” she says.

Yet relationship advice might have its limits in the workplace. One executive whose firm hired Ms. Perel said that when businesses face more fundamental issues, working on interpersonal dynamics only goes so far.

“It’s debatable to what degree an emotional confrontation can make change,” said the executive, who ultimately left the company.

Companies might be more open to having a therapist weigh in on work issues because executives want to address business and personal matters in the same conversation, says Jerry Colonna, a coach and author who has worked with prominent founders and is himself the founder of investment firm Flatiron Partners. People are suffering at work for a host of reasons, says Mr. Colonna, who is also a practicing Buddhist.

“To come at a challenge with a performative bent, like, ‘How do we drive sales faster?’ is insufficient to address the real issues,” he says.

Indeed, when Ms. Perel encounters clients with personal difficulties that go beyond the workplace, she asks whether they’ve considered talking to a therapist but stops short of pushing that option on them. “My assumption is that work isn’t the only place they’re seeing this issue,” she says.

Nancy Elder, a former Mattel Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. executive who is now chief communications officer at sports-streaming platform DAZN, has observed Ms. Perel advise executive leaders whose jobs include raising tough issues with chief executives.

The approach, which a former client describes as a “kind of jujitsu,” often begins with the executive telling the CEO she has made some observations, and asks, “Are you open to hearing more?”

Ms. Perel grew up living above her parents’ clothing store in the Belgian city of Antwerp (“A family business,” she says, “we didn’t call it ‘co-founders’ then”), and in therapy sessions, her mien is that of a tailor working quickly and near imperceptibly, taking the measure of the individuals and relationships, then suggesting an alteration, a nip here, a stitch there. Her tone can be playful—in one session telling a pair of co-founders, “I have this idea, what do you think?”—rather than tough-love, which can trigger feelings of shame and defensiveness, she says.

“There’s a seduction,” she says. “I’m going to offer something that normally you should refuse.”

Sessions with Ms. Perel often begin with questions about clients’ childhoods: Did their parents leave them to figure things out for themselves, or were they raised with a sense of interdependence? When she counsels co-founders, she asks which partner is the author of the company’s story, a question that quickly reveals imbalances and sources of tension. With executives, she rehearses scripts for tough conversations with higher-ups, even down to the moments they should take a breath between statements.

Andrew Herr and Kent Nygren came to Ms. Perel this past summer for insights on their partnership as co-founders of Kitt Bio Inc., which makes a product to combat jet lag.

They sought her out ahead of Mr. Nygren’s planned move to join Mr. Herr on the West Coast.

Both men said they were surprised how quickly Ms. Perel got to deep-seated issues, and said their conversations changed afterward. The 36-year-old Mr. Herr, an admitted perfectionist, said he learned that he had to better communicate to Mr. Nygren which aspects of product development are most important to him. And Mr. Nygren, 34, said he learned to ask ‘What do you think will go wrong?’ at times when Mr. Herr seemed to question his calls.

“I told a friend after, ‘It probably doubled the future value of our company,’” Mr. Herr said after the session. Ultimately, Mr. Nygren determined it wasn’t the right time to move from the East Coast and switched to an adviser role at Kitt Bio earlier this month.

Ms. Perel, who has spent 35 years as a family therapist, says she’s no workplace expert; instead, the workplace has evolved to need her skills.

“My expertise is the same,” she says. “I’ve changed my location from the bedroom to the boardroom.” She’s A Couples Counselor,She’s A Couples Counselor,She’s A Couples Counselor,She’s A Couples Counselor,She’s A Couples Counselor,She’s A Couples Counselor,She’s A Couples Counselor


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