The Emotional Bank Account Applied to Agency Business

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The Emotional Bank Account Concept

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is one of the most popular and best-selling personal development books of all time. I’ve had a copy since college when a friend gifted it to me, but I didn’t truly appreciate its lessons until recently, when I revisited the book for our quarterly Barrel Partners meeting, where the four of us shared our respective takeaways.

One of the memorable takeaways for me was the concept of the Emotional Bank Account. Here’s how Covey explains it:

An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.

If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it. My communication may not be clear, but you’ll get my meaning anyway. You won’t make me “an offender for a word.” When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.

But if I have a habit of showing discourtesy, disrespect, cutting you off, overreacting, ignoring you, becoming arbitrary, betraying your trust, threatening you, or playing little tin god in your life, eventually my Emotional Bank Account is overdrawn. The trust level gets very low.

The Emotional Bank Account concept shows that there are no shortcuts or quick fixes to relationships. Trust is earned through a steady stream of deposits. Covey presents six major types of deposits that can build up the Emotional Bank Account:

  1. Understanding the Individual
  2. Attending to the Little Things
  3. Keeping Commitments
  4. Clarifying Expectations
  5. Showing Personal Integrity
  6. Apologizing Sincerely When You Make a Withdrawal

Covey pairs these deposits with stories from his own parenting experience and shows the difference that making or failing to make deposits can have on relationships.

In the next section, I dive into each of the deposits and pair them with examples and applications in the agency business. Emotional Bank Account deposits are critical for family relationships, as Covey shows, and they are also very important for building trust with clients, employees, and other collaborators in the agency business.

The Deposits Applied to Agency Business

1. Understanding the Individual

Without knowing what’s important to the other person, it’s hard to know what constitutes a deposit or what constitutes a withdrawal. This is only achieved by making the effort to really know the other party–by being curious, asking questions, and imagining what it’s like to be in their place.

In my line of work, I’ve made the mistake countless times of jumping to conclusions or assuming that I know someone rather than taking the time to really understand them. Some examples include:

  • Writing off a client as “difficult” or “disorganized” when they don’t give our team a desired response or mirror our preferred pace when in fact they are having similar reservations about our style of working.
  • Openly praising an employee at a team meeting thinking they’ll be proud about it only to learn later that they really dislike being in the spotlight.
  • Assuming an employee is uninterested or disengaged because they’re silent during a meeting when in fact they’ve done a great deal of research and have a much firmer grasp than most otherIt’s often hard to remember, but I’ve come out with much less friction and stress when I give people the benefit of the doubt right off the bat and then to openly ask questions about how they’re feeling, what they prefer, and if there’s any specific feedback about what I’m doing on my end. Depending on my Emotional Account Bank balance, the quality of these answers will vary, but if I stick with it and keep showing my curiosity, there’s a strong possibility that people will appreciate the effort and share more honest answers.

2. Attending to the Little Things

A couple of years ago, whenever we’d have a string of losses from our new business efforts, I’d make a passing remark about our “mounting losses” and how we needed to turn things around. For me, this was a throwaway comment meant to sarcastically emphasize that losing sucked, a phrase I had used over the years without thinking twice about it. Our Director of Business Development Dan Fleishaker pulled me aside one day and remarked that it didn’t feel good whenever I made the remark. It felt overly negative and made things seem worse than they were. It also didn’t reflect well on my leadership. Instead of being supportive or encouraging at the very moment when our sales efforts could use positivity, I was weighing things down with a negative side remark.

Dan was right, of course, and I stopped using the phrase. I had been making Emotional Bank Account withdrawals with him and whoever else that was impacted without every noticing for myself.

I’m pretty certain that there are numerous other little things – one might call them micro-aggressions or faux pas or whatever – that escape my self-awareness and cause different levels of damage to Emotional Bank Accounts everywhere. In some cases, I’ll be lucky to have someone like Dan who courageously delivers the feedback. For the other instances, I have to self-reflect and monitor my ways of being, especially around language, to ensure I’m attending to the little things.

3. Keeping Commitments

Keeping a commitment or a promise is a major deposit; breaking one is a major withdrawal. In fact, there’s probably not a more massive withdrawal than to make a promise that’s important to someone and then not to come through. The next time a promise is made, they won’t believe it.

In a services business, keeping commitments is the entire game. There is the core activity of promising certain milestones to the client and then delivering on them. Do this enough times consistently and it’s how you build a reputation. Falter enough times and that’s how you end up losing clients and having no references for future work.

But commitments don’t have to be about the statement of work or something written in a contract. In our business, we make commitments of all kinds. It’s often the smaller commitments that have a way of slipping through the cracks and then creating deeper cracks in the trust. Some of these include:

  • Promising to follow up with a client or a colleague by a certain time and then not doing it at all or “going silent” and responding at a much later time.
  • Receiving feedback on a particular type of mistake, committing to not making that mistake again, and then proceeding to make the very same mistake on the next assignment (e.g. spelling/grammar, following instructions, etc.)
  • Agreeing to prepare and read up certain material prior to a meeting but then coming to the meeting totally unprepared (and worse, not admitting to being unprepared until it’s clearly evident to others)

Keeping commitments is a daily grind and one of the clearest ways to build up Emotional Bank Account balances with others.

4. Clarifying Expectations

The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambiguous expectations around roles and goals. Whether we are dealing with the question of who does what at work, how you communicate with your daughter when you tell her to clean her room, or who feeds the fish and takes out the garbage, we can be certain that unclear expectations will lead to misunderstanding, disappointment, and withdrawals of trust.

I’m pretty certain that most of my failures as a manager has been due having unclear and misaligned expectations. From smaller things like response times and style of written communication to bigger items like job responsibilities or performance metrics, being unclear about these expectations while assuming they are obvious or implied have led to many disappointments and feelings of mistrust.

The same goes for client relationships–expecting clients to be a certain way or to understand certain things without ever being explicit has led to some unfortunate circumstances where both our agency and the client have felt “blindsided” and totally misaligned.

I’ve fully embraced the spirit of Habit 1, Be Proactive, as the way to overcome unclear expectations. Be proactive in eliminating uncertainties and assumptions. Be proactive in ensuring we completely understand the scope of work. Be proactive in asking the most obvious questions, even if it may sound repetitive and basic. Be proactive in verifying when someone isn’t sure. Be proactive in writing down what’s been said and asking for confirmation.

I can’t assume that others will do their part in clarifying expectations and turning assumptions into certainties, but I can do everything in my power to clearly lay out and communication my own expectations while explicitly asking for the expectations of others. This way, expectations are ultimately turned into agreements.

5. Showing Personal Integrity

I honestly can’t say I’ve acted with integrity for much of my career. A big challenge was that I often made decisions out of fear and avoided what I felt to be confrontational interactions. This meant that to both clients and employees alike, I might say or think one way but in person, I would often omit, sugarcoat, or spin things to not upset anyone in the moment. Of course, this kind of behavior never played out well in the long run and the other party would ultimately lose trust.

A big part of integrity is about eliminating the gap between how you are when someone isn’t around and how you are when you are face-to-face with them. Among the Barrel Partners, we’ve become better about defaulting to the approach of “just be honest” or “just tell it like it is” when it comes to both clients and employees. It’s not pleasant and we often wish we could paint a rosier picture, but we also know deep down that being forthright with what’s on our mind, why we made certain decisions, and how we think about certain situations will allow us keep a clear conscience and avoid any juggling of inconsistent communication. When you act with integrity, there’s nothing to hide and no weight to carry around. And people feel this intuitively, allowing the Emotional Bank Account deposits to grow.

6. Apologizing Sincerely When You Make a Withdrawal

It takes a great deal of character strength to apologize quickly out of one’s heart rather than out of pity. A person must possess himself and have a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologize.

It’s impossible to avoid making mistakes when you run an agency business. Withdrawals can come in the form of broken commitments, misaligned expectations, and various little things. When these happen, whether it’s with clients or with employees, the first step is to own up to the mistake and to say sorry.

The way in which the apology is expressed matters a lot. I think we’ve all become very well attuned to the non-apology apology that goes something like this: “I’m sorry if the manner in which I did XYZ offended you in any way. That was not the intention.” Any scent of insincerity or side-stepping of responsibility can quickly erode trust and further aggrieve the aggrieved party.

A more genuine way to apologize is something like: “I’m truly sorry for the mistake. I take full responsibility.”

I would recommend follow-ups to discuss concrete lessons learned and reassurances on how such mistakes will be avoided in the future.

At Barrel, we’ve had our fair share of mistakes and apologies, to both clients and employees. It’s been a mixed bag over our long history, but I’d like to think that we’ve become quicker to apologize and own up to mistakes without trying to deflect or minimize the responsibility. It’s better to fully own the mistake and turn it into a growth opportunity (one of our Barrel maxims is “turn setbacks into opportunities”). And the faster one is to making the genuine apology, the quicker the Emotional Bank Account has a chance to receive a deposit.

Towards a Career of More Deposits

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a very rich book. The Emotional Bank Account concept–or paradigm, as it’s called in the book–is just one of several impactful ideas that can help shift perspectives in how we live our lives and interact with others.

Reflecting on over 15 years of my time with Barrel, I’ve had plenty of experience making deposits and withdrawals from countless Emotional Bank Accounts. I’m committed to being more self-aware about when I’m making deposits and when I may be making withdrawals, and doing what I can to tilt the balance towards more deposits.

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