AS A trainer, I usually ask participants in my workshops to talk about their personal expectations for the time that they are going to spend with me. I also ask them questions like “What makes you happy at work?” or “What are your pet peeves at your workplace?”

I list them all down on the flip chart, in two columns. Interestingly, the things that make them happy are, more often than not, people and the collegiality that exists in their offices. Their pet peeves, though wide-ranging, are usually non-human and inanimate.

That is not surprising. When we have warm, friendly, positive relationships at our workplaces, the community we are part of becomes stronger and the “enemy” is processes on paper, not one another.

Stephen Covey, the late author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, used the metaphor of an emotional bank account (EBA) to describe “the amount of trust that is been built up in a relationship”.

Emotional account

The basic tenet of this simple yet profound principle is that we maintain a personal “emotional” bank account with anyone who works or associates with us. This account begins on a neutral balance. And just as with any bank account, we can make deposits and withdrawals. However, instead of dealing with units of monetary value, we deal with emotional units.

It is a powerful concept as it transcends time, space and hierarchy; that is, it doesn’t matter whether you are the office cleaner, a middle or senior manager or the boss.

Thus, a kind word from anyone in the office to another person of any level is a deposit. When you do something nice for someone in your office without expecting something in return, that is a deposit.

This includes making a cup of coffee for your busy colleague or offering him a ride home because it is “along the way”. When you relate to your potential client as a flesh-and-blood human being rather than a unit increase to your bottom line, you are making a deposit.

The deposits do not stop there. After work, there are the “inner-circle” people whom you relate to and love. A loving hug and a listening ear for your family members and friends is definitely a deposit.

The reverse is true: an unkind word or deed, being disrespectful, being proud or arrogant; betraying the trust of your friend or organisation — these are withdrawals.

Stephen Covey describes six major ways of making deposits to your EBA:

* Understanding the individual;

* Attending to little things;

* Keeping commitments;

* Clarifying expectations;

* Showing personal integrity; and

* Apologising sincerely when you make a “withdrawal”.

Knowing you are wrong and admitting your mistakes prevents the wounds that you caused from festering and allows them to heal. A sincere apology or making amends in a tangible way will keep your EBAs in the positive.

The real deal

EBAs remind us that people, not material possessions, are the real deal, and to be “other-centred”. This is the first step to “seeking first to understand, then to be understood”, which is Covey’s effective habit No 1. If you constantly make deposits into your EBAs — earned from your interactions with people every day — they will have healthy balances that translate into healthy relationships.

The movie Pay It Forward illustrates the concept of the EBA very well. In it, 12-year-old Trevor McKinney believes in the goodness of human nature. Like many other kids, he is determined to change the world for the better, and he succeeds.

In fact, what started as a movie ended up as a real movement in the United States and in other parts of the world. (Check out

The basic principle of “paying it forward” is the desire to top up your EBAs with the people around you. So, the next time you relate to another person, think of your own account with that person. Is it in credit or debit status, in the black or in the red?

Don’t despair if there is very little in it.  Choose one or all of the six main ways to make a deposit and find your relationship emotionally richer immediately.