Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, created the concept of the emotional bank account. Covey’s metaphorical bank account holds trust as its currency. He uses the idea to help people understand how trust is built: not on faith, but on proof.
The emotional bank account works just like a traditional bank account. You make deposits by behaving in ways that build trust. Each positive interaction between two people, whether they’re partners, friends, family, or coworkers, adds to the account balance. You promise to come early to finish the project, and you do. Deposit. You promise to deliver the report by close of business Thursday, and you do. Deposit. You promise to take off early to be there for the soccer game, and you do. Deposit.
You make sure the coffee pot is turned off before you leave for the evening. Small deposit. You cover for a coworker while her dad’s in the hospital. Big deposit.
Loyalty, generosity, reliability, empathy, kindness – they are all ways to contribute to your accounts. And you have multiple accounts. Hundreds of them, since every relationship you have has its own individual account. It doesn’t matter how many times you cover for Mary; John doesn’t see that deposit in your account with him.
Actions that take away trust are withdrawals from the account. You’re late for work again Tuesday. Withdrawal. You forget an important deadline or that today was the big presentation your spouse has been working on for weeks. Withdrawal. When you snap at your kids, disappoint your boss, let down a friend, blow off a commitment, or break a promise, you are withdrawing from your account.
Once you understand this system, lots of relationship issues make sense. The day your boss decided to counsel you, even though you were just 10 minutes late? Is ten minutes worth a serious discussion? Only if you’re overdrawn on your emotional bank account. Your spouse doesn’t trust you to remember the smallest thing she asks you to do? Check your balance; you’re probably overdrawn.
The good news is that your accounts are always open for deposit. Arrive early. Stay late. Remember small things. Volunteer to help before being asked. Pick up your mess. Ask if he needs a hug. Your account will have a generous balance, and you needn’t worry that the next time you act, well, human, you won’t be forgiven.
Covey wrote that the way you treat one person tells him (and any others who see it or hear about it) how you’ll treat others. Act with integrity and you build trust with everyone who sees your actions. Be loyal to someone who is absent (no gossip, meanness, or backstabbing) and people will trust you when their backs are turned. Integrity has a multiplier effect.
One word of caution about deposits. You can only deposit acts; words are not valid currency. “I promise it won’t happen again” is not a deposit. Only your actions can build up your balance. Good intentions and pretty promises don’t matter. Covey was fond of saying “you can’t talk yourself out of something you behaved yourself into.”
When you withdraw from your account, apologize sincerely. “I was wrong to do that.” “That was unkind of me.” Think of apologies as responsible account management. You are signaling that you understand you’ve made a withdrawal (and how big it was.) That implies that you’re keeping careful track of your balance, and that the relationship matters to you.
If apologizing comes hard for you, learn get over it. You can’t expect to live on credit forever; eventually no one will do business with you at all.