Building Relational Equity

As a young teacher, I worked extremely hard and ran into consistent roadblocks when it came to the secretaries at our school. I would follow all of their process to request a substitute when ill and was often told “none are available” when other teachers clearly did not have this problem. Bemoaning the situation to a more seasoned colleague, he said, “Come on child. Let’s go on a walk.”. 


We spent 30 minutes of my planning hour that day walking around campus. I had no idea why. We stopped in to visit the counselors and said hello. We visited the principal and saluted his favorite college sports team. We went to five offices, visited five secretaries and asked about their children, grandchildren, and recent ailments. I could not understand why we were wasting the time. On the walk back across campus, my colleague told me this: “Child, every interaction you have with people, imagine they hold a poker chip. If the interaction is positive, they give it do you. If it isn’t, they don’t. Over time, you’ll collect poker chips with each person and when you need a favor, if you have enough chips, you’ll cash them in. It’s simple as that. You’ve been asking for favors that weren’t that big, but you had no chips to cash in. He was giving me a visual of relational equity. Perhaps that system seems silly. After all, I wasn’t asking our support staff of anything outside their job description and I hadn’t treated them poorly. I simply didn’t have any relational currency.  Right or wrong, the system worked. By manufacturing positive interactions, I gained positive results and was able to get substitutes when needed. 


I think the same happens with most work-based teams. When we generate relational currency, we are able to ask for additional flexibility, favors, and grace when we need it. It also works with students and their parents. The more positive interactions you have with someone, the more relational currency you earn. And a positive interaction doesn’t have to be a meaningful conversation where everyone cries. It can be…

·     A text

·     A well-timed email

·     A postcard

·     Meeting up for coffee

·     Asking about a hobby

·     Mentioning one of their friends by name

·     Showing up somewhere to see their kid perform


One of the best ways, in my opinion, to generate relational currency is to simply have fun together. That’s why I really appreciate some of the steps our organization takes to make sure we celebrate together a few times a year and genuinely have fun together. Occasionally during company celebrations or parties, I’ve heard the grumble of “we could be doing work” and part of leadership is underscoring that we ARE doing work. Having fun together, celebrating each other, and interacting is part of developing the relational equity to work together during the rest of the year. And the same is true of the leaders and students and families we serve. Intentionally spending time together, particularly FUN time together, isn’t a waste. It’s an investment that pays off all year long.