Why Should We Invest In Emotional Bank Accounts?

By Kara Kiernan

For those new to leadership, or even for those more experienced, navigating the occasionally choppy waters of people management can be quite the challenge. This can also be extended to the process of building positive relationships within teams, not only when forging them but potentially even more challenging, maintaining them.

What is an emotional bank account and why should leaders invest?

An emotional bank account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that has been built up in a relationship. The concept of investing in an emotional bank account, is a simple one, yet impactful and can transform teams and productivity. Fundamentally, the concept of an emotional bank account is underpinned by investing in people. The idea is that the account ultimately grows by making more deposits than withdrawals. Hopefully then, when you need to make a withdrawal, you will remain in credit overall.

Investing effort and time in people management by using strategies to better understand people can pay dividends. Discovering what constitutes a deposit or withdrawal to them pro-actively rather than retrospectively will help leaders to take conscious steps to build up that bank account. Covey (1999) suggests that when you make enough deposits through kindness, courtesy, honesty and keeping commitments, you make deposits in your emotional bank account, and build up a reserve.

How can leaders make deposits in a school context?

When considering how best to support staff and build these emotional bank accounts, reflecting on organisational theory is useful. Sirota (2005) proposed the three-factor theory, which focuses on how to maintain the level of enthusiasm staff have when they start a role, as research suggests this declines rapidly over time, leading to less productivity and a less happy workforce. Contextualising how these three factors can be met within a school setting can help to build trust within relationships and link to the emotional bank account concept.

The three factors, which together build enthusiasm, have been considered below with some practical examples to support keeping emotional bank accounts in credit.

Factor 1: Equity/Fairness

People are motivated by fair treatment, and they want to work somewhere that provide basic conditions that respect their physiological and psychological needs.

  • Physiological needs

Generally, the timetables of school staff are quite rigid. Whilst holiday allowance can be generous, the inflexibility can prove challenging for some when trying to tend to their physiological needs. Allowing time to attend medical appointments, which sometimes have prescriptive timings, whilst still being paid, would be well-received by all staff. Ensuring this can happen for all is important, as inconsistency could actually lead to frustration. Furthermore, if staff are sick, encouraging them be at home and off the radar will help their wellbeing longer term.

Another way is to ensure that staff have the correct equipment to carry out their duties effectively. For example, staff who spend a lot of time on a screen need to do a Display Screen Equipment evaluation and then need to be provided with the resources needed. This could include a monitor for example, or a specific footrest. By considering this, the physical needs of staff are supported.

  • Providing fair compensation

Whilst school budgets can be notoriously tight, having a transparent pay scale including where responsibility allowances are afforded can help staff to feel valued. Once again, consistency is key in building trust. Considering topical issues such as the gender pay gap can also be instrumental in making positive deposits in emotional bank accounts. Where you have staff who are not paid according to a scale, ensuring they are remunerated appropriately for any overtime is also a positive strategy. This can also include looking at salaries across the sector and considering comparable amounts.

  • Psychological needs

Psychological safety (Edmondson, 2019) is a key factor in healthy teams. To create a psychologically safe environment, leaders must promote a positive culture and safe space, where speaking up, asking questions and making mistakes is encouraged.  Linking this to the concept of the emotional bank account, leaders can make deposits by simply encouraging this mindset and modelling these behaviours.

Staffs psychological needs can also be linked to a sense of belonging and purpose. Leading with empathy, demonstrating the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is key when making deposits. Consider whether that staff member feels valued and ensure communication with them is purposeful is central to building a positive relationship. An example may be when a whole staff meeting is planned but it may not be relevant to all invited. When planning situations such as these, wearing different hats (e.g., admin, TAs, teachers, site staff) may help to promote positive psychological wellbeing and help staff members to feel valued. Valuing peoples time and ensuring they are not carrying out tasks for the sake of it can have help to alleviate some of those withdrawals from the emotional bank account.

Factor 2: Achievement

People ultimately want to feel valued and want their achievements to be acknowledged. Whilst praise can form part of this approach, ensuring there is a culture of professional respect for all members of staff is fundamental. As a leader, showing staff professional respect means understanding what value they bring to the organisation and then importantly, the impact this is having. In a school context, noticing and recognising these achievements is key when building a positive culture.

  • Feedback

Giving high-quality targeted feedback to individuals, which recognises strengths and development points, is a key component of investing in emotional bank accounts. By doing this regularly, either through informal opportunities, or more formal professional development, deposits are made frequently so when withdrawals, or difficult conversations, need to have, these can have less of a negative impact as the account is still in credit. Also, by focusing on professional attributes, rather than personal ones, less of an emotional response may be had. Scott (2019) proposed that leaders use Radical Candor when giving feedback, which is what happens when you show someone that you care personally whilst challenging directly, without being aggressive or insincere. Stating facts rather than assumptions and giving the rationale behind messaging can also help to keep emotional bank accounts in credit.

  • Providing support and challenge

It is important that individuals feel supported in their role to reach their full potential. How leaders choose to deliver this support is key when considering how to maintain credit within an emotional bank account. Micro-managing and a heavily directive approach could lead to withdrawals. Whilst providing supportive autonomy, an approach that encourages staff to take risks whilst being able to ask for support driven by them, could be interpreted as a deposit as they are leading their own professional development. Ensuring staff are suitably challenged too works well with this approach.

  • Gratitude

A simple concept, whilst fundamental, simply saying thank you is well-received. Considering consistency and coverage though is key, as this could be perceived negatively. One practical example that could be beneficial is to hold regular staff wellbeing raffles which include everyone, not for anything in return, just to say thank you. Other strategies could include thank you notes or simply recognising and commenting in the moment.

Factor 3: Camaraderie

A culture that supports and encourages collaboration, communication, friendliness, acceptance and teamwork is critical for maintaining enthusiasm. Working in schools can be extremely stressful and considering camaraderie can help to alleviate some of the stress. Giving staff the opportunity to share their thoughts and active listening are key strategies for leaders. Acceptance, and more importantly, promoting equality, diversity and inclusion has to be a priority when supporting staff.

As a leader, challenging those who don’t recognise the importance of these agendas is also vital. Furthermore, providing a welcoming staff area and treats will not necessarily have a large-scale impact but it is usually well-received. Equally, how and when to communicate should be considered. Multiple emails in quick succession can overburden staff. A verbal conversation may be a better approach and may reduce the potential for misinterpretation.

In conclusion, there are so many ways to make deposits into an emotional bank account, so when withdrawals need to happen, the blow is softened. Examples where this may need to happen  include staff cover, having a challenging conversation or completing an extra task to a tight deadline.

By keeping emotional bank accounts in credit, they remain in credit even when a withdrawal is made and then ultimately maintaining a positive psychologically safe culture which promotes positive relationships which values individuals through professional respect.


Covey, S. (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Edmondson, A. (2018) The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

Scott, K.M. (2019) Radical Candor: How to be a kickass boss without losing your humanity. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sirota, D. et al. (2005) The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want. Pearson Education, Inc., New York.


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