Transactional Analysis is a longstanding theory about how you can analyse every interaction through ‘transactions’ which are: parent, child, or adult.
Here’s an example to illustrate.
Someone I work with complained that a member of her team took them right to the wire on a presentation for a client meeting.
The team member got their section of the presentation to her at 5pm the day before the client meeting, and worse, it wasn’t any good. My client stayed til 10pm that night to rewrite those slides so they were good enough to go into the presentation.
We all know there’s a big problem with that.
In the morning, the team member emailed to ask ‘how were the slides?’
My client couldn’t bring herself to say they were rubbish, so she emailed back to say thanks, it was great and she’d only had to make a few tweaks.
We all know there’s a big problem with that.
The team member now thinks that what she did is okay.
She might suspect that it wasn’t okay, and maybe noticed that her boss is a bit grumpy, but she has no idea why.
All she can do is try and do the same thing again, maybe next time not so late. She’s likely to be feeling confused and worried, and she has no idea how to make it better.
Meanwhile, my client is annoyed and tired.
This is disastrous.
My client treated her team member like a child and her colleague responded like a child.
Conversely, my client acted like a parent, and just did the work for her.
In all likelihood, this will have set up a recurring dynamic where her colleague will keep bringing work that isn’t good enough… until my client tells her.
So what to do?
The general rule is that if someone comes to you behaving like a child (eg “I can’t do this, can you do it for me?”) if you respond as a parent, and either do it for them or tell them what to do, you’re doomed.
Equally, if you treat people like they’re children and tell them what to do and how to do it, then they’ll take the child role.
You can see these patterns happening in workplaces all the time at a really unconscious level, and everyone’s frustrated.
If you’re the child, you want to be grown up, and you’re not allowed to because you’re not given any autonomy.
At the same time, the person that’s being the parent hates it because they feel they haven’t got any decent people working for them, and they get frustrated.
To fix it, you have to acknowledge the pattern, and then shift it.
The answer is: behave as an adult.
This means, if someone comes to you as a child, don’t treat them like a parent, nor meet them like a child, instead treat them like an adult.
So I coached my client and next time she said:
“Ah, actually, this isn’t good enough, I can’t take it to our client, and as it has to be delivered tomorrow morning, it has to be fixed.
It’s not good enough for this reason and this reason and this reason, and I can’t work late to fix it, so what can we do about it?”
If you say something like this, you leave it for them to respond – hopefully, they say: “I’ll deal with it, I’ll fix it now.” And not walk out at 5pm leaving you to carry the baby!
If you don’t treat them like an adult, and don’t explain what’s wrong and then give them responsibility for putting it right, they’re never going to get any better.
We default to these things very easily because we’ve been institutionally trained to be like this – as kids, at school – and when we come to work we can still be stuck in those patterns.
You will know people in your organisation, in your team, or around you who behave in a child way. And you’ll see people being parented, so you also know who the adults are.
Here’s a link to the Transactional Analysis model –
How to use the model
The way to use this tool is to combine the model with a set of questions around it:
- Who are you parenting?
- To whom are you presenting yourself as a child?
- What can you do to move to being an adult?
Either party – parent or child – could decide to do this re-setting.
So for example, if you are being parented by your boss, you could go to your boss and say, “you know that thing you did, I’ve decided to do it in this way and this way, I’ve created some options and I wanted to discuss them with you…”, as opposed to asking permission.
You could make a recommendation. You could state your intention, rather than waiting for them to tell you.
With the Scouts example in my earlier story, we’re the parents and they’re the children. And that’s how it is.
However, on the Do-What-You-Like Day, we broke that rule, and asked ‘what would you like to do?’ We treated them like adults. With amazing and unexpected results.
Relating that to an organisation: if you’re busy and find yourself being a bottleneck and everybody needing you – is that because you’ve been parenting?
If that sounds like you, and you’ve created children, who are culturally unable to take their own decisions, and need your permission to do everything, then, in reality, it’s your own fault.
Have a look at the Transactional Analysis Tool and see if it can help.
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