by Dr Ian Clarkson

In a previous article of mine, How​ does psychology affect business decisions?, I mentioned I’m OK – You’re OK, a book by Thomas A. Harris, which is a classic text on transactional analysis published in 1967. It is one of two books which fundamentally changed my outlook on life, family, work, relationships.

Transactional analysis is a method to understand how the mind operates, why we do what we do, and how we can stop doing what we do if we wish. Eric Berne is credited with developing the concept of transactional analysis and his classic 1964 book, Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, is another classic (if hard) read.

As part of his transactional analysis work, Eric Berne developed the famous "Parent, Adult, Child" theory. In short, it asserts that every person is made up of these three alter ego states and, when we communicate or interact with others, we are doing so from one of these states. Individuals can shift with varying degrees of readiness from one state to another. To quote Thomas A. Harris: “These states of being are not roles but psychological realities.”

According to Berne, Parent means "you are in the same state of mind as one of your parents (or a parental substitute) used to be, and you're responding as they would, with the same posture, gestures, vocabulary, feelings, etc." Adult means "you have just made an autonomous objective appraisal of the situation and are stating these thought-processes, or the problems you perceive, or the conclusions you have come to, in a non-prejudicial manner." Child means "the manner and intent of your reaction is the same as it would have been when you were a very little boy or girl."

Harris asserts that transactional analysis constructs the following four life positions with respect to oneself and others:

  1. I’m Not OK – You’re OK

  2. I‘m Not OK – You’re Not OK

  3. I’m OK – You’re Not OK

  4. I’m OK – You’re OK

The emphasis of the book is on helping people analyse how their life position affects their communications (transactions) when interacting through one of their Parent, Adult, or Child ego states.

As an example, children will see that adults are strong, big and competent whereas they will see themselves as small, weak and making mistakes, so conclude that I’m Not OK – You’re OK.

Using words like "stupid" and "naughty" are typical Parent characteristics and if an adult was interacting with an infant using these "parental" words, the child’s life position may switch from I’m Not OK – You’re OK to I’m Not OK – You’re Not OK (well, that is how I understand it all).

Which life position are you in having read this far?

It’s all incredibly interesting (to me anyhow) and it does make me think about how we engage and interact with stakeholders on projects. We know that stakeholders are any people who have, or perceive themselves to have, an impact and influence on a project. We also know that people will feel very different about the project and the change it is introducing: some stakeholders will be positive about the project, others will be less so – or even (openly) against it.

Can an understanding of transactional analysis, the Parent, Adult, Child ego states and four life positions, help us foster a more collaborative, co-operative and harmonious environment on a project? I contend it can.

Let’s take a couple of scenarios to help explain.

Scenario 1

You’re are the project manager of a project that is at a phase/gate review. You are presenting the updated business case to your project board/sponsoring group for approval of the continuation of the project to the next phase. You have a good relationship with the members of the project board/sponsoring group, yet you also know that your information will be the subject of scrutiny. You are prepared and confident you can answer all questions that are likely to come your way. Sounds familiar?

Which of the four ‘life positions’ would you say you are in? Let’s say you are in I’m OK – You’re OK. You feel well prepared, and you know some of the decision-makers on the project board/sponsoring group.

Your pitch starts well and you can answer the initial questions that are posed – your Adult is in full flow! Then the ‘curveball’ comes in. Out of the left-field comes a question that you did not or could not have anticipated, and you start to stumble in your response. (If you are anything like me, you would just start talking – not necessarily answering the question – hoping that some words are better than no words and you’ll figure it out as you talk. There is a technical term for this approach – blagging it!).

Your answer is not satisfactory to the questioner and they let you know as much. Your Adult is struggling to retain their composure and your Child is about to take over. At the same time the questioner’s Parent has kicked in (the "disapproving" gestures, postures and vocabulary) and the interaction changes from what started out as Adult-Adult to Parent-Child. Still sounding familiar? Are we now in I‘m Not OK – You’re Not OK? If not careful, the situation could deteriorate and you end up not getting the outcome you hoped for.

Scenario 2

Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

You are a highly experienced project manager but not a subject matter expert in the technical aspects of the project you are running – you rely on the expertise of your team members to advise you on the technical details. (Can I just say that any resemblance of this project manager to the author is purely coincidental – ahem!)

It’s Friday afternoon and you get an email from a team member with an issue. Quite a big issue, it turns out! Despite my – I mean your - best intentions of being an Adult, you are struggling to keep your composure. “It’s Friday afternoon! Why I am being told about it now?” Your Child has turned up – and is having a bit of a tantrum. Sounds familiar?

Which of the four life positions would you say you are in? How about: I’m Not OK – You’re OK? As this issue has just been dropped on you, I’m Not OK, but You’re OK as your team member has just unburdened themselves onto you. Your team member who raised the issue is also the subject matter expert and you need their help to resolve it.

What you need to do is have an Adult-Adult (I’m OK – You’re OK) conversation. Yet you can’t help but think that it will be a Child-Parent discussion (I’m Not OK – You’re OK): You are the Child as you are still having a tantrum over the issue, and you may perceive that your team member is smarter than you on this issue and may well act like a Parent and respond or explain the technical details to you in the same way a parent would explain to their child that Father Christmas isn’t real... the child is hearing the words coming from their parent, but not fully understanding or comprehending what they are saying! Still sounds familiar?

What can you do in both these situations, and plenty more like them? One strategy I employ is simple yet effective:

I slowly count to ten.

What this allows me to do is to stop and let my immediate emotions subside. This short pause can make all the difference and allow my Adult to regain control. It’s not easy at times, and I do frequently mess up – yet I’m quite an introspective person and on reflection of situations, I can see when my Child and Parent showed up. Try it. See if it works for you.

So next time you are communicating and engaging with your stakeholders, try to bear transactional analysis in mind – things will be more harmonious if you can.

There are also occasions, I admit, when I have to slowly count to ten multiple times!

[This article was first published on on 06/02/20]

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