One of the most interesting dynamics to study within our client organizations is the communication norms that have developed among teams. One of the tools we use to understand how teams work is based off of Dr. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis model. This model suggests anytime two individuals engage one another, each person will take on the role of parent, child, or adult. Once you understand the characteristics of each of these roles, you can perform an audit of engagements between two people that will provide very meaningful insight into the dynamics of that relationship.
As you might imagine, the parent role sounds much like your mother did when were six and she told you “do not cross the street without holding my hand.” In this example, the person in the parent role has a truth they believe should be enacted on by others; they are a “teacher.” This may exist within an organization if the owner or CEO is certain they always know best and all decisions will ultimately rest on their understanding. While this is not inherently a bad role for all relationships, in the wrong context a person will come across as paternalistic, arrogant, or inconsiderate of the other party. Not surprisingly, this role will encourage the child role in the other party.
Also as you might imagine, the child role often times is based off of feelings without consideration for the reality of the world around them. Consider when a child is in the grocery store and the father is trying to stick to the weekly grocery budget. When it comes time to pay, the child see’s candy and toys in the checkout line and begins begging him for something. The father knows spending $1.50 on a candy bar or $5 on a water gun is not a wise financial decision nor will it satisfy anything beyond immediate gratification, but the child feels in need now and believes the father is being unreasonable by not buying her what she wants; the child is ultimately a “feeler”. In an organization, this may be materialized by team members who share their perspective even though they are irrelevant or short-sighted. These individuals also recognize things as out of their control and often frame themselves as the “victim” of others’ decisions. When someone acts as a child, the temptation of the conversation partner is to default into the parent role.
The final role in Transactional Analysis is the adult. Within an organization, we hope to find this identity most often. A person who is acting as an adult is not simply looking to “teach” or to base decisions off of “feelings.” Instead, the adult engages as one with a mature understanding of the world. This person recognizes they do not have complete knowledge, but seeks to better understand instead of blindly following a “parent.” By the same token, they do not want someone in the “child” role to blindly follow or be victimized by them. The preferred partner in conversation is another adult.
One of the most fascinating elements of Transactional Analysis is that while people do have default roles in each of their relationships, an individual can oftentimes change the dynamics of the relationship simply by changing their role. For example, if I were to recognize one of my associates is inclined to act as a child, I could encourage him to step into the adult role simply by treating him as an adult; left unexamined, I would be likely pulled into the parent role simply because their default role is child.
As you might imagine, taking the time to investigate the relationship between team members provides a lot of information as to how the team actually works together. If norm of the individual team members is not the role of adult, a high-performance team is not only unlikely, but impossible without intervention. Understanding Transactional Analysis may be just the tool you need to move your team from average to high-performance.