Transactional Analysis is no longer as popular and well known as it once was. But it remains one of the supreme toolsets for Project Managers to use. Indeed – for all managers, leaders, and professionals.
I was recently reminded of it by my friend, Jonathan Norman. Jonathan wrote a great article about ‘The Major Projects World‘ for us. He invited me to co-host a webinar on Transactional Analysis for The Major Projects Association.
We spend a pleasant couple of hours planning out what to cover and the event went really well. But the truth is t hat we had to leave out far more content that we were able to include in the time allowed.
This led me to wonder: how many of the Transactional Analysis (TA) tools do I use in my professional life? I am not a therapist. So, I don’t use the whole body of TA work. And neither do I use it with rigor.
But I did quickly list 9 Transactional Analysis tools and models that I use a lot. And I am confident that you can gain huge benefit from any of them.
We’ll start with a simple introduction to TA…
Relationships dominate every aspect of our life – work, social and intimate. Therefore, when things go wrong, the impact is huge. So, wouldn’t it be great if we had a comprehensive model to analyze what happens when they do?
That’s the work that Eric Berne began in the 1950s. And he continued with it to his death in 1970. Others contributed too:
Transactional Analysis (TA) was best known in the 1960s and continues to thrive and be developed today.
This short video leans heavily on the first two models I’ll discuss below…
Transactional Analysis is a body of models and theories about how we operate in the world. Its origins lie in the world of psychotherapy, but it’s thinking tools are highly accessible to non-experts.
It offers ways to think about:
There is a lot more to Transactional Analysis than this. I spent three of the most worthwhile days of training* learning about TA and I only scratched the surface!
* I first learned about TA on a one-day course in the early 1990s. Then, with a 2-day Official Introduction to Transactional Analysis (TA101) from The Link Centre, 12 years ago. I recommend them highly and, with online teaching, you no longer need to be based in the UK to access their courses easily.
And my understanding is very much at a practical non-expert level. There’s a good chance that in simplifying the ideas and explaining them as I understand them I am, technically, misrepresenting them. But the mental models and thinking tools I’m going to offer you have served me well in many may situations over 30 years of:
I hope they will serve you equally well.
At the core of Transactional Analysis are two complementary models of how we operate in the world. One is focused on the why. And since we don’t aim to be therapists, I shall ignore that.
The practical approach looks at how we operate in the world, and suggests that, at any time, we operate from one of three ‘Ego States’. These are ways of being, which we choose consciously or – more often and with possibly damaging consequences – unconsciously.
The ego states determine how we communicate with the people around us.
There are three ego states, that use simple metaphors to help us understand how we see the world when we occupy them:
The Parent ego state represents a set of attitudes and behaviors conditioned by all that we have learned in life. Often it repeats things that your own true parents or caregivers said as you were growing up. The Parent state can be either
The Child state dominates when we allow our emotions to subordinate reason. It’s choices are driven by feelings rather than facts. The Child state can be:
The Adult state emerges when reason governs our behavior. From this state, we act rationally and with understanding. We collaborate, and deal honestly and openly with others. The Adult strives to evaluate situations objectively and fairly, and achieve an optimal outcome.
The Adult state seeks to achieve the right outcome and does so in a respectful manner.
As we have seen, ehe central concept of TA is the ego state. Each of us operates from three ego states, or ways of being.
When we communicate, our message will come from one of these states, and be received by one of the three ego states of the other person. Their reply will likewise come from, and be addressed to, an ego state.
The effectiveness of the transaction depends on which ego states are engaged.
In workplace situations, we will aim mostly for Adult-Adult transactions. These are motivated by a positive intent, and are mediated by an effective process.
However, these are not the only transactions you will encounter on your projects. So, an understanding of the range of alternative transactions and how they manifest will help you diagnose what is going on, and provide you with insight, and therefore choice.
For example, delegating to a team-member will feel best if it is an Adult-Adult transaction.
If you delegate from Parent state, the feeling that you are either patronizing them (nurturing parent) or commanding them (critical parent) will feel uncomfortable.
Alternatively, if you have recently been promoted and you do not yet feel confident of your authority, you may find yourself delegating from Child state. You may, at an unconscious level, feel apologetic (Adapted Child) or find yourself demanding compliance, because you fear insubordination (Free Child).
If you start from a Child State, it is likely to result in your colleague responding from Parent state; either patronizing you (‘of course I’ll do that for you’) or chastising you (‘who are you to tell me what to do’).
These are just illustrative examples, of course.
Parent-Child Transactions work to communicate but, in the wrong context, will feel uncomfortable. This is an example of a Complementary Transaction.
So too, is a Parent-Parent interaction. Typical examples are gossip and moaning to one another. These are based on your learned experience of the world – rather than necessarily the true facts. They are important social rituals, but not a lot of use in a professional environment.
Brainstorming is a great example of a productive Child-Child transaction that harnesses the creativity of Free child ego states. But larking around is where those Free child states become disruptive. Competing to please your boss is the Adapted Child states interacting in a way that can quickly turn from productive to toxic.
If the complementary transaction doesn’t feel right to both of you, one or the other of you may swap ego state. The problem is that the other may not. And now you could have, for example, your boss talking down to you from Critical Parent State, hoping to access your Adapted Child State.
But, if you recognise that this is disrespectful and consciously choose to respond from your Adult State to their Adult State, you have a new problem. When transactions are crossed like this, you hear each other but do not communicate.
Can you see how powerful Transactional Analysis can be in understanding basic workplace and project communication?
This is not the place to go into the epic in more depth. But, suffice to say, there is much more to this aspect of Transactional Analysis.
Because we often say one thing out loud but, underneath, our intent is very different. The surface transaction may be of one form, but the true, psychological, hidden transaction can be very different. And that’s the one that will most likely trigger an ego state to respond.
The other really fundamental model within Transactional Analysis is the concept of Life Scripts. These are the stories that play out again and again.
There is much debate (which I’ll happily ignore here) in the TA community about when these scripts get written.
I’ll simply say that they get started at the earliest days of our lives and get modified by all our experiences.
But its implications nations can affect every day of your life. If you were once let down badly, maybe your script will say ‘I can’t trust the people around me’. Or perhaps you struggled with maths at school, and your character, therefore, doesn’t understand equations.
The consequences of your script can be profound. As an adult, you treat all your childhood experiences as if they were permanent, pervasive, and personal. That is:
Quite simply, these things are wrong and wrong and wrong. Once you start to recognise elements of your life script, you can see that most-often they arise from:
Perhaps the best-known model from the body of Transactional Analysis work is that of life positions and the ‘OK Corral’. We can summarise the four life positions as:
As with Ego States, we can understand this both as a deep psychological model that explains how people are. But, more useful for us as Project managers, we can also see this as a way to understand why perfectly healthy people sometimes behave in less resourceful ways.
Most of the people you will work with are perfectly healthy, mentally, and emotionally. Our default life position is I’m OK; You’re OK. But that doesn’t mean people won’t have bad days, from time to time.
And that’s when they can easily move into another Life Position. It won’t be for the rest of their lives – but maybe it will be a day or two. Recognizing that they have moved into their ‘script place’ will help you assess the best way to work with them, to help them make a speedy return to their I’m OK; You’re OK position.
Another really useful Transactional Analysis model is that of Drivers. Taibi Kahler identified five drivers that manifest very much like personality traits.
They work very much like compulsions that make us feel ‘OK if…’
The five drivers are to:
Once you have learned about these drivers, you can see them in peoples manner, their words, and actions. Most of us have one or two dominant drivers.
Thank you for reading this far.
I appreciate you.
If you ignore this advice, it’ll be a mistake.
You’ve lots to learn.
These are, respectively:
Strokes are units of recognition that can be positive, negative, or neutral. And they can be either unconditional or conditional upon some action, choice, or words.
Without any strokes, we suffer emotionally. Outside of the world of Transactional Analysis, Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy discovered that workplaces with far more positive strokes will really flourish.
Our life scripts not only dictate how we interpret the world, they also lead us to not notice things that are there. Or even to notice them but treat them as untrue.
I say ‘thank you for your help.’
If your life script includes ‘people are always trying to manipulate me’ then that has consequences. in this case, you will read my sincere thanks as attempted manipulation and you will discount it.
Have you ever noticed people acting as if something didn’t really happen? That’s discounting.
Have you ever experienced the same sequence of transactions between yourself and another person. And at the end, one or both of you feel bad. And, more to the point, you’ve accomplished nothing other than getting nowhere and making each other feel bad.
Chance are you’ve been playing what Eric Berne described as a ‘Game’.
Now, he actually articulated a whole hierarchy of ways we use our time (‘Time Structuring’). These have evocative labels:
Each has a deeper psychological connection than the last. Games became famous in the 1970s as a result of Berne’s best-selling book, ‘Games People Play’.
Games is perhaps the most fascinating way to understand what’s going on when you observe or participate in pointless or destructive cycles with another person.
But the problem is that there are loads of games and it is far more useful to analyse what is going on, from first principles. And, for that, I really like…
Stephen Karpman switched the metaphor of games for one of drama. He gave us a super easy, hyper-powerful tool to analyze what’s going on. It’s the Drama Triangle.
He saw three roles we can each play. And, thanks to our scripts, we like one more than the others!
The drama starts when two people take different positions. However, since no position is a function of the adult state, they all feel psychologically uncomfortable:
So, to feel better, they need a pay off. And one will make a change to swap position and take either the empty place or supplant the other person from their position. For example:
Each switch has an emotional pay-off. But no position is comfortable. So there will be another switch… and another. And it will keep going until the players in the drama have returned to their original positions. Then, either they will try a difference sequence or just endlessly repeat.
There is no real resolution until both players agree to step off the triangle and enter into an Adult-Adult dialogue.
Because all three positions on the Drama Triangle are held in a Parent or Child State. And so, we are back to where we started in our exploration of 9 Transactional Analysis tools.
I’d love to know about how you see TA. Is this new to you, or have you heard about it before? Do you see Transactional Analysis as a valuable tool for Project Managers, as I do? Or do you not? What are your reasons? And are there other tools from Transactional Analysis that you use and would recommend to our readers?
Do share your thoughts in the comments below and I promise I will respond to every contribution. #PleaseOthers
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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