Using Transactional Analysis to Reflect on your Leadership

This week's blog is from our expert Masterclass speaker, Graham Clark, who shares his views on Transactional Analysis and how it can help us with our personal development.

I’ve long been a fan of Transactional Analysis (TA) and have recently been using the Ego States framework to reflect on my personal leadership.  I apologise if I’ve slightly adjusted the definitions, but it works for me! 

Here is a brief description of Eric Berne’s Ego States: 

Parent (or Life as it is taught) 

Generally, the Parent is subdivided into Critical Parent and Nurturing Parent.  In Leadership terms, there is a positive side to both – the Critical Parent will provide clarity and encourage adherence to process standards.  The Nurturing Parent will coach and develop talent as well as providing emotional support. 

Adult (or Life as it is thought) 

The Adult is not without emotion but rather able to stand outside of a situation and able to act logically.  This recognises that it may be appropriate to act as Nurturing Parent in a specific situation.  I like the phrase “Putting the Adult in the Executive”. 

Child (or life as it Felt) 

As with Parent ego state, it is generally recognised that there are two Child ego states, though there are different descriptions of these.  I tend to use the Free Child and Adapted Child.  The Free Child is the one that likes to have fun, possibly breaking the rules.  In organisational life the paradox is that this is where innovation often comes from but is often discouraged by strict processes (and possibly managers who are threatened by this challenge). 

The Adapted Child does the things that the Parents approve of, and receives praise for this.  The challenge is that they may well be angry underneath the surface. 

Too much Critical Parent? 

Despite research describing the benefits of empowerment and engagement with the emphasis on inspiration rather than control,  I may be biased but I see the emphasis on compliance as a symptom of weak leadership.  This is not to say that compliance is wrong.  In most organisations, compliance to process and regulations is essential but this needs to be balanced with positive motivation or, better still, inspiration. 

My reflection on the Five Ego States and my leadership

For the past few months I’ve been having to provide leadership rather than just talk about it.  Most of you know that life is rarely as it is presented in the textbooks and this has been a timely reminder for me.  Here are some of my reflections on my leadership: 

  • I avoid Critical Parent and I think this is unhelpful for my team.  There are times that I need to be clearer, sooner and not prevaricate.  Clearly there is an overlap here with Adult, but there are times when simple logic is not enough! 
  • I think I overdo Nurturing Parent.  I want to create a supportive, empathetic culture but the downside is that I may step in too soon to “rescue” someone that doesn’t need it.  I then find that I’m taking on more than I should and begrudge this 
  • I’m getting better at putting the Adult in the executive – it’s only taken nearly 50 years!  For me, this means not reacting emotionally when challenged or when colleagues seem to have very different values to me 
  • I’m comfortable with my Free Child which means proposing new ways of thinking.  The challenge here is to know when to pause the innovation and focus on implementation 
  • I think my Adapted Child is also broadly OK. I am respectful of authority but not as cowed as I once was.  My slightly veiled sarcasm was probably a symptom of an Adapted Child that was not brave enough to challenge directly.  As a previous boss said, “Graham, I never know when you’re being sarcastic and when you’re not."  (In his case, I was sarcastic all the time!) 

Graham Clark

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