In 1997 I provided an article about TA in organisations, in which I explained why it is like a pickaxe. The publishers did not use my title but they did keep the mention of the pickaxe within the article (Hay, 1997), as I show below. They also deleted my sub-headings, which I have put back for this version as it makes it easier to read. And they edited some of my wording and I have chosen here to retain the original words.
Transactional analysis was originally developed by Eric Berne as a therapy model - which has been its strength and yet also the source of its problems when too many people saw it as a quick fix and tried to transfer it, unchanged, into organisational settings. Fortunately, there have been many developments over the years, so that we now have variations that have been specifically tailored to the needs of individuals within organisations - and to the organisations too.
Why the pickaxe?
The robustness is, of course, still there and indeed one way you can see TA is like using a pickaxe to release physis. This refers to an underlying principle of TA: that all human beings have within them physis, which is the basic urge to grow and develop. Regrettably, many of us have our physis buried under a metaphorical layer of concrete, put there by well-meaning grown-ups who pointed out our limitations when we were young. The trainer who comes equipped with a pickaxe can create enough cracks in the concrete for us to behave like plants and grow up through the gaps towards the light!
This basic premise is highly relevant to current organisations, where it is essential to capitalise on the innate potential of all employees. It is equally relevant to the employees, who need to grow into new roles and responsibilities. They also need to respond positively to change - and if they are sensible they want continued professional development in order to maintain their ‘market value’.
The psychological contract
Much has been written recently about the changing nature of the psychological contract between organisations and employees. TA offers an extended model of contracting that helps make this clearer and that also has considerable relevance for trainers. The basic model is of a three-cornered contract, between organisation, trainer and participants. The key is ensuring that all parties have shared expectations. Imagine a triangle with eyes in each corner - each party should have a clear perspective of the contract between the other parties.
Often this is not the case. The organisation may have unrealistic expectations of what the trainer can achieve (especially when they only allow half a day!). The participants may be there unwillingly and believe that the trainer will be trying to force them to change. And the trainer may think so too - or may see their role as saviour to the downtrodden participants and agree with them about the shortcomings of management.
Awareness of the three-cornered contract allows a trainer to check that the organisation is expecting something feasible; that the participants recognise their own responsibilities for their learning; and that they as trainer are competent to do the training. This will mean that the psychological distances between the parties are balanced - so that the roles of Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim are avoided.
There are far too many TA frameworks to give more than an overview in this short article. Some are well known, such as:
Ego states and transactional analysis proper - analysing of transactions between people using ego states. Note that various misunderstandings have crept in here because Eric Berne’s original models were misinterpreted by early organisational trainers. When Berne emphasised the use of Adult ego state, he meant any behaviour that was grounded in the here and now. He did not restrict this to logical behaviour but included appropriate nurturing, emotional reactions, and having fun.
Trainers may unwittingly adopt a Parent ego state; participants often slide promptly into Child ego state as soon as they enter a classroom because they ‘regress’ to their childhood. Those who were naughty at school may then repeat the pattern; trainers who have shifted to Parent are likely to find themselves wishing they could give detentions!
Strokes and life positions - strokes are the ways we let others know that we recognise that they exist; life positions are our existential attitudes. Strokes are a biological necessity - and the ways in which we are motivated (or not) at work. We vary in our stroke preferences; some of us like work-based strokes while others prefer personal strokes. Our life positions determine how we react to strokes: in I’m OK, You’re OK we accept them positively but in not OK positions we distort the strokes so that even positive ones may be perceived as negative.
What you stroke is what you get! Trainers who persist in giving negative strokes will often find that the behaviour commented on gets repeated rather than extinguished. Learning and behaviour change are increased when people are given positive strokes that reinforce what is wanted.
Psychological games - games people play is probably the best-known TA phrase ever (and was also the title of one of Berne’s bestselling books). Games are those predictable, repetitive interactions that seem to progress inexorably to a negative outcome that comes as no real surprise. Rather like a stage drama, the game players take on roles as Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim - and then switch places for maximum impact.
Trainers may start out as if they expect to Rescue participants and finish up feeling like Victims when their efforts are rebuffed. Participants may act like Victims who don’t want to be on the course, and then switch to Persecutor and blame the trainer.
Working styles and drivers - these are five identifiable styles that are our strengths, or characteristic working styles, and become our weaknesses, or drivers, when we are under stress. Stress causes us to do more of whatever we were doing already, as when we shout at foreigners as if that will make them understand our language. When this fails, we may become compulsive, or driven, to do even more of the same.
Trainers with Hurry Up style get more and more impatient; Be Perfects become increasingly pedantic; Please People become paranoid about displeasing anyone; Try Hards try harder and harder whilst getting nowhere; and Be Strong types become increasingly stoical and monotonous.
Competence curve and cycles of development - the curve shows how competence levels go up and down when change occurs. Based on a child development model, it helps people understand why change is often stressful and yet could be a more positive experience.
Trainers can use this model to plan training formats that make it easier for people to settle in and gain maximum benefit.
The individual and the organisation
The concepts above were described from an individual perspective. They can equally be applied to an organisation to identify limitations.
Ego states - managers, like trainers, may adopt permanent Parent whilst employees feel obliged to stay in Child. Departments may take on a persona: Accounts may be the organisation’s Parent, making sure no-one spends money; Sales may be the Child, having an exciting time; Engineering may regard themselves as Adult, engaged in logical problem solving.
Strokes - you can analyse the organisational stroking pattern by considering questions such as: how are success and failure identified and stroked; do average performers get any strokes (usually not, because they are taken for granted - poor performers get much more management attention); what strokes are there when people join, transfer, leave?
Games - the amount of game playing within an organisation is a reflection of the stress levels!
Working styles - organisations often have their own styles, which may owe a lot to the style at the top! Examples are newspapers as Hurry Up, creative agencies as Try Hard, accountancy firms as Be Perfect, emergency services as Be Strong, and social services as Please People. Note that in unsuccessful organisations these become drivers, so that the style itself becomes part of the problem.
Competence curve - this can be used to analyse and improve the ways in which organisations implement change. It can also be used by managers to check their own contributions to (or shortcomings in) helping employees adjust to new circumstances.
Applying TA competently
TA is deceptively simple. It is also extremely potent when used effectively. The key is to apply it to yourself before you attempt to apply it to others. TA uses a system of training and supervision which focuses on self-awareness and skill development. Accredited transactional analysts have typically spent at least four years developing their awareness and skills before taking an international exam that involves both a dissertation and a panel that reviews their work.
It is said that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. TA trainees are encouraged to do just that and to bring the results (on audio or video tapes) to a TA supervisor for review. The trainees themselves will analyse the interactions on the tapes with help from the supervisor.
Of course not everyone will want to obtain the full qualification. Many trainers use relatively small amounts of TA alongside their other skills. It is still well worth getting some professional coaching. There are now modular TA programmes available that are specifically geared to organisational applications and that allow individuals to opt in for specific sessions. Most are at weekends to suit trainers’ busy diaries. And those who have attended them confirm that the increase in their competence generally is well worth the investment of time and energy.
Hay, Julie (1997) Talking TA Management Skills & Development April 66-67
© 2018 Julie Hay
Julie is a fan of open access publishing so feel free to reproduce any of these blogs as long as you still attribute it to her.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.