This psychology theory could help you build a stronger — and more adult — relationship with your boss
‘At their core, organisations are just a giant network of relationships,’ said author Bernard E. Robinson, and some of the most significant relationships in our professional lives are with those who lead and manage us.
However, like any human interaction with a power dynamic and authority figure involved, they can provoke some deep-rooted reactions and projections.
Our earliest relationships — those with our parents and caregivers — shape the way we interact with others later in life. It’s therefore hardly surprising to see old patterns playing out with people who, on some level, remind us of that parent-child hierarchy, such as a manager or supervisor.
For example, an employee may find themselves trying to please their boss, motivated by a child-like need for approval. Or they may have a fear of authority that means they approach every interaction with suspicion.
Equally, a line manager may resent being questioned by a direct report as they feel it undermines their authority. Or they may be overly protective, swooping in to do the job themselves and rescue their team from making any ‘dangerous’ mistakes.
To quote psychoanalyst Naomi Shragai: ‘It is an unfortunate fact that we cannot run and hide from our dysfunctional families — but we can learn to keep them out of the office.’
And this is where transactional analysis can help, particularly if you’re often involved in conversations with a superior that leave you feeling put out, frustrated, confused, unappreciated or just plain angry.
WHAT IS TRANSACTIONAL ANALYSIS?
An evolving psychotherapeutic approach that was introduced by Dr Eric Berne in the 1950s, transactional analysis (TA) is based on the premise that verbal communication lies at the heart of human relationship. It gives us a way to analyse the conversations or ‘transactions’ we have with ourselves and other people, helping us understand our own behaviour as well as why some relationships, personal or professional, can go so badly wrong.
Berne believed that, at any given moment, we’re operating from one of three ‘ego states’, which he referred to as Parent, Adult and Child.
In Parent state, our thoughts, behaviours and feelings are those learned from caregivers or authority figures when we were young. They shaped our feelings about the world, often including our views on subjects such as gender, race, religion and money. It’s our internalised voice of authority and where our prejudices live too.
In its positive expression, the Parent can be loving, helpful, caring and encouraging, but when expressed in the negative, it’s controlling, punishing, impatient, judgmental, criticising or patronising. It also uses words and phrases such as You must… You should… Always… and Never...
The Child state exists in the realm of emotions; specifically, the emotional responses we learned as a child.
It can be a part of us that’s curious, co-operative, creative, spontaneous, open, and loving, or an expression of immaturity, anxiety, guilt, fear, people pleasing or attention seeking.
When we feel overwhelmed by emotions that seem disproportional to the situation, it’s probably that younger version of ourselves taking the wheel.
The Child state is the one that engages in lots of negative self-talk: generalisations such as Things are always going wrong for me, I’m not good enough or I should keep quiet.
The Adult state is usually the one to aim for and the only one that’s rooted in the present. It’s our ability to think and act in the here and now and behave completely appropriately with what’s happening in the moment.
In this state we can be attentive, interested, reasonable and questioning, and deal more easily with doubt, uncertainty and any emotions that might come up. We’ll ask for information rather than being scared or making assumptions and, if we draw on the past, it’s in a productive way that integrates the positive attributes of the Child and Parent states.
FOUR WAYS TO USE TA TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
In every conversation between you and your line manager, there are two Parents, two Adults and two Children present. Generally, the most productive conversations will be those in which the Adults do the talking, but that’s not always how things work out.
Here are four scenarios which show how ego states collide — and what you can do to move the conversation back to one where Adult meets Adult.
They’re also an invitation to dig deeper into your own interactions. Where are your personal pain points and how you can use this awareness to level up and embrace your own Adult ego state?
1. WHEN YOUR BOSS WANTS TO BE YOUR PARENT TOO
Suzanne is frustrated with her boss for micromanaging. She’s given no space for independent decision-making and because he never shares the bigger picture, there’s little she can do without talking to him first. She has no sense of agency as he maintains tight control and when they speak, he’s often critical. She made a mistake last week in a report and felt she’d been ‘told off’ even though she’d taken full responsibility for the error.
In TA terms, this is a Crossed Transaction and it’s an unsustainable dynamic. For the relationship to work, one person needs to shift their position. As Suzanne doesn’t want to be in a Child state, and she can’t tell her boss to change, her best option is to use her influencing skills to gently encourage him back into an Adult state.
She needs to build her awareness of what’s important to him — his beliefs and values, as well as understanding the challenges he’s currently facing and preoccupied with. She can then apply her Adult problem-solving skills to addressing those challenges and deliver real value.
We’re judged by others on how we appear and behave, so Suzanne also needs to understand her boss’s perception of what an Adult looks like and how they’re supposed to act. One way to do this is to look at his Adult interactions with others.
2. THE CHILD WHO WANTS TO STAY THAT WAY
Chloe has never been very confident and always takes great pains to do exactly what is asked of her, without straying from her comfort zone. She glows in the light of praise but becomes anxious when it isn’t forthcoming. Yesterday, she was called into a meeting and immediately her stomach started churning as she wondered what she’d done wrong. However, she always gets lots of encouragement, support and guidance from her boss, although they always delegate project-lead roles to other members of the team.
While Chloe’s situation can be seen as secure, she’s quite literally staying small. Her ambition is at a low ebb, and she takes little responsibility and initiative. Her boss is in Nurturing Parent mode, which complements Chloe’s Child state and makes her feel seen and understood but won’t support her personal growth and development. This is known as a Parallel transaction, and it will sustain her indefinitely as Child and Parent are complementary states that fit nicely together. However, for real fulfilment and job satisfaction, she needs to operate from an Adult state.
She can do this by asking some simple questions about her interactions, consciously defaulting to her more rational, curious and practical side.
- Which ego state is being activated in my transactions?
- Are there any patterns around this?
- Do I want this ego state to be activated?
- What will help me stay in Adult? This could be anything from physical movement to taking some deep breaths if emotions come up.
She might also be able to have a conversation with her boss about training and mentoring to boost her confidence.
Brianna has just spent the last ten minutes listening to her boss tell her how to do something that she’s done before — more than once. He’s providing lots of constructive detail and context, so she feels that she’s got no right to feel frustrated as there’s obviously no ill intention, but she’s getting increasingly irritated without being able to pinpoint why. She feels like he’s being condescending and patronising, and becomes rather snappy and sulky. He looks surprised at her response.
This is known as an Ulterior Transaction. Brianna’s boss believes he’s operating in Adult mode, being fair and reasonable and thinking about the ‘How to’ of the situation. However, his Parent state is actually the state running the show as he tells her what to do.
Brianna finds herself getting emotionally triggered: the red flag that says that although it may appear to be an Adult-Adult interaction, it’s shifted into Parent-Child: a state she’s not comfortable with.
The issue here is about what’s causing her boss to step into Parent mode. Is Brianna dealing with a fixed prejudice perhaps — a belief he’s got that, as a woman, she won’t understand, or that she needs his help?
If this is his general stance in life, she may find it difficult to change the dynamic. However, she can still remain in Adult, noticing her emotional reaction without judgement, counting slowly to ten, and watching the situation play out with curiosity.
However, from a well-intentioned perspective her boss may genuinely believe that she needs more training — and if this is the case, Brianna may be mistaking a more directive approach for a Parent ego state. He may not be aware of the experience she has, in which case she can simply thank him for his support and then get on with the task in hand and show him that she’s already an effective problem solver. Or, as in the first example, she has the option to use her influencing skills to move him back to Adult.
4. A WOMAN IN A MAN’S WORLD
For any woman who’s felt on the outside of a professional clique or excluded from the ‘boys’ club’, TA can help explain what might be going on.
If you’re in a professional environment where people need to feel included, accepted and approved of — and they gain this by behaving in a certain way — then the whole workplace culture may be operating from Child.
It’s a state that may have been in place for a while and it won’t change overnight. But part of being in Adult is about flexibility and while you don’t have to join them at their own game, you can be aware of it and consider what you’re willing to do to fit into the group and abide by their ‘rules’.
Or you can steer your own course, engaging one to one, Adult to Adult, and create the kind of empowering, balanced, and considered relationships needed in business and beyond.