In the second of a two-part blog about corporate culture and conflict at the workplace, we take a look at how communication and leadership through transactional analysis can have an impact on interactions at the office.  

Leadership is a key component to the formation of corporate culture, particularly in structures that are decentralized. Being key decision makers, leaders often set the tone of what is to be modelled throughout the organization and indeed can create continuums of stability and openness for their employees depending on their approach. Transactional analysis can be used as a framework to determine how this is being done.  

Transactional analysis is a concept that believes that we have three different ego states during our interactions; a Parent state, a child state and an adult state.

The parent state roots us in past behaviour that we were taught, essentially mimicking what our parents would have said or how they would have reacted. This can be further divided into the Critical parent who can be harsh and patronizing, and the Nurturing parent who is encouraging, caring and helpful. In this state, we are reacting out of conditioning, rather than analyzing what is happening in the present.  There is much emphasis on how things should or shouldn’t be, and generally a tone of authority when speaking to someone else from this state.  

The child state roots us in emotions and thoughts we felt as a child. Again, there are two subdivisions. There is the adaptive child who may be anxious and acts in a manner to pacify wishes and please others, but also can be rebellious and hostile in the face of perceived conflict. The natural or free child is curious, pleasure seeking, spontaneous and creative.  

The parent and child ego state are unique to everyone, obviously depending on their specific circumstances growing up. This also means that each individual’s reactions may be different.  

The adult state is rooted in present thought and is an ego state where we are able to act based on the here and now as opposed to past conditioning. In the adult state, we are more likely to be rational, respectful, listen and be open to other’s opinions. In general, acting from the adult state leads to more healthy social interactions – which can have a huge impact in the workplace.

Bearing all of these ego states in mind, the way in which these ego states meet each other in interactions affects the quality of communication.  

There may be complementary transactions where the sender’s message aligns with the receiver’s ego state – agreeing rather than challenging it. This can be seen where an adapative child eases the stress coming from an critical parent state. An example of this is when an angry customer makes a complaint to a service provider believing them to be inconveniencing them on purpose, and the service provider profusely apologizes and hurries to make large amends in order to placate the customer. Although this leads to a harmonious outcome in that moment, this cannot be the primary style of communication for an effective and sustainable workplace relationship.  

Interactions between two adult states however are likely to be respectful and healthy.  

In the same example, a frustrated customer may enquire about the untimely service of the service provider, understanding that the service provider may not be solely responsible for the delay. The service provider gives a polite apology and offers options that could help the customer.  

Crossed transactions result when the ego states involved in an interaction do not match, creating conflict. In order for the interaction to carry on or have a harmonious result, one or more of the ego states must shift. In the prior example, if an angry customer belittled and yelled a service provider from a critical parent ego state, and the service provider responded from a rational adult state, the customer would feel frustration and need to adjust accordingly to an adult state to continue the conversation. If one individual in the interaction is communicating from an adult ego state, it is more likely that the other individual can come back to an adult state as well.  

Communication breakdown occurs because of these crossed transactions, and to get workplace communication into a healthy, productive zone, it can be important to analyze where efforts can be made to initiate more communication from adult states. Even in the workplace sometimes a nurturing parent state can be necessary and helpful to soothe an adaptive child in a particular moment to foster trust and connection, but in the long term, adult states are key. As a leader, there can also be a tendency to slip into the critical parent state as a means of being decisive and authoritative; this may cause subordinates to react from their child state. Alternatively, leading from a childlike state can undermine the leadership position in question and lead to an environment where subordinates do not entirely respect the feedback given to them.

It is really important in leaders (and throughout the rest of the workplace thereafter) that they attempt to understand the characteristics of their various states so that they can consciously work towards better interactions. But how do you assess this?

Tone of voice, wording choice, gestures and body language we use can all link to specific ego states. For example, a critical parent may use harsh or judgemental language, whereas an adaptive child may use a whiny tone. Focusing on fact, and keeping a steady, open tone can mark an adult state and help others move into adult states as well.

It may be useful at times to engage in other states consciously, planning out the interaction if it will benefit the scenario. Sometimes a Free Child state is necessary to lighten the mood and provide new perspectives, or a nurturing parent state can foster encouragement. For difficult or important conversations, it can be helpful to map out the possible reactive states, and ways to try and drive them back into adult ego states if not already so.  

Transactional analysis can be used as a helpful concept to better understand current modes of communication and where breakdown is potentially occurring in the workplace. Understanding how we relate to others, and the power of being able to change our ego state can help better conflict management and workplace communication.