The corporate world is currently undergoing major changes and new challenges, among which the great resignation, expectation for new forms of leadership, request for more diversity, climate change … In this article I show how the model of Ego States (Transactional Analysis) can shed some new light on those matters. I give some cues to question your own leadership or management style, then I analyse the interaction between societal changes and corporate cultures. Finally, I address the topic of strategy for corporate culture & and I share some questions to better steer a shift in corporate culture.
A. Ego States & Leadership
Eric Berne, inventor of Transactional Analysis, a theory on the construction of personality and a system for better understanding human interactions, introduced the concept of Ego States, a system of coherent patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. Functional Ego States manifest daily in our interactions. It is the observable layer originating in our deeper functioning (structural model). It is a powerful tool to spot leadership styles and interactions, in business as well as in politics.
You are most likely familiar with the 3 main Structural Ego States: Parent-Adult-Child. We want to focus here on the 6 Functional Ego States: The Normative/Controlling Parent, the Nurturing Parent, the Conforming Child, the Rebellious Child, the Free Child and the Adult. We want to emphasise that autonomy and agility result from the capability of activating each of the 6 states according to the situation, the stake and the person you are interacting with. Each Ego State has a specific purpose, and also a bright side and a dark side.
Are you more a controlling or a nurturing manager/leader?
The Normative or Controlling Parent (CP) conveys norms, values and rules. Its functioning is quite judgmental and often critical. Its role is to ensure the continuity of the culture of a group. It is based on tradition, experience and expertise. It also plays an important role for protection (“You are required to comply with the safety rules”) The Controlling Parent may use force to ensure compliance with norms and rules. To this extend the use of force may be legitimate.
In the corporate world the Controlling Parent is usually associated with hierarchy, expertise-based management or functions such as Compliance.
The dark side of the Controlling Parent shows when illegitimate, undue or unfair force is used, when norms and rules are only a means to take power over others, when criticism is pervasive. It may result in putting someone down or humiliating them. In politics as well as in business, autocracy is often linked to a negative Controlling Parent. Please note that managers activating the dark side of the CP are not usually aware of it. Though it has become rarer over the years, I still meet managers who believe that the core of their job is to correct what goes wrong. Some believe for instance that giving positive feed-back to their team is useless as “it is their job to do things properly”.
The Nurturing Parent (NP)’s main focus is to support others in their growth and development. It is non-judgmental and reassuring. In the corporate world it is embedded in the role of manager as a coach or professional mentor. There is also a dark side to it when constant attention and support prevent people from getting their own experience, growing, developing, expressing their full potential or reaching autonomy.
Delegation offers an easy way to check what kind of Parent Ego State you activate most frequently with your teams.
Are you the hands-on type of manager who believes that no one apart from you will be good enough to do it the right way?
Do you delegate but keep the need for permanent control? If so, you express a strong CP in this area.
Or do you empower your teams, remaining backstage and making yourself available as a resource for them when they request it? If so, you express a strong NP in this area.
As an executive coach, I often meet managers who believe that they mostly activate their Nurturing Parent and that they empower their teams. However, as soon as a team member makes a “mistake” or “something goes wrong”, they cannot resist from stepping in. I have heard so many times: “Empowerment is a great process, but what if they do not do what I expect from them”. I guess that you will agree that it is more controlling than nurturing. A great way to know where you really stand is a 360° survey. You might discover that your teams have a different perception than yours as for which Parent Ego State you most frequently activate with them.
The balance may come from using more of the Normative part, rather than the Controlling part of the Normative/Controlling Parent Ego State. The best frame to give a team member is a clear purpose and a set of values as criteria for achievement. The questions are: are you really clear with which values matter, how do these values translate into operational reality, which actions do you consider as fruitful or problematic in relation to these values. This is a very different approach than telling your team members what to do.
As a matter of fact, real empowerment engages both Parent Ego State, the Normative Parent and the Nurturing Parent. As we have just seen, the normative part will give the frame, based on purpose and values and the nurturing part will foster self-confidence as leverage for success.
Obviously, the past decade has showed a major shift in the world of corporate culture. The traditional “Command & Control” management was mostly based on the Controlling Parent. The “Support & Coach” management, which is much more effective in a highly complex and uncertain environment where agility and creativity are needed, draws mostly on the Nurturing Parent (on Leading in a VUCA world, see the article "To succeed in a VUCA world, Leaders have to learn to dance with reality")
It seems strategic to take this shift into account, not only for the sake of performance and personal growth of managers and team members, but also because it becomes a major expectation from newly hired staff members and a leverage for team’s motivation and retention.
Complementary to the Parent Ego States are the Child Ego States. There are 3 different Functional Ego States for the Child. Here again, each of them has a special function, bright side and dark side.
Do you mostly activate a creative and free-flowing mindset, or is it rather a rebellious mindset?
The Conforming Child (CC), accepts norms, rules and instructions. It tends to please the others, and act according to what is expected from the hierarchy or the group. Though some may see it as submissive only, some Conforming Child is needed for the group, or the team to operate in a cohesive way. As Eric Berne expressed it, belonging to a group implies some loss of personal freedom in exchange for the benefits of being a group member. The dark side of the CC is disconnection from one’s own need, which might lead to putting oneself in danger while conforming to the group’s expectations. Whereas the Conforming Child has long been valued in the corporate world (engaged, team spirit, “good element”) it has also led to some pervasive effects. With the increase of pressure from business, the race for short term results and increased uncertainty, the level of stress at work has raised. For the ones activating mostly their Conforming Child, it can lead in the long run to a dead-end, such as burn-out or even suicide. The tricky thing is that people at risk are often hard to spot, precisely because they work well and are very appreciated by hierarchy and colleagues. When the manager is themselves mostly in the CC mode, they tend to accept unreachable challenges from their own hierarchy. They may transfer the stress to their teams and fail to protect their teams from the pressure coming from the environment.
Here are three questions, which may draw a light on the Conforming Child when it is challenged:
Do you generally question the purpose and the relevance of what is expected or required from you? If you do not challenge instructions, then you probably activate the Conforming Child Ego State.
Have you ever felt uneasy at implementing a corporate decision, that was imposed on you and with which you disagreed?
Have you ever felt that for the sake of work, deadlines or results you have put yourself or your team at risk? If so, then probably you have activated the negative part of the Conforming Child and the solution will probably come from moving to the Adult Ego State.
Another pitfall of operating mostly with the Conforming Child is that without questioning the why, the what or the how, you might be great at what you do but you are not in a process of renewing yourself or the company. To this end, you will need to challenge the rules and express your creativity.
The role of the Rebellious Child (RC) is to confront undue or illegitimate force coming from the dark side of the Controlling Parent. It may also be to resist to an over-controlling Parent. The RC is important to counter-balance the instated power and to protect the ones who could suffer from unfair force or exploitation. Traditionally, it was a role played by unions. It is also part of the role of a manager when it comes to protect their teams. The Rebellious Child is also much needed in order to question commonly agreed norms, ways or processes. Questioning the current state of power may contribute to necessary updates of the organisation and corporate culture. The dark side of the RC is when opposition to norms, power or authority is systematic and not constructive. Hence it brings unnecessary conflicting energy in the system and may cause the system to stop functioning properly.
Interestingly, the Rebellious Child and the Conforming Child are often considered in Transactional Analysis as two versions on the Adapted Child Ego State. As the two refer and react to the authority of the Parent Ego State, one by conforming, the other by opposing. None of the two functioning is independent. The Conforming Child is dependent and the Rebellious Child is counter-dependent. None of them is independent, despite the fact that people activating very frequently their Rebellious Child believe that they are free of influence.
The Free child (FC) is spontaneous and creative. It often brings a playful energy. When the Free Child operates, the person is in connection with their personal needs. This functioning is obviously essential, especially to survive in a stressful environment. The Free Child is also the Ego State that is directly connected to creativity and innovation. There is also a dark side to it: a potential lack of focus, or a self-centered focus in total disconnection from the needs and the functioning of the group.
In my view, during the past two decades, the Free Child has taken a more significant place in the business world and the workplace. The focus on start-ups and new models of entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk may be considered as a sign of this creative and “live your dream” trend. New requests from quite a few from the youngest generation may be considered as another indicator when they seek constant fun at work, like to zap from one activity to another or are primarily focused on what they can gain on the short run from the company before moving to another company.
Are you a cold performant calculator or do you care for purpose & people?
The Adult (A) Ego State designates the most technically relevant functioning in a specific situation. It is reality-based and fact oriented. It brings effective analysis, considers alternatives, takes relevant decisions and implements them. Whereas activating the Adult Structural Ego State, that is our Adult inner functioning, is most valued in Transactional Analysis, the Functional Adult Ego State - the one that is observable, is only one of the 6 functional Ego States.
When they are activated by the Structural Adult, all of the 6 Functional Ego States have a specific function and are useful. Agility, global relevance and autonomy result from being able to move freely from one Functional Ego State to another, in their positive sides of course.
The functional Adult has also its dark side. Though it is a widely shared belief that it should be the main functioning in the corporate world, using the Functional Adult alone may lead to being cold, distant and technocratic. The paradox is that sometimes managers who claim to “be always rational” are in fact operating from a non-Adult structural Ego State, as they may lack the flexibility to set principles based on values (Normative Parent), respect a specific corporate culture (Conforming Child), care for and support others (Nurturing Parent), be playful and creative (Free Child), or challenge “scientifically proven beliefs” (Rebellious child).
B. Corporate Cultures & Functional Ego States
Each corporate culture has its center of gravity and most often one of the 6 Functional Ego States or a couple of them are considered as more valuable than the others. For instance, if you work in nuclear safety, it is probably better to comply first and foremost with the rules. The dynamics between the Controlling Parent and the Conforming Child will be at the core of the organisation and its process. But if you work in the Justice Department, there is no easy answer, as you may want the leading dimension to be either the Controlling Parent or the Nurturing Parent. Functional Ego States are a great tool to decipher corporate cultures, and manage changes, especially at times of Merger & Acquisition.
Here are some questions:
Are you aware of the main dimension(s) of your company, department or function culture?
Have you spotted the bright and the dark sides of them?
Is there anything that you would like to adjust?
If there are different “sub-cultures” in your company according to business lines, functions or departments, how do they relate one to the other?
Please note that what will be considered as a sane or negative expression of any of the 6 Functional Ego States might be different from one country culture to another. For instance, what is expected from a manager in terms of Normative Parent will be quite different in Denmark where the Power Distance Index is one of the lowest in the world or in Saudi Arabia where the Power Distance Index is one of the highest in the world (see Geert Hofstede).
Here comes the politics
Companies are not isolated islands. They are part of a larger system. Their role within and for the society is currently at the core of many discussions. More and more so with the climate change, new considerations about the impacts of the economic system and societal challenges such as Inclusion and Diversity.
Traditionally, right wing parties have put forward the Normative and Controlling Parent Ego State, focusing on tradition, norms & values or need for more law enforcement. Left wing parties have put forward the Nurturing Parent Ego State, focusing on support and protection for the weak and the ones in need, or fostering opportunities for everyone. Revolutionary or Anarchist parties have activated the Rebellious Child Ego State with the idea that the dominated have to over-run the dominants or that there should be no law enforcement.
We can observe that part of the political game is about showing the dark side of the Ego State that is most important for the opponent. Thus, the ones promoting the Normative Parent will be accused of police violence leading to dictatorship, the ones activating the Nurturing Parent state will be accused of not controlling crime and over-protecting the weak, turning them into victims who are incapable of taking care of themselves. The ones in the Rebellious Child Ego State will be accused of bringing chaos without any alternative project. The people who operate mostly in the Conforming Child will be accused on social networks of being stupidly manipulated by the people or the companies in position of power and influence. The politicians operating with the same Conforming Child will be considered as traitors. The ones in the Adult Ego State will be accused of being cold technocrats without a real societal project or caring for people. And the ones in the Free child will be accused of being artists with no competence in politics.
This game is not very constructive, this is the least to say. We want to emphasise here that all dark sides of Ego States are complementary and part of the same game, just as the famous Drama Triangle by Stephen Karpman is based on the dark sides of the Controlling Parent (CP) turning into a Persecutor, the Nurturing Parent (NP) turning into a Rescuer and the Adaptative Child (turning into the Victim).
Here is the big question:
As a citizen, a staff member, a manager or a leader, are you able to spot the contribution of each functional Ego States? For the ones that you are not so familiar with or that you tend to leave aside, criticise or reject, are you ready to find out, consider and take into account their bright sides, and not only their dark sides?
Should you want to check, I suggest that you make the analysis for your 5 most important business/work relations. Technically, Functional Ego States change all the time, from one sentence to another, even within one sentence. But here we want to spot trends, tendencies or preferences that may explain the global dynamics that you may have with some specific professional counterparts.
Pick a few significant situations when you interacted with them. For each, isolate a specific moment that you consider as emblematic. Then find out what is the Functional Ego State that you mostly activated with them in the situation. What kind of Functional Ego State have they activated in return? Please note that sometimes it is easier to bring to awareness the Functional Ego Stake of the others before understanding one’s own.
Shifts in the societal environment
Western societies are currently experiencing major cultural changes. Through the lenses of Functional Ego States, we can observe three major shifts. Each of them brings potentially a bright and a dark side.
With the Great Resignation (20% of workers planning to quit in 2022 – PwC’s Global Workforce survey – 44 countries ), it is fair to say that the Parent Ego States are challenged, that traditional forms of work in large companies are questioned. According to Pew Research Center, the three main reasons for resignation are a too low pay (we assume here that it is an Adult reason), no opportunities for advancement (defaulting Nurturing Parent) and felt disrespect at work (Negative Controlling Parent).
Among the forces that currently fight the Normative Parent at a socio-political level the LGBTQIA+ movement holds a special place. When it fights against discriminations it fulfils its role of Rebellious Child against a negative Normative Parent. When its main driver is that there should be no norm of any kind, especially in a matter that has been highly structuring for most human societies, it turns into a force that is structurally against any Normative Parent dimension. No wonder then that some strong reactions rise from Normative Parent forces.
The Rebellious Child is especially active in many areas. The younger generation senses the urgent need to take action against global warming and challenges politicians and companies into taking action. It now considers the topic as a significant criterion before joining a company. Let’s also mention the many forms of activism against traditional dominances such as the one of male power.
The expression of the Free Child is booming. At an individual level, it shows in the will to reach a better life/work balance as well as in the more frequent changes in life aimed at fulfilling one’s needs and dreams. At a more collective level, it is enhanced by the Diversity & Inclusion movements when different groups (gender, sexual preference, social origin, ethnic group…) tend to put forward the specific expression of their own identities before the one of the larger groups they belong to. (On the topic, see the article “When Inclusion Collides With Diversity”)
C. Corporate strategy and cultural change
These societal and political shifts affect directly most companies and their workforce. Companies are often asked about their standpoints. Some are taking an active part in these social trends. Some are just surfing on the wave. Some want to turn them into business. Others prefer to stay outside of the game.
All these topics are not only part of underlying trends. They are at the forefront of the socio-political and media field. This is why a new important question is the degree of acceptance of a potential or existing contrast between the cultural societal median and a corporate cultural median on each of these topics. What “spread” is acceptable? For your company or your organisation what are the good reasons for a narrow or for wide spread?
Depending on the company, I have observed different kinds of motives for actions or non-action. Some actions stem from a political stand at the top of the company. Some come as an answer to a corporate need, such as sourcing potential talents. Some come from individuals’ initiatives, for some because they believe in a cause, for others in order to gain visibility and advance their careers. It may also be out of political correctness.
Sometimes these actions are connected to a higher purpose, sometimes it is just being trendy. But most often these matters are considered as communication opportunities or communication requirements.
Using the model of Functional Ego States will help better understand the stakes for the company in terms of culture, management and leadership. It will help built a real cultural strategy and a plan for reinforcing the corporate culture or steering a cultural change.
To be efficient the approach should include, as for any cultural change, a specific attention to:
Aligning higher purpose, corporate strategy, cultural adjustment or change & communication in a systemic perspective,
Taking into account the impact on all the stakeholders,
Analysing the positive and the negative dynamics that it may foster on the long run,
Checking the coherence between different actions in different areas.
Linking the actions that you consider undertaking to the model of the Ego States brings a unique perspective on systemic impacts or resistance to change. As for an example, here are three questions, which shed specific light on the subject:
Are you aware of which dynamics (Functional Ego State) might be reduced as a consequence of your putting focus on another one? Which bright side might you lose in the process?
Are you aware of the potential dark side of the Ego State that you want to emphasise? How could you avoid a potential pitfall?
What kind of measures would you take if the current dominant functioning (Functional Ego State) shifts to its dark side as you start moving the main focus to another Functional Ego State?
Fully integrating different, sometimes opposite and often paradoxical dimensions, taking into account systemic dynamics, and working on alignment and coherence are gateways to strategic and wise leadership. This makes the difference with surfing on the wave or carrying isolated actions that may be visible and possibly successful, but which do not necessarily bring coherence and impact on the long run.
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This article was first published on LinkedIn on August 2022