Are you a Parent Leader?

Leadership and Transactional Analysis

parent leader

Eric Berne, a Canadian born social constructivist, argued in his popular book Games People Play that all social transactions fall into 3 dominant (non age specific) ego states: the Parent, the Adult and the Child.

The Parent ego state, sometimes known as the taught concept,* derives from mainly early parental influence and is largely characterised by authoritative, conditioning and judgemental attitudes absorbed from our parents exemplified in such language as “don’t speak to strangers. “look both ways before you cross the road” etc. If the parent is involved in the social transaction, common phrases will include “never”, “always”, “should” and “ought” and may include such gestures as finger wagging, and head-shaking.

The adult ego state, sometimes known as the learned concept ,* derives from the rational and analytical part of the personality that grows from a childhood learned ability to carefully weigh up the data input from parental guidance and self-observed feelings. If the adult is involved in the social transaction, common phrases will include “have I understood you correctly…”, “help me understand how…” and tends to be accompanied by open, inviting active listening body language such as tilting head, leaning forward, smiling, nodding head and positive eye contact.

The child ego state, sometimes known as the felt concept,* derives from the emotional memory we have of early childhood experience and is largely characterised by unconscious, emotional and sensory elements. If the child is involved in the social transaction, common phrases will include “it’s not my fault”, “I wish”, “I don’t want”, “won’t” and tends to be accompanied by such gestures as arms folded, screwed up face and foot or fist stamping.

Each of these ego states are effective in their own way: evoking the child can create an empathetic leader; evoking the parent can create an assertive and confident leader; evoking the adult can create a democratic and participative leader. Having a dominant parent ego in a leadership position can be particularly problematic, however, because leadership creates a natural hierarchy of decision maker/follower which, in transactional analysis terms, can encourage a parent/child dynamic. Leaders with a dominant parent ego-state particularly need to control how they engage with their followers and avoid blindly slipping into parent-mode.

Let’s take a real-case scenario (Eric Berne would term it a “game”) of a leader who allowed their extreme dominant parent ego to define their leadership.

John had been reporting to Nicole for three years and their relationship could be defined as healthy. Whenever John had a problem, he found Nicole approachable and supportive. Nicole liked to create opportunities for people in the team. She had a strong vision for each of her team members and delighted in the team members achieving success in the vision she had created for them. On the face of it, Nicole was a great boss and John felt protected, comforted and secure with her. One day, John saw a professional opportunity in another team on the company’s open resourcing system and approached Nicole to talk about the opportunity. John anticipated no issues – Nicole was one of the most supportive bosses he had ever worked with. To his surprise, Nicole was far from supportive. She became very stern and said he ought not to be looking for other opportunities whilst contracted to her team and needed to focus on his job. John really wanted this role and had a few meetings with the head of department and HR. Word got back to Nicole and she was furious. She pulled John into a meeting room and scolded him for going against her wishes and expressly forbid him from applying for other jobs. She gave him a verbal warning and started to audit his work. On several occasions she undermined him in front of his colleagues through emails and meetings and used such tactics as openly favouring others in front of him. In his end year performance review he received the lowest ranking in the department. John started to lose confidence and became demotivated he tried everything he could to please Nicole to get back in her good books and finally left the company dispirited and lacking in confidence.

This is a classic parent-child dynamic that got out of control. As is often the case with dominant parent leaders, Nicole has a Pygmalion-type approach to the workplace creating opportunities for others that she feels is right for them. People see this as caring, but it is really a form of parental control – creating a box for people to play in but not to break out of. Her parent instincts creates a culture of dependency around her (she needs this to feel good about herself). Her followers have become her children, looking always to please her and make her proud. John’s independent actions enraged the dominant parent and caused her to control him in less subtle ways by becoming a disapproving parent punishing an insubordinate child. John reacts by trying to please and appease his parent. John’s only option of escaping from the clutches of an over-protective and disapproving parent is to run away from home.

What needed to happen in this situation (or game) was for the leader to self-recognise and self-correct her dissonant behaviour and moderate her parental behaviour which in turn would help John snap out his child play so that they both could have a sensible and mature adult-to-adult relationship. If Nicole had been a more effective leader and parked her dominant parent, maybe the company would not have lost a talented employee.

It is often said that you cannot always choose what happens but you can choose how to react. Sometimes leaders can be aware of certain dissonant leadership styles but lost as to how they can practically normalise their behaviour. Transactional analysis is a useful and practical tool to actively help leaders diversify and adapt their approach, the point is knowing how each of these states contribute to influencing others and knowing when to use them.

*terms coined by Harris

Richard Kelly PhD.
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