Anyone can speak from the free child ego state.

Anyone can speak from the free child ego state.

The child ego state represents the part of us that reacts to the world emotionally. We learn this role as we experience events and simultaneously record our emotions. The bulk of these emotions are recorded from childbirth all the way up to approximately 5 years old, which marks the age of social birth. There are two sides to the child ego state – the adapted child and the free child.  The adapted child reacts to the parent state either with obedience and submission, or sulking and defiance. The free child state is characterized by openness, spontaneity and boldness. The child ego state tends to be feeling and very egocentric. Three patterns of communication involving the child ego state are very common in IT environment, parent-to-child, child-to-parent and child-to-child transactions.

As we saw in Daily Process Thoughts August 13, 2013, the parent-to-child communication channel is common in all organizations regardless of whether they are hierarchical, participative and Agile. In command and control organizations, a typical parent-to-child transaction is for the manager to tell the employee what to do. As a result, the employee/child can react in a range of ways from acceptance and compliance to passive, or even active, resistance depending on whether they are answering from the adaptive or free child ego state. I recently saw a tester that was informed by her boss that she need to regression test the application she was working on over the weekend (the boss was speaking from the controlling parent ego state).  The tester responded with an angry, whiney tirade about having her weekend wrecked to fix the “crud” from the development team (she responded from the child ego state, in essence she threw a fit).  The manager, continuing to operate from the controlling parent space, ended up forcing her to accept the work. If the manager had switched to a more nurturing parent state, he may have deescalated the conversation to shift the tester’s ego state either to the adult ego state or closer to the free child state. If the manager had been able to shift the discussion from the aggressive, adaptive ego state less damage would have been done to the manager and tester’s relationship.

Generally when we are unsure, nervous, unwell or need someone to guide us, we will tend to respond from the child ego state. In the example, the tester was unhappy and was trying to engage the manager’s nurturing parent ego state. When a child ego state engages a parent, they are looking for someone to provide direction and leadership. On an Agile team, the concept of self-organization and self-management means that any team member can and should step in and provide the support from the nurturing parent ego state.

The third common child ego state interaction in IT departments is between child ego states. As noted earlier, the child ego state has two varieties, the adaptive and free child.  For example, when I observe teams one of the interaction patterns I look for is healthy horseplay or joking around. I generally find that this type of free child to free child transactions is a sign of a closely-knit team.  Teams in which large quantities of interactions are between adaptive child states are usually troubled. This is often evidenced by team members whining and complaining. In this case, use facilitated retrospectives to find the root cause of the team’s problem.

Humans are emotional creatures therefore we communicate from and to the child state often. Some of the communication is healthy and some of the communication is less healthy. Transactions from adapted child ego state are generally viewed negatively (e.g. confrontational, rebelliousness, anger or whining), while the transactions from the free or natural child ego state are positive.  Scrum masters and coaches need to be able to recognize which ego state communications are coming from and how they are being received so they can help ensure that communication is effective and healthy.