Even elephants crave strokes.

Even elephants crave strokes.

Transactional analysis defines two basic units of measure – the transaction and the stroke. The transaction is the unit of social intercourse and the stroke is the unit of social action. Strokes are when one person recognizes (verbally or non-verbally) another person. Rene Spitz incorporated the concept of a stroke into transactional analysis; when he observed that infants deprived of handling were prone to emotional and physical difficulties. We all hunger for social contact, and in fact suffer greatly without it. Sales guru David Sandler, in his book with John Hayes, Ph.D, You Can’t Teach A Kid To Ride A Bike At A Seminar suggested that everyone is stroke deprived. Therefore we are always looking for strokes that provide recognition, either positive or negative.  In order for a team to reach maximum effectiveness each individual needs to get the positive strokes they need, while minimizing the negative strokes. There are four basic variants of strokes – positive, negative, unconditional or conditional.

Strokes can be positive (“That is great idea”) or negative (“That is a horrid idea”). Strokes can have different values depending on the source and the perceived veracity. For example, a peer telling another that a business solution was brilliant will have more value than a simple “good morning” even though both are positive strokes. In this example while the “good morning” is a positive stroke it is undifferentiated and would be discounted more than the specific stroke about work done. Agile teams provide an excellent platform for delivering and receiving strokes.  In Daily Process Thoughts, May 2, 2013 we discussed how team boundaries impacted team effectiveness.  Team boundaries help establish trust which amplifies the value of strokes. Getting enough stokes from the team reinforces membership and increases teamwork.  Teamwork and productivity are highly correlated.

Strokes can also be either unconditional (“You are a great person”) or conditional (“You are a great person for solving my problem”). An unconditional stroke is for being you, and a conditional stroke is for having done something.  Positive conditional strokes are a powerful motivational tool when they are genuine (when you think they are not genuine you naturally discount them). Because unconditional strokes pertain to characteristics which occur naturally they can not be earned.  For example a piano player might be given a stroke for having long graceful fingers and that would be unconditional. If he was stroked for his performance, that would be conditional.  Unconditional strokes are often used as softeners when coupled with a negative stroke.  For example how many time have you heard someone begin a conversation with “You are a smart person” (or some variation) which is a positive, unconditional stroke only then to whack them with “but that was stupid” (negative, conditional stroke).  The last example could also be considered a counterfeit stroke which is giving something positive, then taking it away again.

Giving strokes is positive feedback loop that reinforces behavior.  When there does not seem to be enough strokes to fulfill an individual’s need, they will seek out negative strokes rather than getting no strokes at all (i.e. being ignored). While observing a daily stand up meeting for a few days, I noticed one individual who came late, daily, for which he was called out, daily.  Upon investigation I found that the person was not interacting much with the team, and was therefore receiving little feedback.  Coming late to the stand-up was his mechanism for getting a negative, conditional stroke. As an outside coach, I facilitated an impromptu retrospective to discuss how we could get everyone involved in a positive manner.  The team performed better afterwards and everyone showed up on time to the stand-up meetings.

Everyone needs strokes and no one gets enough. We are all looking for ego stokes in all of our interactions. Strokes are delivered by transactions between the three ego states defined in transaction analysis.  Strokes are powerful tools for any team to use to reinforce membership (your teammates will help satisfy your need for strokes and you can do the same for them) and for reinforcing competence. In the end all strokes have value, and when there aren’t enough positive stroke we will seek negative strokes which slowly poisons the team environment.  Focusing on delivering high value, positive strokes will foster an environment of trust for teams to be at their most effective.