Transaction Analysis

Transaction Analysis

Transactional analysis, originally developed by Dr. Berne, defined the transaction as the basic unit of social intercourse. When two people communicate, one person initiates the transaction. The person to whom the transaction is directed responds. Basic transactional analysis involves identifying the ego state that initiated the transaction and which ego state responded.  There are three types of transactions: complementary, crossed and ulterior, all of which you will encounter on a daily basis.

The crux of transactional analysis is the rule that effective and successful communications must be generated from complementary transactions. Complementary transactions complete a transit from the receiving ego state back to the sending ego state. If the transaction is from adult to child, the response must be child to adult.  For example, seeing that Paul the programmer is agitated during a team discussion, Sari the scrum master pulls Paul aside and says . . .”Paul you seem to be upset, tell me what you’re feeling.” The transaction goes from the scrum master’s nurturing parent to Paul’s child. If Paul responds, “I was feeling cut out of the conversation and I need help,” he would be responding from his child state to Sari’s parent.

Crossed transactions occur when the communication transaction does not return directly to the state it came from.  In the saga of Paul and Sari, if Paul had responded from his adult state to Sari’s adult state the communication would be confused and ineffective. For example, Paul asked Sari for a definition of the term upset. A crossed transaction occurs when an unexpected response is made to the stimulus. Crossed transactions occur for many reasons ranging from misinterpretations (the receiver does not understand the transaction) to misdirection (the receiver want to avoid the conversation). Crossed transactions can escalate into anger unless one (or both) parties disengage or redirects the conversation back to complementary patterns.

The third type of transaction is ulterior. Ulterior transactions always involve two or more ego states in parallel.  One portion of the transaction is generally verbal and the other an unspoken psychological transaction.  For example, if a manager tells an employee, “this is a really intriguing problem, but it it might be too hard for you.” This message can be heard either by the employee’s adult (I don’t have the capability to deal with this scenario) or by the employee’s child (I will do it and show him!).  Ulterior transactions are manipulative and increase the risk of communication failure and conflict. A better approach be to avoid innuendo and to break the conversation down into a set of complementary transactions exposing the meaning of each step in the conversation.

Teams are built on effective communication.  Very little productive work can be accomplished if communication breaks down. Agile team members need an understanding of the three ego states and how the transactions between the states can either be complementary (effective), crossed (ineffective) or ulterior (manipulative). Transactional analysis provides a framework to understand whether our communication is effective and how to get it back on track when it’s not.

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.

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.

Peabody Library

Peabody Library

The adult ego state is characterized by logical, practical thinking and reasoning (think of Spock in the original Star Trek series as an extreme adult ego state). The adult analyzes, solves problems and makes decisions using the rules that have been imprinted, information pulled from the environment, along with feedback from the parent and child ego states. Berne held that the adult was “principally concerned with transforming stimuli into pieces of information, and processing and filing that information on the basis of previous experience.[1]” The adult ego state has been likened to a tape recorder that is switched to record at ten months and then the recorder is switched off at 12 years old. The recordings (i.e. memories) then are used over and over to interpret and make decisions.  Maybe a better analogy would be that of an operating system that is past its final update, only the data changes. The adult ego state can stand in the way of change, if the change challenges the perception of balance, satisfaction or decision process in the adult ego state’s programming.

One of the key functions of the adult ego state is to validate data and actions from the other ego states and pass judgment. For example, Joe programmer overhears that Sid the programmer decided not to unit test the code he committed today and broke the daily build. Therefore, he has to miss the team outing.  Joe realizes that his training that developers should always unit test is true.

When Joe compares the new experience, the material overheard, to what he was taught he is using his adult ego state.  The material he was taught in technical school is used in the parent ego state (well most of it).

The adult ego state provides the same interaction and intermediation with the child ego state.

Another key function of the adult ego state is to interpret and react to adult-to-adult transactions.  Transactions from your adult to someone else adult are the simplest transactions.  They are essentially binary logic decisions based on the rules the adult ego state has recorded and the data at hand.  It breaks down when the two adults have different set of rules from which to make decisions.  The differences are a reflection of your culture. On a positive note, given the motivations of the adult ego state (balance, satisfaction and learning), adult-to-adult transactions are not generally acrimonious, even when they don’t end in agreement. The adult ego state seeks balance.

The adult ego state provides the rational decision-making process and acts as the logical control for the child and parent states.  Our adult ego state was formed before most of us enter the work place.  When pursuing organizational change or forming an Agile team it is important to understand the adult ego states of all those involved.  Understanding of how you audience will make decisions will help you to communicate effectively and get the decision you want.


[1] Berne, Eric. Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1961. Page 15.

The role of parent focuses on shoulds and coulds!

The role of parent focuses on shoulds and coulds!

Transactional analysis has three egos states: the parent, the child and the adult. Each of these ego states has different attributes, and an understanding of each can help IT professionals better communicate. The parent alter ego is the voice of authority and leadership. Our parent ego state is absorbed from our parents and other significant authority figures.  The broader the exposure to authority figures, the broader the feelings and behavior we will incorporate into the parent ego state.  For example, a child living closely within an extended family will emulate behaviors from the wide range of authority figures – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.  Communication is critical to applying frameworks such as Agile and transactional analysis provides a tool for effective communication. The transactional analysis framework outlines how each of the different ego states interact with each other. Interactions with the parent ego state are described below.

Parent-to-Parent

Parent to parent interactions are common In the IT world.  For example, controlling parents seek dominance, while a nurturing parent seeks to provide solace and support. When two people whose controlling parent ego state is dominate interact – conflict generally occurs.  As an example, think of how many teams struggle when two or more members engage in the classic “who’s in charge” debate.

Parent-to-Child

The second type of parent lead interaction is parent to child communication. For example, command and control leaders generally act as the parent and interact with their followers as children. In its most absolute form, the leader with a dominant parent ego state will tell his/her employees what to do. Agile coaches or scrum masters will tend to leverage the nurturing parent ego state. As we noted, the activities of a coach include a variable mix of activities that includes: consulting, cajoling, training, arbitration and mentoring. None of which would be effective if delivered from the controlling parent ego state.

Parent-to-Adult

The third major category of communication is parent to adult interactions. These reflect interactions with a quant or the office “realist.”  The adult ego state gathers information, reasons things out, considers possibilities in black and white fashion and then makes decisions in a calm, rational manner. The adult will avoid becoming the victim of the other person in the interaction by carefully controlling how they respond to the situation, acting rationally rather than reacting emotionally or based on opinions.  The controlling parent will be frustrated by this scenario.

Having a clear understanding of how the parent ego state normally interacts with the other ego states is important, as this ego state is leveraged in most leadership scenarios. (We will tackle crossed transactions and “games” later this week.) Often leaders deliver the “ought to” or “should not” messages as a mechanism to get their way, which is a reflection of the controlling or nurturing parent ego states.

Communication is a series of transactions.

Communication is a series of transactions.

People are the heart of the interactions that drive every organization and team. Increasing the effectiveness of communication will directly translate to higher productivity. To improve communication you need to develop an understanding of psychology. Transactional Analysis is one of the most useful communication theories for IT professionals. Transactional Analysis provides a basis to enrich your dealings with others by helping us understand why communication gets crossed. Developed by Eric Berne, it was built on the idea that the human psyche is multifaceted. Berne suggests that there are three egos states: the parent, the child and the adult. Each of these ego states has different attributes, and an understanding of each can help IT professionals better communicate.

The parent alter ego is the voice of authority. It represents the conditioning, attitudes and learning we absorb through the environment we grow up in. Environment includes both the physical and cultural. We are taught this role. The parent role comes in two flavors: nurturing (viewed as positive until it goes too far and results in spoiling) and controlling (viewed as negative when it is simply critical rather than providing structure). IT personnel are generally not trained psychologists, so the identification of an ego state is difficult without examples. Examples of nurturing parent behavior includes being fully present in your interactions (put down that Blackberry), providing physical comfort when sought, and providing challenges that promote healthy development. On the other hand, controlling behaviors may include: angry or impatient body language and finger pointing (a big one with my mother). The parent role guides behavior either through controlling or nurturing communication. The ability to identify communication coming from the parent role is important because interacting with the parent ego state using the wrong ego state will cause crossed communication.

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 child’s role interprets events based on the relationship it has established based on experiences and feelings.  As with the parent ego state, there are two sides to the child ego state, the adapted child and the free child.  The adapted child state reacts to the parent state either with obedience or defiance. The free child state is characterized by openness, spontaneity and boldness. The child ego state tends to be feeling and very egocentric. Understanding this state is important because the emotional linkage is important to selling change.  For example, marketing communication that aims to induce impulse purchases is targeted at the child state.

The adult ego state is logical (think of Spock in the original Star Trek series as an extreme adult ego state). It acts as a control between the parent and the child state. It makes plans and decisions based on data it receives. Berne (1961) stated, “I have heard the adult described through the metaphor of a tape recorder that is turned on at ten months then switches off at some point and then is only replayed. The Adult ego state is characterized by an autonomous set of feelings, attitudes and behavior patterns which are adapted to the current reality.[1]” These trigger behaviors patterns that define the adult ego state directs which ego state is called into action.

Understanding the ego states described in Transactional Analysis provides a set of behavioral and communication attributes to understand how the ego states interact. When you are speaking from your ego state to someone else you are interacting with their current ego state.  Berne theorized that some ego states interact better than others, they are complementary.  One of the rule of Transaction Analysis is that successful communications must be between complementary states. We will explore the permeations of the parent, child and adult ego states over this week. In the world of organizational change, the parent gives permission, the adult decides and the child buys. In order to plan, sell and implement change we need to understand how to involve all ego states.


[1] Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: a systematic individual and social psychiatry, Eric Berne, Publisher Grove Press, 1961, p76