Taking the U-turn in a team begins with revealing team dynamics: behavioural patterns between you and others. All individual problems and questions are already hidden within these patterns. All you need to do is watch and listen closely. What thoughts and emotions do others provoke in me? What are my own habits and where do they originate? Once every team member sees and accepts their own part in a pattern, space opens up for change.
Psychology offers two core ideas that help us understand relationships between people: Transactional Analysis and Transference.
Transactional analysis (TA)
Transactional Analysis (TA) is a model from the 50s that was developed by Eric Berne. TA maps the communication and relationships between people. It clarifies why actions and reactions between, for example, a manager and an employee can reinforce each other in such a way that there is a pattern. Often, a leader sees undesired behaviour in his employee (“She doesn’t take responsibility”), but fails to see what role he himself has played in reinforcing or even creating this behaviour.
Dutch football hero Johan Cruyff once said, “You only see it once you get it.” And that is especially true for TA. Once you’ve recognised it, you can’t not see it anymore. I once drew a picture of Transactional Analysis on a piece of paper for a manager in a large Dutch company, that he kept in his wallet for years (see below). When he bought a new wallet, he came across it, and thought: Now I will throw it away. I think I get it now.
TA is built on a number of propositions. (1) People act based on good intentions, are equal and are able to completely accept each other; (2) People determine and are responsible for their own actions; (3) Each and every one of us have three so-called positions that our ego can assume:
The adult position is aimed at the present. It is non-judgemental, open-minded, self-assured and realistic. Thinking from the adult position, you see people the way they are, without allowing yourself to be blinded by your own projections (= denying your own emotions by blaming someone else for them). You ask for information when you don’t know something, rather than making assumptions.
The child position takes three different shapes. The rebelling child mainly revolts against things and keeps complaining about everything that happens to him. The adaptive child is the opposite: obedient and passive. The free child is curious, energetic, playful and spontaneous.
All these positions exist inside of us at once. They communicate with each other in an internal dialogue. Thoughts like: What a mess they’ve made again! (Parent). I’ll probably mess up (Child). I get a stomach ache just thinking about it (Child). I really need to go for a run outside, to get rid of my energy (Child). What a boring meeting, why don’t we do something else? (Child). What would this or that person think about this? (Adult).
When we communicate with others, these internal dialogues also take place. Others can’t hear them, but they can feel it when they occur. People feel it when you don’t think highly of them. Even when you praise them, they will never believe it unless you mean it.
The most common undesirable transaction is the one below, on the left hand. It’s a parent-child role pattern, where both parties have a firm grip on the other. A pattern may start with one of the two people involved (skip to the next paragraph for an explanation). For example, a team manager has been unhappy about an employee’s work for quite some time. Acting from the role of Parent, she calls for him and tells him what she thinks. The employee, acting from the Child role, feels criticised, angry and insecure and may react in a stubborn or evasive way. The manager has little trust that his message has been understood, and keeps an eye on his behaviour over the following weeks. At the end of every day, the manager asks the employee what work he has done. The employee feels mistrusted and underestimated.
The Parent position comes in two forms: the Prosecutor (moralistic, judging and authoritative) and the Rescuer (caring, reassuring, encouraging and understanding). The Prosecutor is the critical parent with the raised finger: “I expected much more from you”. Or: “If you do this one more time, it will be over for you”. The Prosecutor’s behaviour can produce an insecure reaction. You start to doubt yourself and fall silent. You may also get very angry and protest – or you just feel alienated and wait for it to be over.
The Rescuer, at first sight, comes across very different – helpful and friendly. “That’s a tough conversation indeed. Shall I sit next to you to help you out?” “That’s nice,” is what you think at first. But during the conversation, the Rescuer gradually takes over, and you start to feel insecure and frustrated. The Rescuer can be even more subtle:
Employee: “I’ve been feeling very stressed lately and can’t get to sleep.”
Manager: “But you shouldn’t be! Just tell yourself: There’s work time and there’s family time. For me, those are two separate things. Once I am home, I don’t think about my work at all!”.
The manager wants to make his employee feel better but the result is that the employee is now feeling not only stressed but also ashamed of it.
The conceiver of this model, Eric Berne, assumes that people can change. When you become aware of these patterns, you have a conscious choice to approach someone in a different way. In a change process, an adult interaction is a prerequisite for allowing each involved to take their own steps. Many managers are stuck in the Parent role when dealing with some of their employees. To allow the interactions with these employees to change into an Adult-Adult transaction pattern requires that they choose a more equal tone when they address them. Asking real questions, rather than questions with an implicit or expected answer. But also revealing yourself. Sharing the doubts that you have, and making contact.
A second core idea taken from psychology is Transference. Originally stemming from the psychoanalytic intellectual legacy of Freud and Jong, it is indispensable when talking about a relationship between any sort of leader and follower. While TA can help leaders see the patterns between them and their followers, Transference can help understand why leaders and followers have settled into this pattern. For example: Why am I always the critical Parent when interacting with this person? And why does she get like that with me, but not with other people?
Transference means that ‘No relationship we have is a new one: All relationships are affected by past ones’ (Kets de Vries, p.70). Maybe it isn’t easy to accept that the current relationships that you have with your boss, spouse and team members are influenced by your past relationships with and among your father and mother, brother and sister. Yet, your difficult relationship with your authoritative father might offer some explanation why you always feel so angry when someone tells you what to do. Or, perhaps, it is the rejection by your mother – she seemed to appreciate and praise your sister more – that manifests itself in your persistent need to compete with others. Or maybe it was one of your parents’ emotional or physical absence that has caused you to always take all responsibility. In other words: The question is not whether or not you repeat things from past relationships, but what you are repeating from these relationships.
It is interesting and necessary to ask yourself: Why do I always react disproportionately when that guy is around? Or: Why is it so important to me that she gives me a compliment? These insights will teach you that the intensity of your reaction is only determined by who you are. And that the people to whom you are reacting don’t have much to do with it.
Counter-transference is the transference you, as a leader, may experience when someone from your team has a Transference-based reaction to you. You might notice, for example, how important it is for someone to be noticed and appreciated by you to the extent that it gives you the feeling of being like a father or mother to that person. Often, a relationship based on Transference and Counter-transference feels pretty good. You’ve grown so accustomed to your Parent role when interacting with a particular person that the pattern seems very natural. Of course, being on a pedestal is a pretty comfortable spot. But once you’re starting to ask yourself why it is so difficult to give that person feedback, or why that person comes and knocks on your door for every single thing, the pattern has become dysfunctional.
There we have it: Once you are conscious of the Transference, and once you have realised that the tension between you and the other is just due to your personal history, you create space between you and the other. You stop interacting ‘in Transference’.
Do you really want to know this? What did you think! Your impact will rise strongly once you (1) notice Transference and Transactional Analysis ánd (2) when you are in the middle of it, succeed to translate these insights to your own feelings and behaviour.
Hungry for more? In my blog on defence mechanisms (U-turn 5) we’ll dive even deeper.