Want to stop your workplace feeling like a playground?

16 May 2020
Carrie Birmingham

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Does your company culture feel like a playground? Would you like some insight into why this is? Do you want to know how to encourage a more grown up way of working?

I support clients with complex and messy people problems. People problems that are often related to dysfunctional company cultures.  A reoccurring theme I have noticed is when clients say that their staff are acting like children or that the workplace feels like a playground (and not in a good way).  This comment is laced with frustration, resignation and often accompanied by a wagging finger.  The idea of a workplace feeling like a playground perks my interest because it indicates deeper dynamics of behaviour, and how they might be feeding off each other.  

The deeper dynamics 

Transactional Analysis (TA) is a wide ranging set of theories that helps us understand human nature.  One element of TA is to understand how our inner ego states influence how we behave.  Based on our life experiences, the ego states are like a storage system laid down with three recordings. These ego states are present in each of us and each has its place and value:

  • Child’s (C) is driven by emotions & represents how we arrive in the world. The Child includes the thoughts, feelings and behaviours we developed as very small children, when our main concern was for love and safety. 
  • Parent’s (P) is being driven by values.  Parent is the behaviours, thoughts and feelings that we copied, learned or even borrowed from the big people in our lives.
  • Adult’s (A) is driven by logic and problem-solving, with thoughts, feelings and behaviours mindfully rooted in the present.

How you can hook others

When I first learned about ego states in 2002 (now I feel old!), what intrigued me was the idea of ego states hooking each other in interactions with mutual benefit e.g. a manager behaving from Parent can hook the team to behave like Children. Let’s take an example: Mary came to me for coaching because she had just been promoted, she needed to increase the accountability in her team.  She described herself as a ‘hands on’ manager and we quickly realised that her style was to answer questions from the team rather than asking them questions, and hence encouraging them to think for themselves.  By changing this one behaviour, she  moved herself out of Parent, and encouraged her team to move out of Child.

Whilst helpful when looking at individual interactions, I also apply TA more broadly to culture.  After all, culture is simply the collection of conversations happening in an organisation.  By helicoptering above individual interactions, we can start to see patterns & hence what is driving these interactions. My response to the frustrated client talking about the playground is to introduce them to Transactional Analysis, and ask if they recognise the patterns.  

If your teams are behaving like Children, how are you behaving like the Parent? 

This can be a powerful question because it moves the client from feeling resigned and helpless, to having insight about how they can change this dynamic.  Awareness of this dynamic allows us to start experimenting with new habits.  

There is a tendency for the Manager to be seen as  the ‘grown up’ and so we default to ‘looking after’ the team. Many company policies are steeped in parental language of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’, with an undercurrent of ‘because we say so’ rather than explaining why. When driven by this mindset, parenting behaviour becomes a natural consequence.  It’s not unusual to see this dynamic in many organisations. For many managers the intentions are positive, they want to take care of their teams, and they may have greater resources or wisdom.  However, if these are the only types of conversations happening, inadvertently managers are taking away responsibility and undermining the people working for them and their capacity to resolve problems for themselves.  

This is often complementary for employees. The pay-off includes doing as you are ‘told’ and hence not having to waste time thinking for yourself and being able to blame those above us when things go wrong, rather than having to look at yourself.  

Changing culture, one experiment at a time

In her latest book, Margaret Heffernan talks about the inability to see the whole of a dynamic system, the need to embrace uncertainty and the power of using experiments to learn what works.  The idea of changing culture can feel overwhelming, so when you want to create change, it feels really helpful to consider the experiments you want to conduct.  This mindset leads to my next question: 

Where and how could you experiment with being in ‘Adult’ to see what unfolds?

To inspire an answer, I might offer some examples of being in ‘Adult’: 

  • paying attention to boundaries and expectations (see my previous blog on contracting)
  • asking great questions to help see and understand what is happening
  • inviting others to take responsibility
  • checking our assumptions
  • resourcing ourselves so we can notice our own habits 
  • explaining the background to a behaviour and adding context about why
  • offering to share feedback 
  • holding the silence, and not interrupting when you ask question

Of course, these actions need to be accompanied by an Adult attitude of curiosity, honesty and openness.  In starting these experiments, clients can find their teams a little confused by their change. By switching to an ‘Adult’ way of managing, however, they can start to see their teams shift out of ‘Child’ into ‘Adult’ themselves and, over time, the organisational culture starts to change.  

So what?

I am hoping you found this blog useful and I would invite you to reflect on the themes and ideas raised.  The following questions might help you with this:

  • Which ego state most accurately describes the culture in your organisation?
  • How does this help or hinder what type of behaviours you want to encourage in the people around you?
  • How could you experiment to change the conversations with those around you?

The following book is a great introduction to Transactional analysis, especially if you want something light and fun: Counselling for Toads.