Transactional Analysis

There was a time when every forward-thinking manager in a large company would be familiar with TA - Transactional Analysis - but trends have moved on, and it's rarely featured in development training these days.  It was restricted by its complexity, and the fact that it could be manipulated, but some current ideas on leadership and teamworking have their roots in TA, and the language of TA still persists - which is why we've included it here.

Transactional Analysis was developed by Eric Berne as an approach to psychoanalysis and therapy in the early 1950s, but was adopted by commercial organisations in the '60s as they tried to improve the ways that people in general interacted.  It defines some basic Ego States and Life Positions that individuals can adopt, and uses those to describe how Transactions then occur between two people.  The idea is that if you know your own state, and can determine the other person's state, you can use your behaviour to influence the interactions between the two of you.



Berne defined three basic personalities or Ego States, each with characteristic attitudes, feelings, behaviours and language.  Two of the states subdivide into two further facets:

PARENT Critical Parent

makes rules and sets limits

disciplines, judges and criticises

Nurturing Parent

advises and guides

protects and nurtures


concerned with data and facts

considers options and estimates probabilities

makes unemotional decisions

plans and makes things happen

CHILD Free (Natural) Child

fun-loving and energetic

creative and spontaneous

Adapted Child

compliant and polite

rebellious and manipulative



The other building block of TA is the view we have of ourselves in relation to other people around us.  There are four life positions, shown as a grid that became known as the "OK Corral".  The quotation in each box typifies the attitude of each Life Position:




"I wish I could do that as well as you do"




"Hey, we're making good progress now"




"Oh this is terrible - we'll never make it"




"You're not doing that right - let me show you"

People will move around the grid depending on the situation, but have a preferred position that they tend to revert to.  This is strongly influenced by experiences and decisions in early life. 

"I'm OK, you're OK" people are in the 'get on with' position.  They're confident and happy about life and work, and interact by collaboration and mutual respect, even when they disagree.

I'm OK, you're not OK" people are in the 'get rid of' position.  They tend to get angry and hostile, and are smug and superior.  They belittle others, who they view as incompetent and untrustworthy, and are often competitive and power-hungry.

I'm not OK, you're OK" is the 'get away from' position.  These people feel sad, inadequate or even stupid in comparison to others.  They undervalue their skills and contribution and withdraw from problems.

I'm not OK, you're not OK" is the 'get nowhere' position.   These people feel confused or aimless.  They don't see the point of doing anything, and so usually don't bother.



The central concept of TA is that Transactions between people can be characterised by the Ego State of the two participants.  What's more, the Ego State adopted by the person who starts the transaction will affect the way the other person responds.

For example, Mr A says "what time will they arrive?", and Mr B replies "at 2pm."  This is a simple Adult to Adult transaction.

However, if Mr A adopts a Child state: "I'm worried that they might not arrive on time,"  that will tend to produce a Nurturing Parent response from Mr B: "Don't worry, we'll still have plenty of time to talk to them."

This model shows how the Transaction 'balances' between the two people: if one drifts into Parent, that will encourage the other to move to Child, and vice versa.  The preferred state for most business transactions is Adult-Adult, but it's OK to move to another state as long as you're aware of it and are ready for the changed response from the other person.

Of course it doesn't always work that way, and an Adult state can sometimes be met with, say, a Parent response: "What time will they arrive?"  "How should I know, I didn't arrange it!"



We all need and seek care, attention, love and recognition from others, and in TA, a stroke is defined as a unit of recognition.  With children, strokes are obviously sought and given: they show off their new toy, or misbehave to get attention, and know the adults will respond right on cue.  But grown-ups do the same: working hard, deliberately making mistakes, arriving late, or simply arriving home and sighing "what a day!"

Strokes can be positive or negative, and it's generally better to give a negative stroke than none at all (because that may be taken as negative anyway).  But in many business organisations, strokes are subject to a set of unwritten rules:

  1. don't give positive strokes freely;

  2. if you give positive strokes, make them conditional;

  3. don't ask for positive strokes - certainly not directly;

  4. most positive strokes are insincere ('plastic');

  5. never give a physical stroke - by touching someone;

  6. don't miss a chance to give a negative stroke.

The result is a cold, unfeeling environment where normal human emotions are generally suppressed.  Even in 'warm' organisations where it's OK to express feelings, strokes are still subject to certain norms - such as not giving them to people above you in the hierarchy.

In the absence of a free exchange of strokes, people manipulate others in order to get the strokes they crave, and start playing games.



The complexity of the TA model leaves it open to manipulation, or "Games".  You adopt a Child state because you want someone's help, or a Parent state to make them do something for you.  But often the games end up damaging the relationship, and the type of game someone plays is influenced by his or her life state.

Examples of games players are:

The Persecutor: "if it weren't for you",  "see what you made me do",  "yes, but".

The Rescuer: "I'm only trying to help", "what would you do without me?"

The Victim: "this always happens to me", "poor old me", "go on, kick me".


There are more themes to the TA model than we can show here, but every day you see complex transactions that fit the model.  Many effective leaders - and those who are seen as "good with people" - apply the TA principles, often without being aware of it.  Even though TA has fallen out of fashion, it's just as applicable today as it ever was.  If you're really interested in how people interact - and not just wanting to hone your interpersonal skills - then TA is worth exploring.


Back to Models Home Page    

Chimaera Consulting Limited 1999.