you’re ok, now let’s make change

As a young couple in the 70’s, my parent’s library consisted of a closet bookshelf. I developed my love of reading by carefully studying the pages of the Manual of the Medical Department of the U.S. Navy, Jansen’s History of Art, Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, and I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas A Harris MD. Although the Navy manual and the art history book may have been more rarefied, the latter two were ubiquitous in homes across the country at the time.

Transactional Analysis and the Parent/Child dynamic.

Transactional Analysis and the Parent-Child relationship.

I’m OK, You’re OK was really the first major so-called self-help book. I’m not sure why, but to this day, self-help books make me squirm a little. There can be a feeling in them of their being “truth revealed.” On the other hand, such books can often provide great thoughts in an easily digestible format. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just that I’m a little mistrustful of the genre.

Harris’s book was based on the thinking of a popular psychology book, Games People Play by Eric Berne. Berne had proposed an approach he called Transactional Analysis (often shortened to TA). A central premise of TA is that we all play three major roles: that of the parent; that of the adult; and that of the child. During the course of a day or even an hour, we may slip between these different roles in our interactions with others. Of course, others are also slipping between their roles. By understanding which roles are being used in interactions, we can begin to understand the dynamics at play, and hopefully, endeavor to escape their gravitational pull.

Making Organizational Change

Almost all of us grew up with at least one parent if not two. The patterns of behavior that were modeled to us in our formative years remain a major influence for life. One of the elemental aspects of being a child is that we’re cared-for (hopefully) by the parent. We’re given food, clothing, transportation, and if we’re lucky, a little pocket money. After all, a child seldom has the means to procure those essentials for themselves.

When a young person fresh out of high school or college obtains their first job, they often can’t help but to bring some of those patterns of dependency with them. Where do I sit? What work am I supposed to perform? Can I have a raise? There’s a lot of dependency on another person, often older, who calls the shots. This naturally invites the dynamic wherein employees become passive, and desire others to fix things for them.

All of us, at some point or another, see opportunities to make things better. We often see things and think, “Sheesh, how is it I’m the only one seeing this? This is stupid! Someone ought to change this.” If, though, you are operating in an environment where you have succumbed to the dynamic of child/parent, you’re not apt to try to make that change in any way other than complaining.

Inherent in even the word complain is a sense of helplessness. It comes from the idea of being in grief and lamenting. I’m in grief that someone has died – there is nothing to be done about it. Or I complain of an ailment, which is inside my body, and beyond my control.

Recognizing the Roles

If we recognize that this dynamic naturally exists, we can start to operate differently – we can begin the real work of helping to effect change. Making real change can be difficult, can be politically challenging. and usually consists of many steps like those outlined in Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model.

Kotter's Steps of Change

Kotter’s Steps of Change

I have heard about circumstances where well-meaning and smart individuals set out to make change in an organization and failed: perhaps leadership was weak and constantly changing, or perhaps the decision-makers’ interests were elsewhere – whatever the underlying reason, the change just wasn’t going to happen. But more often, what I see, is that individuals just don’t set out to make change, but accept what’s placed before them. At some point, they may get frustrated and move on, where things might be different, or not.

Making substantive change can be the most thrilling and gratifying work you do in your life. Anyone can make change in an organization, even an intern. The answer lies less in complaining than in what Kotter, in his first step of change, called “establishing a sense of urgency.”

I’d say there is a step before that: whether you’re that intern or the CEO, it’s to realize that the power to make change happen is not in someone else’s hands, but yours.


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