It’s like coming to work with children everyday – Maybe its because your behaving like a parent

“I just won’t do it Scott” …… “You’re not listening to me…Yes, you will…just do as you are told Michael and that’s the end of it”.

What had happened and why was I now sounding like my father telling me to eat my vegetables when I was a kid?

As it turned out I had done something many of new managers do…took on the parent role and tried to discipline my direct report with the authority of a parent. I had treated Michael like a child and the outcome was a contemptuous response “Fine – whatever you say Scott”

It wasn’t until a few years after this situation that I was introduced to the Parent – Adult – Child (PAC) model that I could finally join all the dots.

I had recently been put in charge of a team of peers for 6 weeks whilst my manager was on leave. I was as they called it “The Caretaker”, responsible for keeping the team intact until the real manager came back. Michael was a peer who was at best, challenging, we also had a lot of history.

I had been told by my manager that Michael was likely to challenge me and that I was to stand my ground, and that’s exactly what I did. I became the Parent and I disciplined him like a naughty Child.

The PAC model was first introduced by Eric Berne in the 1950’s in his Transactional Analysis Theory. He asserts that when we communicate, we do so from one of our own Alter ego states, our Parent, Adult or Child. Our feelings at the time determine which one we use, and at any time, something can trigger a shift from one state to another. When we respond, we do so from one of these three states.

So, what do we mean by the Ego states of Parent, Adult or Child:

Note: This is a simplified version of the original model. For more information of the complexities of the model including other variations click here

The Parent Ego

This is our ingrained voice of authority. It is a collection of external events involving authority figures (Parents, teacher, aunts and uncles, neighbours etc..) that we have experienced or perceived during the early years of your lives. In essence this is our “Taught Concept of life”. When we take the Parent Ego we become the authoritarian and direct people to do things.

Some clues to look for when experiencing the Parent Ego include:

  • Critical or judgemental language – “Why did you do that”
  • Patronising gestures or language – “You’re not listening to me”
  • Taking status – “I am the boss here”

In my example I put my foot down hard and told Michael in no uncertain terms that he will do what he was told to do. I had patronised him and postured myself as the person who had status.

The Child Ego

This is the part of us that has learnt to comply with the parental messages we receive. This is the seeing, hearing, feeling, and emotional body of data within each of us and shapes how we respond. In essence this is our “Felt Concept of Life”. When we take on the Child Ego we think, see and feel as if we were the child.

Some clues to look for when experiencing the Child Ego include:

  • Emotional language or expressions – despair, contempt, shrugging shoulders
  • Feeling like the victim – “things never go right for me”
  • Creative and out of the box thinking

Because I had taken the on the Parent Ego, I had forced Michael into a corner and his response “Fine – Whatever you say Scott “demonstrated that he was only doing this because he was told to…. Sounds like every teenager who has ever been asked to clean their room.

The Adult Ego

This is the part of us that uses data to make decisions. The Adult seeks further information and looks to explore the reasons behind why things are what they are. In essence this is our ‘Thought Concept of Life. When we take on the Adult Ego, we tend to focus on the facts of the situation based on our personal knowledge and experiences.

Some clues to look for when experiencing the Adult Ego include:

  • Attentive and interested body language
  • Using explorative language – “Why, What and How”
  • Non-threatening and Non-threatened manners

Unfortunately, neither Michael nor I took the opportunity to take on the Adult Ego when it got to the pointy end. We had allowed our inner Egos to take control of the conversation.

Is there a place for all three egos

After my experience with Michael, I wanted to see if there was a place in our lives for all three Egos, or was it best to just be the adult all the time. Below is my interpretation of when I’ve found each Ego productive as a leader:


When to Use

  • In a time of crisis or an emergency – If there’s a fire alarm going off we don’t want to have a conversation about it. We need clear direction from an authority figure.
  • In times of an imminent health and safety issue.
  • If you need to be nurturing – This is when people need a shoulder to lean on. Like when a young child grazes their knee and they need their mummy or daddy to just feel good. Have that genuine care makes everything feel alright.
  • When you need to be creative – Allowing your inner child to come out to play.
  • Looking for solutions – Brainstorming and innovative thinking where rules can at times be an impediment to divergent thinking.
  • When you need to express how you feel.
  • When direct reports come to you for a solution – This is a powerful strategy as it develops critical thinking through a coaching methodology.
  • When trying to understand why things went wrong – Rather than taking a Parental approach which is judgemental and critical, you can open up the conversation allowing for a deeper level of learning.
  • When an idea is raised in the team meeting – Our natural response is to take on the Parent Ego and find the reasons as to why it wont work. However, as an Adult you allow the ideas to be explored creating an environment where people feel safe to generate more ideas.

What I learnt from my experience with Michael is that it’s hard to hold your inner Parent or Child at bay when emotions run high. The key is to get in early and recognise what Ego is at play and to ask yourself, ‘is this the Ego I really want leading this conversation’?

I have come to realise that for the most part I was letting my inner voices control how I reacted, rather than choosing the most appropriate Ego for the situation.

I would encourage you to pay attention to what Ego is impacting your leadership approach.

BTW – Michael and I recovered, but only because we both realised that we had let our Egos take over.