I’m OK, You’re OK is one of those titles I’d feel slightly embarrassed to be caught reading on the train. When I bought myself a copy a while back, my other half reacted as if I had moved to the dark side. Before he knew it, I’d be lecturing him on how to Make Friends and Influence People, or letting him in on The Secret.
In fact, while I’m OK, You’re OK was highly popular during the 1970s, it’s actually pretty turgid stuff. In it, Thomas Harris builds on Eric Berne’s theory of ‘Transactional Analysis,’ which argues that from birth, through all our interactions or ‘transactions’ with one another, we adopt three different Ego States: Parent, Child and Adult. The theory goes like this:
As Parent, we behave or ‘mimic’ how we feel our parents or other parental/authority figures have acted. This may mean playing the authoritative and strict Parent, or a nurturing and rescuing one. And when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning those we are interacting with as ‘Child’
As Child, we act and feel as we would have in childhood. We may have a negative emotional reaction if we are criticised (or perceive criticism) and may either sulk, withdraw or rebel. Alternatively, we crave and seek approval from others in order to feel validated, and when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning the other as either a rescuing or dictatorial ‘Parent.’
It is as Adult that we are at our most objective and arguably distanced from these intrinsically emotional polarities of Parent/Child. We can stand back to see the reality of what’s going on and resist the temptation to leap to conclusions about intent or cause. We use our intelligence and reasoning capabilities to step outside the emotional ‘game’ or drama associated with the Parent/Child dynamic and instead focus on the practical steps needed to really resolve a situation. We adopt an ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ life position.
A simple but effective way to gain perspective on our thoughts and actions
Of course there is a lot more to it than this, and the bases for the original theory have been much-critiqued. In many ways the model is perhaps just too simple, the Parent, Child, Adult categorisations neat labels we can ‘shoehorn’ our behaviours into.
However, I’ve found that the power of this idea actually rests in its inherent simplicity.
We often confuse what makes us happy with what gives us pleasure, but in fact, what makes us happy may not feel pleasant at a particular moment. Paul Dolan ( Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, and author of Happiness by Design) argues a simple but powerful point: to feel happy, we need to attend to both pleasure and a sense of purpose in our lives.
And what gives people a sense of pleasure or purpose can vary; there is no one-size-fits all approach here. The trick is to get an equilibrium that’s right for you.
But in the workplace, a sense of purposeless or futility can be especially toxic, lowering our morale and ability to get things done. Why bother?
So how do we address this? A few very simple ideas inspired by Dolan:
1. Attend to your enjoyment of co-workers more than your ‘next career step’
First, we need to spend less time fixated on an imagined future state where things will be ‘better’ (when I get that promotion things will change). Instead we need to attend to the experiences on any given day that make us feel happy – spending time with a co-worker you really like, for example. When considering our happiness, we often overlook these simple everyday experiences, when in fact they have a major impact on our overall happiness. Far more than we realise.
2. Stop forgetting to say thank you
We’re forgetting to say ‘thank you.’ As organisations become increasingly dispersed and digital, and our in-boxes get more out of control, we can often forget the power of a simple acknowledgement. (I know I can be guilty of this). A report or proposal is sent, but due to other priorities, we forget to acknowledge it, and tackle other pressing tasks instead. A day or two goes by and we’ve forgotten about that ‘hey I did this for you’ shout-out from a colleague. And that colleague is now beginning to question the purpose of what they’ve done, and why they even bothered.
A simple recognition of the value of work done can go a long way in preventing that creeping sense of pointlessness that makes us disengage, and can have a real positive impact on motivation.
3. Don’t presume intent
Dolan’s main point is that we need to acknowledge people to make them feel valued and therefore happier. But I want to add that on the flip side, just as toxic to a sense of happiness can be the stories we tell ourselves about colleagues ‘deliberately ignoring’ us. This is why my other mantra is ‘don’t presume intent.’ Be mindful of when you may be committing a fundamental attribution error – inferring that because you’ve not heard from someone, that they are deliberately ignoring you, and are therefore a bad person. That response is often far more likely to be about you than the other person, who very likely has no inkling of the impact of their behaviour (and if they do, it’s another matter entirely).
Next time you have a decent conversation with a co-worker – whether it’s about work or which box-set you’re both currently addicted to – remember this is having more impact on your day-to-day happiness than finishing that major report, or getting a pay rise (momentarily satisfying though those things are). Seek out those connections and pay attention to how you feel about them.
Remind yourself to acknowledge others – a heartfelt thank you will do as a start. And remember that there’s nothing like feeling ignored to make someone feel like their work is pointless.
But if you’re on the receiving end, and feeling like your work is not valued, be aware of whether you are leaping to conclusions about the intent of the co-worker ‘maligning’ you. Chances are they’re fighting their own battles.
Want to learn more? Here’s a really short video where Dolan gives tips on workplace happiness.
And here’s a much longer one where he presents at the 2015 ‘Good Day At Work’ National Wellbeing Conference.
We’re taught to think that changing our habits for the better is simply a case of mind over matter. All we need is self-control and determination. (I wrote about this tendency last week).
But the irony is, the more we let go of the notion that we just need to be determined to achieve what we want, the more likely we are to make changes that stick.
So how do we change our habits and behaviours, even when we’re not really in the mood?
I’ve been preoccupied with habits lately and the question of why some behaviours ‘stick’ for us, and others don’t. This might be because I am currently preoccupied with two areas where I want to shift my habits: eating less (so I can lose weight) and getting into the routine of writing regularly.
I know all the tips in the book as to what I should do (and very adept at offering others advice on same) but knowing it and actually doing it are very different things. Even to write this piece I’ve had cajole myself with different techniques (Pomodoro, switching off social media, ‘putting myself in jail,’ breaking up the task into manageable chunks and then ticking them off a to-do list). All just to stop me from procrastinating, even know I know once I am fully immersed in the writing, it will flow.
When and how will regular writing just become a habit – something I just automatically do as opposed to something each time I have actively decide to do and overcome my own resistance?
In the excellent Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin points out that habits are so powerful because they “eliminate the need for self-control.” A behaviour is habitual when we are not using mental energy to decide. And to understand how people are able to change and move forward, we must understand habits and how they are formed (or not).
This is a monster topic. So in this first post, I focus on willpower and motivation and how they are in fact overrated when it comes it comes to shifting habits. This means that self-flagellation over not being able to ‘stick to things’ is really not going to get you anywhere (and it’s likely to get you worse off). I also talk about how self-awareness is critical for forming good habits, but at the same time how we also need to ‘get over ourselves’ if we’re really going to get anywhere. Finally, I remind us of the paradox that ‘better’ is not a happiness destination – that fulfilment is in not necessarily in reaching the goal. Realising this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother ever changing (that way low mood and inertia lies) but that we can ease up on ourselves a bit, because the pressure we put on ourselves often gets in our own way.
A few weeks ago I was leading a portfolio management session with colleagues, running them through the ins and outs of using the GE Matrix and related business analysis tools. I did just fine. We all did. None of my colleagues folded their arms, and peered at me closely as they demanded: “why are we using the GE matrix and not the BCG matrix for this particular exercise?”
But even so, there was little doubt in my mind that I was busking it.
In moments like these – when I feel I don’t know fully what I’m doing, and that I’m to get ‘found out’ by the people I’m working with – does that mean I have Imposter Syndrome? Maybe.
Or maybe this is just a particular moment I really was an imposter, faking it as best I can.
True imposters rarely feel like fakes..
It is an ironic truth, as Oliver Burkeman writes, that “true imposters rarely feel like fakes.” In fact, lack of concern over fakery might even be the killer trait indicating that someone is, in actual fact, completely incompetent.
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt” said Bertrand Russell.
As one of life’s more ‘verbose’ characters (let’s call it ‘extroverted thinking’) developing as a coach has meant tackling a tendency I have that sometimes gets in my way – and that’s not fully and actively listening. Which matters not just if you’re a coach, but if you happen to be a human being looking for meaningful relationships.
Last week I was working with a group of trainee coaches alongside Lois Burton, who asked me to run the group through the premises of Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to Think. Listening to Ignite the Human Mind.’ This meant going back to some core principles for coaching, and also taking another long hard look at how I actually listen.
“We think we listen, but we don’t. We finish each other’s sentences, we interrupt each other, we moan together, we fill in the pauses with our own stories, we look at our watches, we sigh, frown, tap our finger, read the newspapers, or walk away. We give advice, give advice, give advice. Even professional listeners listen poorly much of the time. They come in too soon with their own ideas” (37).
Psychic vampires – those in our lives who can to eerily drain us of energy, merely by their presence. For me it’s that person who seems to appear out of nowhere beside my desk (or in my in-box) and proceeds to unload, uninvited and largely unfiltered:
“I needed to let you know this was going on…”
“Something needs to be done…”
In these situations, I find myself looking up from my (clearly more important) work. I half listen, and I get irritated. As they talk I realise that this is not a major deal. But I’m impatient and before I know it, out it comes:
“Leave it with me.”
I don’t want them to leave me with their problems. I simply want them to leave. And so I take the easy route to making that happen. But I’m left feeling resentful about the intrusion, and then, if I leave it long enough, guilty that I didn’t handle it better or show more empathy or understanding.
In my coaching, I’ve realised this pattern is a really typical one. Most of us have that one person whose burdens we would actually chose to take on over actually dealing with that individual personally for more than a minute or two. The feelings of negativity escalate, and the avoidance behaviour on our parts gets worse. Just the very thought of this person brings us down.
I met with a client today who was experiencing exactly this kind of situation. As she spoke I wondered what else might be going on when we succumb to a pattern we know, rationally, is not good for either of us.
Because yes, taking on the other person’s issues allow us to deflect the real issues and get someone we find unpleasant and draining out of our space. It’s a quick (but short-term, and ultimately damaging) fix for your immediate concerns. But what are the latent payoffs for those of us who are perhaps too quick to take on someone else’s problems?