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.