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  • Writer's pictureRadhika

Adulting at work has a whole new meaning

At Companies in Balance we say we want to help clients build an Adult Culture. That’s a tagline often thrown about in the HR world, but how would you get there? A bit like with ‘ego’, it’s often everyone else, not me, that’s the problem!

A helpful framework for understanding when we are behaving in adult ways - and not - is Transactional Analysis (TA), developed by Canadian psychologist Dr. Eric Berne.

TA studies conversations between individuals and guides us in finding the most fruitful way of connecting.

Berne analysed and broke down complex interpersonal communication into three ‘ego states’: Parent, Adult and Child. Noticing where the trigger of our conversation comes from, and then adapting our state if necessary, leads to more successful and grown-up interactions.


This is where we adopt behaviour, thoughts and feelings of a parental figure. We feel it’s our job to nurture, rescue, control, admonish or raise and mould the other person. We take on responsibility for how they get on in life, whether through the positive or the negative.

Examples of the Parent state in action:

  • ‘How many times do I have to tell you...’

  • ‘You need to do it like this...’

  • ‘Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be OK’

  • ‘Let me fix that for you’

  • ‘Why did you go off for a coffee break?’

Adult The adult state is acting from an equal level to the other person. Behaviours include asking questions, listening to the other and seeking to understand. The adult state is usually rooted in rational thought and applying different perspectives. Behaving from an adult ego state allows us to act constructively in a situation and choose our actions. The adult state is more conscious and intentional, not based on unconscious, habitual reactions.

Examples of the Adult state in action:

  • ‘Would you like me to run that through with you?’

  • ‘Let’s work out another option’

  • ‘Help me understand...’

  • ‘What do you need from me to...’

  • ‘When you went for a coffee break it meant a lot of our customers had to wait’


The child ego state is largely driven by unconscious feelings from childhood, resulting in internal reactions to events. For example, in a situation where there is a heightened display of anger or uncontrollable sadness or even ecstatic happiness, the child ego state is in control. The reactions can also be submissive - where the person never says what they actually think or feel. Examples of the Child state in action:

  • ‘Stop telling me what to do!’

  • ‘Oh my god, this is so amazing, I love it!’

  • ‘This will never work, there’s no point...’

  • ‘That’s OK, I don’t mind...’ [when you really do mind!]

  • ‘No problem’ [when there is a problem]

It is not only what is being said, but how. Consider how different ‘Why are you late?’ would sound coming from the different ego states. The Parent might say it in a demanding tone, the Child in a needy one, and the Adult might be asking a neutral question aimed at understanding – let’s say the person wants to know if you came by car and if the traffic is still bad!

In Berne’s model, the goal is being an ‘integrated adult’ who uses all these states when appropriate. None them are good or bad in themselves. The question is, which ego state is best suited for which situation.

At work, of course, it is useful to operate from the Adult state most of the time. But it would be pretty boring if you could never show unbridled excitement or tell someone when enough is enough! Or care for colleague when they’ve had a terrible day.

Think of the Parent and Child states as the spice of worklife. Not effective as the main mode, but in small doses they give us the flavour of being human.

People may respond from a different state, even if you are communicating from the Adult state. And likewise you may be reacting from a Parent or Child because of your habitual conditioning, when the other person approaches you as an Adult. In conflict situations, it is usually most productive to try and stay in Adult, even if others aren’t.

Recognize the situation and pause before reacting, to decide what ego state the response should come from. Especially when you feel triggered, emotions kicking in. In other words, having awareness when interacting with others and taking that pause and step back to assess what needs to happen.

Have a play and analyse some of the conversations you observe today! Which ego state are they coming from?

This awareness is the first step to growing into a more Adult culture of equal agency and responsibility.

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