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November 22, 2011

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Communication – Transaction stations

Ever wondered why sometimes, despite your best efforts, you still hit a brick wall in getting people to act on your recommendations, or proposals? Richard Byrne outlines one management theory that practitioners can implement to make every conversation count.

Overcoming inaction certainly seems to be one of the biggest challenges and frustrations facing safety professionals these days. Part of the problem is that traditional approaches have always centred on creating a case of action based around legal, moral and business arguments. Although the last of these can be used effectively, legal or moral justifications are always a little weaker.

It is also important to bear in mind that the way in which you interact with the people you want to do something is crucial. But not all of us are good at picking up on the clues around us – be they in the body language of the person you are talking to, the way you are talking and behaving towards them, or their responses to you.

Transactional Analysis is a piece of management and leadership theory about communication that can help. Developed in the 1950s, it sees our interactions with people as a series of ‘transactions’ – each person in the interaction has a default ‘ego state’ and behaves in one of three different ways: as a parent, as a child, or as an adult (see Table 1  for a more detailed breakdown).

Table 1
Ego state Description Sub-state Sub-state

You unconciously think and act how your parents would react to a situtation (or how you think they would)

Nurturing Parent: You are caring and want to protect, or ‘mother’ the other person Critical or Controlling Parent: Wants the otehr person to do what they want to do
Child You act, think and feel about the situation as you did when you were a child Adaptive Child: You are submissive, you are compliant with the demands of the other person Rebellious Child: Teenager-like state – you say ‘yes’, they’ll say ‘no’
Adult You assess the situation free of emotion and act on the data presented in the here and now    

Some of these ‘transactions’ are productive, some aren’t – and can even be destructive. In most cases, with a bit of work you can hide your default state and get the most out of every situation.

Nice and easy doesn’t do it
Think about a situation most of us have found ourselves in at some time or another: dealing with the manager who promises the world and delivers nothing. Imagine the conversation: you’ve just done an audit of the site and talked through your report with them. They assure you they’ll do everything on the list, the timescales are easy, and they can find time to do it. You go back a few months later to check on progress and find they have only done one or two things – not the 20 they promised.

Frustrated, you quiz the manager on what has been going on, reminding them that they said they would do it all. They explain that they started it, but then there was a big delivery and their boss came in and asked them to do some other things, then they offered to send some people to another site to help them out because they were struggling, etc., etc.

You empathise with their situation and ask them to get on to it as soon as they can. They assure you they will; they do not want to let you down again. A few weeks later, you revisit and find there is still little progress and yet more excuses.

This transaction between the safety professional and the operational manager is classic Nurturing Parent-Adaptive Child. What is happening here is that you are the manager’s number-one priority while you are in front of them. But as soon as you exit stage left, someone else enters stage right and takes their attention. Of course, your forgiving nature (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) probably doesn’t help; you give them more rope, so nothing gets done.

The problem is, both parties are too nice! Neither wants to offend and the manager keeps getting let off by the safety professional because the latter (being the nurturing parent) doesn’t like the thought of the former being under too much pressure.

Consider another common situation. You’ve found a ‘gap’ in the organisation’s approach to managing workplace transport. Having researched the topic you think you’ve come up with the solution, so you meet with a director to discuss it. The conversation might go like this:

You: The way we manage vehicle movements across our sites isn’t very good and we need to do more.
Director: Hang on – you can’t say that, we’ve never had an accident!
You: That’s as maybe, but we need to get all our drivers to ring ahead to tell the stores they are coming so they can get a banksman in the yard to meet them.
Director: I’m not doing that!
You: Well actually, our risk assessment says you have to.

Obviously, this transaction is only going one way: a full-scale argument, with neither you nor the director being prepared to back down, with the result that the ‘gap’ won’t be filled.

This is another destructive transaction: classic Critical Parent-Rebellious Child. Nobody wins: you went in all guns blazing, they took offence and the shutters came up. In these transactions, the safety professional plays the parent but, sometimes, we also take on the role of the child.

Watch and learn
This psychobabble is all well and good, but how does it help us overcome inaction with respect to health and safety? Getting people to act is down to how you interact (or, to use Transactional Analysis terms, transact) with them. A word of warning, though: some people find this too much like manipulation and while you could argue that it is, knowing when to use it is key, as is the need to act ethically.

Before you transact with people, stop and think about their characteristics and behaviours (Table 2  outlines some of the common ones in relation to the parent and child ego states). You can observe some of these traits by watching and listening to the people ‘in action’; other people can also provide important clues as to how the person behaves, based on their past interactions with them.

Table 2
  Things you’d see and hear them do
Nurturing Parent
  • Clucking round people
  • Saying ‘let me do that for you’; ‘never mind, you did your best’
  • Asking: ‘are you ok?’
  • They are much less likely to challenge performance or behaviours
Critical or Controlling Parent
  • They’ll use dominant and dismissive body language
  • They interrupt people when they speak
  • ‘I know what’s best for you’
  • Saying ‘I want’, ‘you must’, ‘you will’
Adaptive Child
  • They’ll use submissive body language and agree to things quickly, without consideration
  • Often, they will back down easily and comply with the request
Rebellious Child
  • Their body language will be dismissive, lethargic and argumentative
  • They will argue back/back-chat


By figuring out what their ego state is likely to be you can change your approach so that the transaction you have with them is positive. In other words, you win and they feel like they’ve won, too. This is sometimes called ‘massaging the ego’ – Table 3 shows some ways in which you can ‘stroke’ the ego of the person with whom you are dealing.

Table 3
  Massage their ego by:
Nurturing Parent
Asking for their help with the subject
Critical or Controlling Parent Asking for their opinion on the subject
Adaptive Child Offering the subject as development
Rebellious Child Offering them something that they want in return


Recognising, and then, massaging people’s egos to get what you want to happen is clever stuff and goes on all the time in business, but it does take time and can make some people feel uncomfortable. If massaging the other person’s ego does not sit well with you, or you do not think it appropriate to do it, then try to get to the adult state first.

Smart people know when to ‘massage’ and when to just go straight to adult, which is the most effective ego state. Often, with transactions, the first person to get to the adult state is the ‘winner’. In order to get there, though, you need to be able to pick up on the clues around you during the conversation to spot when things are starting to go wrong.

In the examples above, when the safety professional returned to site to find the actions were no further forward, that was the point at which they should have said enough is enough and escalated the issue to the manager’s boss for their support. Similarly, when the director in scenario two said ‘I’m not doing that’ this should have been the clue to say: “OK, I need to do something different here”.

If you think this is still too ‘pink and fluffy’ the following is a real-life example. A while ago, a safety advisor I mentor came to me and asked for some guidance. They had been asked by one of their organisation’s salespeople to undertake a risk assessment of their activities when airside at one of the big airports in the UK. The problem was that the safety advisor had never been airside, their contact at the airport was busy and could not help that much anyway, and the salesperson wanted the assessment done ‘yesterday’ so they could submit the tender.

The advisor, being the helpful person they are, said ‘yes, no problem, leave it with me’ without fully appreciating the work involved. In other words, the salesperson was the Critical or Controlling Parent, and the advisor the Adaptive Child.

Having done some research, the advisor explained that the assessment was much bigger than they had thought and was going to be quite hard to do. They were also getting worried because the deadline was looming. To top it all, the salesperson e-mailed the advisor, chasing them for the assessment and had copied both his boss and the advisor’s boss in on the message.

The advisor and I had a chat and decided that massaging the salesperson’s ego did not sit well with the advisor, so came up with some ways in which the advisor could get to ‘adult’ first. They arranged a meeting with the salesperson and presented the facts, devoid of any emotion:

  • The assessment is not the ‘bog-standard’ assessment – according to the customer’s rules it must be at least 18 pages long;
  • The advisor has not got an airside pass and so cannot do the assessment;
  • The advisor is uncomfortable in letting their organisation’s front-line people, who do have an airside pass, do the assessment in case they get it wrong and end up totalling a 747;
  • The advisor can gain access to the airport as a visitor for a fee and would be escorted around the site but this cannot be arranged for at least four weeks;
  • The firm the advisor works for has various ‘Safety in Procurement’ scheme accreditations so the prospective customer should have some confidence in what they do and how they do it;
  • The advisor thinks it should be approached this way …

Faced with these grounded arguments the salesperson had a number of choices: he could act as the Rebellious Child or Critical Parent (but how would that look to his boss?) or go to adult, test some of the logic the advisor was putting forward, but ultimately accept it.

What did he actually do? Went to adult, and the conversation finished with him saying: “What do you need from me to help you move it forward?”

In the two previous examples, here’s how the safety professional in each case could have got to adult first and so reach a point where both people in the transaction ‘win’.

Site audit

  • Clearly state how much work they have to do in order to get the actions done;
  • Discuss ways to help them prioritise the actions;
  • Ask what else they have on, and how much time they can realistically set aside to focus on the audit actions;
  • Explore with them whether there are others who could help with the work;
  • Test their answers – make sure they aren’t just saying what they think you want to hear!
  • Offer to support them through the first few high-risk ones, with them as part of the conversation you are both having;
  • At the end of the conversation reaffirm how important the work is, and follow it up with an e-mail outlining agreed timescales.

The bullish director

  • Explain that what you do currently is good but you’re looking at ways to increase confidence for the director and the organisation in the way in which you are managing the issues;
  • Outline the number of vehicle movements you have on your sites;
  • Summarise some of the challenges your people face when dealing with them and their impact on operational productivity;
  • Discuss it with some of the director’s ‘sense checkers’ beforehand;
  • Make your proposal but outline that you’re keen to get the director’s take on it before doing any more work on it.

While Transactional Analysis might seem a little ‘pink and fluffy’, let’s face it – the traditional approach of banging your fist on the table doesn’t get the job done, either and never really has. From experience, it can be hard to think of things in terms of transactions, at least to start with, but the more you use the approach the more it becomes like second nature.

General leadership and management theory and practice, Transactional Analysis being one such example, offers more ‘business-savvy’ ways of improving organisations’ safety culture and performance – not through a technical piece of reading, or a management course but through taking concepts that work in other fields and applying them to safety to get things done.

Transactional Analysis isn’t black and white and it is not appropriate to use it in every situation but it can be a useful addition to the practitioner’s tool-kit to overcome inaction.     

Richard Byrne is a chartered member of IOSH.


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