Failureship and the Parent-Child Relationship

Organisations need to move from Leader-Follower to Leader-Leader relationships according to David Marquet’s book “Turning the ship around”. This is very similar to Eric Berne’s transaction analysis which describes Parent-Child and Adult-Adult relationships. Dysfunctional workplace relationships are often when one of the people acts as a child and the other acts as a Parent. Some people move into a child role, pushing the other person in the parent role, or some people move into a parent role and the others adopt child roles accordingly. Many years ago a policeman friend of mine said that the secret was to always stay in the adult role, forcing the other person to adopt the adult role. This is much easier to say than do.

Eric Berne’s Parent-Child best describes relationships between the failureship and the workers in failure cultures, and Adult-Adult best describes relationships between leadership and workers in a risk managed culture.

The key point is that the relationship is a dynamic between individuals. It is very common to find the Parent-Child relationship in failure cultures and less likely to find it in a risk managed culture. One of the challenges for organisations moving from a failure culture to a risk managed culture is the move to adult-adult relationships. This is hard because the first party to move to the adult role has to deal with individuals still acting in either the parent or child role. If a leader moves to the adult role, they have to deal with individuals who remain in the child role and oppose taking responsibility for their own work. If the workers move to the adult role, they still have to deal with leaders in the parent role who continue to treat them like children.

As well as moving to adult-adult relationships, it is just as important to stay in them and guard against automatic responses that create the parent-child relationship. Many years ago I worked on a system where each release required the whole team to stay late on a Friday night. We would perform a release after business closed on a Friday at 5pm. The system would be run and a standard set of reports would need to be checked. The management introduced a ban on food for people working late, probably because a number of employees were in the habit of working until 9am to get a free dinner. The team were unhappy and so I met with management to explain the situation. Dinner would cost between £100 and £200, however half of the team were contractors who could rightfully demand overtime payments or refuse to work as it was outside their contractual hours. The contractor’s overtime payments would cost thousands. An agreement was reached on how to control the costs for this and future releases, and the team got their “free” meal. The team approached this perceived “parent” move as “adults” seeking to understand the needs of management as well as articulating their own. Alternatively the team could have taken the “child” approach of being naughty, getting one of the contractors to claim an extra half day for unworked time to pay for the food, or using bogus taxi receipts to pay for food, or “buying” computer equipment. The “child” approaches all destroy trust when discovered and lead to stronger parent-child dynamics and more bureaucracy and controls. More insidiously, they erode the ethics and values of the organisation as the “child” is taught that fraud is acceptable.

The adult-adult and parent-child lens is particularly useful when thinking about responsibiliy and discipline. In a risk managed culture the workers take responsibility for their own work and act with self imposed discipline. In a failure culture the workers may act without discipline and fail to take responsibility for their own work which forces the failureship impose discipline and take responsibility for things the workers should own and impose discipline. Alternatively the failureship take responsibility away from workers, and impose discipline which results in workers either leaving the company or those that stay abdicate responsibility, relying on the failureship to impose discipline. In failure cultures, an entire parasitic structure emerges to impose discipline which opposes the emergence of self discipline. Even though the leaders in an organisation might want to move to adult-adult / leader-leader relationships, they will be undermined by the project managers, programme managers and PMO whose only purpose is to impose discipline, and whose only goal is to survive.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

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