small change: Parent-Adult-Child behaviour on your board


small change
Ciarán Fenton
How small changes in your behaviour have a big impact on how you work, lead and follow.
That’s the working title of a book I’m writing, initially as a series of short blogs.
You can see the full blog index here as it builds.
Blog 50 small change: Parent-Adult-Child behaviour on your board
•When I say “board” I mean: main & operating boards, ExCos, and management teams
parent adult child behavour
Your board is like a family.
“Mine bloody well isn’t”, I hear you say.
But it is, at a psychological level.
Eric Berne created Transactional Analysis in the late 1950s. The model is used widely in a range of contexts today.
I have seen his three ego states in action, and close up, in my work with boards:
  • Parent
  • Adult
  • Child


Since he also said that our interactions are “transactions” I believe that this concept can be applied to boardroom relationships by negotiating,  what I call, “soft contracts” between board members:

For example: “I will micromanage less, if you manage more. Agreed?”
That’s an example of an Adult-Adult transaction.
Frequently I find that board members “parent-alise” their organisations i.e. speak of them of as if they are “people” in charge, and with ultimate power.
Once I worked with an operating board and during the first session, it became clear, from the language they used that they didn’t feel in control of the business.
I said “You’re speaking of the business as if it were a powerful person outside this room. Why?”
They looked baffled.
I asked if they realised that they, largely, controlled what the business did and how it did it on a day-to-day basis?
Again, bemusement.
Their reaction is understandable. Society has created organisational power structures which are dominated by shareholders in private companies and bureaucracies in public organizations.
It’s no wonder therefore that board members feel or behave as if they have no control.
Even NEDs, in my experience, say “we have influence, but no power”, despite the fact that the Companies Acts give them explicit power.
The parent-alisation of organisations plays out badly at times of crisis.
On the publication of the report of the Savile Inquiry into sexual abuse at the BBC The Guardian reported on 25 February 2016:

Savile report: key points of Janet Smith’s independent inquiry

Main findings of inquiry into Jimmy Savile’s decades of sexual abuse include ‘serious failings’ at the BBC:

  • Some members of BBC staff – junior and middle-ranking – were aware of Savile’s inappropriate sexual conduct in connection with his work for the BBC but there was no evidence that any senior member of staff was aware of Savile’s conduct.
  • No evidence that the BBC as a corporate body was aware of Savile’s conduct.
  • An atmosphere of fear still exists today in the BBC, possibly because obtaining work in the BBC is highly competitive and many people no longer have the security on an employment contract.

Using the “corporate body” fig-leaf in these cases perpetuates the infantilisation of employees and Parent-Child behaviour on boards.

No one ever has to take responsibility.

So what can your board do to mitigate the business and legal risks caused by Parent-Child behaviour?

  1. Acknowledge that these systemic problems exist in all organisations
  2. Read the academic research (just Google it)
  3. Make time to discuss it openly at your board meetings
  4. Adopt a policy of Adult-Adult behaviour in the boardroom and outside it
  5. Articulate clearly your feelings, what you need and options to meet those needs (Feel/Nee/Do)
  6. Agree “soft contracts”
  7. Legislate for their breach

On an individual basis, you can monitor your own ego state:

Which mode am I in now?

  • Parent?
  • Adult?
  • Child?


Yes, which?


Ciarán Fenton


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