Have you noticed when some people walk into a room during a social event the whole dynamic seems to change? There is a real energy about them, which is truly infectious – people start picking up on this. The conversation levels increase, people in turn become more animated and the volume levels go up.

Conversely though, other people can appear to de-energise a room. The group in the room may seem more on edge, nervous or in more extreme cases acting completely out of character. Something is happening at an unconscious level that is affecting how people behave – and it’s not just the presecco!

Of course either of these extremes can also happen in a business environment. Imagine this scenario – a senior VP is visiting and over lunch you have invited some of the up and coming stars of the company to meet her informally. Not unusual and a good thing to do.

The visiting VP is introduced. She is friendly and works hard to put people at their ease. Although she does this well, you also pick up that she is quite directive in her communication style. One of your team who is usually extremely confident and outgoing is looking withdrawn, on-edge and nervous with her. What on earth is going on you think?

The clue is in work carried out as long ago as the 1950’s. Back then Dr Eric Berne was working on new approaches to psychoanalysis. In 1958 he published a paper called Transactional Analysis. This was ground breaking work, and the theory has been developed since by Berne and his co-workers into a well-accepted approach to looking at human relationships and communication.

The cornerstones of Transactional Analysis (TA) are the so-called Ego-States, which Berne identified as sets of related behaviours, thoughts and feelings.

Parent: behaving, thinking and feeling in a way that copies your parent or a parent figure

Adult: behaving, thinking and feeling using all the resources available as a grown up person, here and now

Child: behaving, thinking and feeling as you when a child.

The theory goes that we all display these Ego-States at different times and other people do react to these at an unconscious level. For example, if we try and exert authority in a situation whilst we are in Parent then it is very likely that the other person would respond as their Child – a so-called Ego-State shift. This then would reinforce the Parent in the other person and can become a vicious circle. Similarly someone who starts a discussion in Child is likely to produce a Parent response in Parent from the other person.

In a business context then we would strive to keep Adult-Adult interaction throughout. But if a manager were to address others in their Parent the TA model would predict that others are susceptible to going into Child.

So going back to the story of the senior VP visitor. It is likely that her direct communication style had the effect of moving the normally bright up and coming star into his Child Ego-State with him perceiving her as Parent, and in his case this meant coming over as withdrawn and lacking confidence.

Recently I worked with a client who had told me that this was something that she experienced and had been picked up by others. Whenever there was a visit by a senior manager she would find it difficult to engage in a professional way. She would on occasions tend to be over flippant at other times burst into hysterical laughter – seemed to me that she might be unconsciously going into Child initiated by the Parent of the boss.

The key to her understanding how she might do things differently was to consciously engage the boss in her Adult. We worked on how she might do this by leading the conversation talking about a relevant business issue of the day that she had pre-prepared. We worked on a list of these that she had up her sleeve. This was a light bulb moment and enabling her to be far more effective in relationships with senior people.

The thing about organisational hierarchy, and particularly for companies where the management style tends to be directive, this can lead naturally to bosses managing in Parent, particularly when under pressure. Of course when being creative you may want people to be in their Child but this needs to be done in a controlled way. Similarly if there is a major crisis being in Parent could be effective for a short time.

So if things are not progressing as intended, check-in to see if everyone is in Adult, and then witness the changes in what actually can get done.

David Barkel is an Executive Coach with over 10 years of coaching experience working with a wide variety of clients. His style is realistic, pragmatic and down to earth drawing on his own experience as a senior leader in business.