I’m OK, You’re OK …. It’s Still OK

I’m OK, You’re OK …. It’s Still OK

When I started this blog, I promised to look at things which made groups work well. This post talks about one of the most consistent properties that support good social relations, mentioned across a broad spectrum of ‘literatures’.

I’m referring to something best summarised by the good old 60s book title, “I’m OK, You’re OK”. Written by Thomas Harris, Wikipedia tells us that it is “… one of the best selling self-help books ever published. It is a practical guide to Transactional Analysis as a method for solving problems in life. From its first publication during 1967, the popularity of I’m OK, You’re OK gradually increased until, during 1972, its name made the New York Times Best Seller list and remained there for almost two years.”

In the book, Harris argues, following the general lines of transactional analysis, that we can be in one of four ‘positions’:

  1. I’m OK, You’re OK
  2. I’m OK, You’re not OK
  3. I’m not OK, You’re OK
  4. I’m not OK, You’re not OK.

It has been argued that this four position model fits interestingly with ideas about typical conflict management styles, such that:

  1. Corresponds to COLLABORATION (Win/win)
  2. Corresponds to DOMINATION (I win)
  3. Corresponds to PLACATION (You win)
  4. Corresponds to AVOIDANCE. (Let’s not play)

I don’t want here to go into the thesis of the book, and especially not into the argument (which I don’t think is warranted) that the average person only gets to A after some sort of counselling and therapy. Instead, I simply want to make two assertions:

1       That it takes effort, skill and vigilance to keep a group centred on “I’m OK, You’re OK” and, when there is conflict, on collaboration.

2       That failure to do so, especially on the part of those with power and/or authority leads rapidly towards dysfunctional or sub-optimal processes and outcomes

I don’t think anything I say will be new but I’m hopeful that pulling the strands together around a simple, easily recalled theme is of practical use. So let’s look at the two assertions:

It takes effort, skill and vigilance to keep a group centred on “I’m OK, You’re OK”.

There are two broad factors that seem to be in play here—both fairly obvious. At the group level, hierarchical forms and operations seem common across human societies. Status differences by age, by gender, etc. are very common across a wide range of times and places while in more recent human history other factors such as economic or political power, authority legitimated by education and training, etc. are all additional bases for hierarchy. Whether or not hierarchy is somehow good or bad is not the issue here: the fact is, it ‘is’. With hierarchy comes the strong temptation to assume (both on the part of those with higher status and ‘the rest’) that those at the top are ‘OK’ and those at the bottom are ‘not OK’ (see e.g. my SlideShare presentation on ‘The Acton Principle’ at http://slidesha.re/ZQQY5L and the post on ’Missing Voices…” at http://bit.ly/ZQR7WU) This assumption blurs things that may well be true (the more ‘senior’ person may indeed have more information, more experience, more training, etc. than the more junior) with other unwarranted ideas about how is OK, placing the more junior person being ‘not OK’. In hierarchical situations, the default move tends to be away “I’m OK, You’re OK” towards “I’m OK, You’re not OK”. As we shall see in a moment, this can have disastrous consequences.

At the personal level, the failure to stay in the “I’m OK, You’re OK” position seems to arise from a mix of factors. Here, in briefest form, are but a few of the many possibilities:

  • We cannot escape from the childhood position of being little and not OK in relation to parents who are big and OK (this is Harris’ argument);
  • Fear of failure drives us towards either an overcompensating, over reaching attempt to win big, or a timid collapse into trying little or nothing. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence from 1976 takes this line arguing that failed commanders either massively over or under reach but don’t attempt the real task they have been given;
  • Needs to feel competent and certain push people towards strategies that will make them feel better, including hearing what they want to hear (Dorner’s The Logic of Failure, 1991, shows how this can happen leading to catastrophic failure);
  • Being stuck at lower levels of cognitive development means people cannot handle a variety of points of view and interpret disagreement as (e.g.) hostility (see for example Bob Kegan’s many works such as In Over Our Heads, 1994); and
  • Conversational and emotional self-management skills have not been developed so people make unwise choices. (For example, in Crucial Conversations (2002), Patterson et al discuss the ‘sucker’s choice’ of ‘silence or violence’ (equivalent to placation and domination respectively) showing how a lack of assertiveness skills misses the middle ground).

Numerous other examples could be given. The point is simple however: there are many ways that, lacking self-awareness, self-confidence and self-management abilities, along with a lack of good interactive skills, people frequently lurch away from “I’m OK, You’re OK”. Combined with the dark side of hierarchy and power, it is not surprising, then, that groups exhibiting this as a routine position are less common than others.

Lack of “I’m Ok, You’re OK” leads rapidly towards dysfunctional or sub-optimal processes and outcomes

Again, documenting this in full would require a multi volume book, so only a few points will be made.

The litany of failures—in groups, families, marriages, friendships—is huge. How does a shuttle get launched with O rings that some folks know are defective? How does an airliner follow a flight path that the co-pilot knows is unsafe? How do military disasters like the Bay of Pigs Invasion or the 1944 parachute assault on Arnhem happen? More mundanely, how do groups make poor choices, hire the wrong people or fire the right ones? How do marriages come apart with both partners blaming ‘communication failure’? Etc., etc.  As Susan Scott says in Fierce Conversations (2002) these enterprises “…succeed or fail one conversation at a time.” Clearly, poor conversations, or silences where they should have occurred, have paved the road to these outcomes.

It is not always that case that failures are badly motivated. Consider Weinberg’s Fourth Law of Consulting (as cited by Adrian Segar, http://t.co/Ud6XmKFOvG ) “If they didn’t hire you, don’t solve their problem. A common occupational disease of consultants: we rush to help people who haven’t asked for help.”

Think about this very wise advice in terms of the four positions above: to tell people how to fix something when they have not asked you to do so is a polite version of “I’m Ok, You’re not OK”. It arrogates power to you away and from them. Thoughtful attention to conversations around you will reveal that it is remarkably common to hear this mild arrogance at work. People tell you or others that ‘you’ll love the movie such-and-such’ (meaning they did), that ‘you don’t want to take that job’ (meaning they wouldn’t take it) that ‘you should visit Paris’ (meaning they liked it) or advise you on how to bring up your children/manage your spouse or whatever, all the while exuding a faint air of superiority about their child rearing skills or marital skill. This is especially galling when it comes from the childless or the single in ones network: as my former mother-in-law used to say dryly, “Everyone can fix the Devil, except him whose got him”

Conversely, we know about the conditions for success: trust, transparency, authenticity, meaning and the like. Good leaders promote trust, treat people with respect, listen reasonably to other voices. Heifetz, the leadership expert, says that ‘protecting the voices from below’ is an essential element of real leadership. And Patterson et al again: When people feel safe, they can say anything.

Inspirational, emotionally intelligent leadership works—the research shows this again and again. Emotionally intelligent, self-possessed behaviour leads to good relations, life satisfaction and high efficacy. High reliability organisations (HROs) manage danger constructively. In all of these cases the core element of success is having the position of “I’m Ok, You’re OK’ as the basis of interaction. It’s not rocket science, as they say, but it also isn’t easy. The old cliché that ‘eternal vigilance’ is the price of freedom could easily be adapted here. Paying consistent attention to the egalitarian assumption of moral equality, irrespective of social status or formal ‘ranki is a necessary feature of continued successful functioning in social groups.


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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