One of the most fulfilling of my many roles is mentoring.  I act as a, often unofficial, mentor to a number of people and have done so throughout my career.  Giving people the confidence to see issues differently is, I like to think, one of my key strengths.

A number of recent conversations have all had a common theme and have led me to relook at a book I first read 20 years ago.  In the book, called “I’m ok – you’re ok”, Thomas Harris introduced the idea of Transactional Analysis.  In a nutshell his point is that interactions based on adult to child, child to adult, and child to child approaches all lead to or result from dysfunctional behaviour, and that it is only when a relationship is on a proper adult to adult footing that true understanding can be found.

This came back to my mind because, listening to some recent stories of workplace issues, it was extraordinary how many were clearly the result of defective relationships.  I heard examples of how the petulant attitude of one senior executive towards another had led to spiteful child to child reactions.  So-called delegation and leadership was invariably of the adult to child sort (‘I don’t care what you think, I want this presentation ready by tonight’).  Of course, this type of behaviour is neither new nor unusual, but it does demonstrate how despite small fortunes having been spent on training, development and talent management, so many workplace issues still come down to poor standards of human interaction.

One area where the interaction is still invariably child to adult is career counselling (‘please, Miss, can I have a promotion?’).  Too many people seem content to delegate their work-life to someone else.  There are paternalistic organisations that genuinely have their employees’ best interests at heart but many still see careers as being something linear, based on gaining experiences and progressing through an organisation that is based on hierarchies.  However, I’m not sure whether this is still relevant.  This struck me when one of my mentees said that their boss was recommending they take a job that they didn’t want and that they didn’t feel suited to because it would be seen by others to be a good thing.  Their boss was suggesting two years of unfulfilment for the possibility of a better job in the future.  Obviously it is important to invest in one’s career but this case made me wonder whether the paterfamilias model was more about creating a dependency model.

Nowadays the old management models of command and control are beginning to creak, under assault from both declining levels of trust and the increasing democratisation of information.  Organisations of the future will be characterised by loose structures, collaborative working, and greater flexibility; status will be defined more by output than by hierarchically-imposed organisational charts.  Perhaps then we will see the end of work relationships based solely on authority.  Maybe it was hierarchical structures that led to the adult-child behaviour rather than the other way around, and so it is conceivable that as the formal structures start to erode, genuinely adult to adult workplace relationships, based on mutual respect and trust, will start to emerge in their place.