Your Words Matter

Your Words Matter

By Phil La Duke and first published here:

imageMy blog was already written, locked down and in the vault.  My time is at a premium, with a full-time job, two magazine deadlines looming, and a book in post production, so I’m not to inclined to start over fresh with a new topic, and yet here I am at 5:30 a.m. hammering out a new blog. (I can always post the next week.)

Why? Well of course a reader wrote to me and struck a raw nerve.  I got up as I usually do at 5:00 a.m. and tended to my two rowdy labrador mutts and read my email. In it was a note from a reader.  These always stop me in my track. It is seldom that I get an email that is little more than an angergram attacking me for something I said, questioning whether I’ve ever even worked in safety (I have, in some real death traps, for the record), or the odd death threat.  So I read with trepidation the note. The reader, and as is my policy I do not reveal the names of people who write me privately, said that he was troubled because someone told him that he basically, sometimes in discussions people talk about needing to “babysit” other workers so people don’t make mistakes. The author works in aviation and recently someone said he was like a “teacher for kids.”  He went on to say that not only was referring to “fully grown adults as children is not only disrespectful, it is also a symptom of flawed safety thinking because it’s implying people are stupid and is counterproductive”

He told me that he had searched my blog and couldn’t find anything on the subject.   I was stunned, in fact, I specifically remembered writing about this topic, but while I have approximately 853 blog articles, I had a blog before that an ex-employer threatened to fire me unless I took it down.  I did, and in so doing lost 300 or so posts, so maybe it was in one or more of these.

I am extremely grateful to this reader for striking this nerve, it’s an important topic.  I have heard managers and safety practitioners refer to workers as “yard monkeys”, “factory rats” “Union drones” and every manner of pejorative you can think of, all of these meant to demean the workers as people too stupid to do what’s in their best interest.  I worked in a factory on the shop floor, assembling seats for 4 years, and I’ll stack my intelligence up against most of the people talking trash. My father and brother-in-law both worked in factories and both were tradesmen who did jobs that required an education that are harder to get through than your average college curriculum, my older brother went to Michigan Tech on football scholarship until he was injured and had to quit.  He took a job at a steel mill and in his spare time he became one of the most respected paleontologists despite not having a degree, he has written journal articles and has a theory named after him. He is routinely visited by professors from across the country to confer with him and ask his opinion of his findings. Recently he discovered a mastodon footprint on one of his digs, something, I doubt the average line manager or safety practitioner would recognize let alone meticulously preserve. My other brother-in-law holds several patents. Finally, one of my best friends when I worked the line, read both Detroit Newspapers every day, and a different major city newspaper each day.  He would dutifully hand over the newspaper after he read it. He held THREE master’s degrees, one in psychology, one in anthropology, and one in geology. I once asked him why he didn’t leave this miserable gothic cathedral of drudgery and he laughed, “what and take a $20K pay cut?” All of this is beside the point, however.

People act like children because they are treated like children; it’s that simple.  If you have a problem with people acting childish I am here to tell you the problem is YOU!

In the late sixties, Dr. Eric Berne, wrote The Games People Play: A Complete Guide to Transactional Analysis and 5 million copies later it is still as useful today as it was then. Berne also wrote I’m Okay You’re Okay which ushered in the age of Pop Psychology and when that went out of vogue so did his The Games People Play.  Transactional analysis  works like this, whenever we encounter another person that is a transaction and we have them all day long, especially in safety or in management. When we are having a transaction, we adopt one of three roles (as do the other person). If we adopt the role as a parent or child there is likely to be a conflict, and our best bet is to always stay in the adult role.

The Parent role treats others like children, they bark orders that they expect to be followed, they mete out reward and punishment, they feel entitled to do this because without their intervention the childish imbeciles that are “their people” would goof off, hurt themselves, or otherwise behave badly.

The Child role makes excuses for bad behavior, and will often either act either passively or actively aggressive towards others, particularly those who are interacting with a child.  You might here “he’s not my boss” or “she can’t make me” kinds of statements made by people in the child role.

But here’s the thing.  When someone comes at you like a parent, you tend to instinctively react in child mode or in the parent mode which causes conflicts.

Parent:Parent Conflict

Parent: Parent conflict looks like this:  A supervisor (or safety practitioner) says, “put your safety glasses on” or the more gentle “where’s your safety glasses? This press the buttons on the other person and they will respond with something like “Screw you, I’m on my break and I don’t need safety glasses” or “You’re not my boss so go hassle someone else.” The supervisor/safety guy is then instinctively prodded to assert dominance and will amp up the tone and forcefulness of the the command and the worker will respond in kind until either one side backs down or there is a full-fledged conflict, with write ups and grievances and ugliness.

Parent:Child Conflict

Parent:Child Conflict (or vice versa) begins when a supervisor/safety guy talks to the worker as if they were a child.  “Charlie, we don’t walk in the aisle, we walk in the pedestrian walkways, this is to keep you safe.” Now Charlie knows damned well that he has to walk in the pedestrian area, and if he is in the child mode (and people who are looking to avoid conflict often adopt this position) he will respond by making excuses, or by saying “I forgot” for which he may get a good scolding.  In other cases, Charlie may have a toddler meltdown fit screaming that he was walking on the walkway and you are always picking on him. Once again, the child presses the parent button which increases parental behaviors and the parent presses the child button which results in an increase in childish behavior.

Child:Child Conflict

This often happens between coworkers who have been treated like children by the organization so often that this becomes their go to state.  Child:Child conflict is typified by one person deliberately messing with the other, with the other person retaliation, ad nauseum. IF, and this is deliberately a might be if the behavior is addressed, there will be a lot of he started it and truly toddler like behavior.

We create these conflicts and we can control them. How? My friend, Dr. Paul Marciano, wrote Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: How to Build a Culture of Employee Engagement With the Principles of RESPECT and Super Teams: Using the Principles of RESPECT to Unleash Explosive Business Performance both are great books that apply many of Berne’s principle.  Dr. Marciano earned his doctorate from Yale, and was on the faculty of Princeton, so when someone once again tries to shout me down in a public conference that “the data doesn’t support that” keep in mind that in my view getting a Doctorate at Yale and being on the faculty of Princeton trumps a degree from God knows where (it doesn’t seem to be listed in any of his bios…hmmm.) and being on the faculty of Virginia Tech, but I guess that’s just me engaging in elitist BS,  but I digress.

Adult:Adult Transaction

Berne’s ideal state was a transaction where both people act like adults, and believe it or not this works like a charm.  When you adopt the role of the adult you see and treat the other person with respect and as an equal. But the best thing is when people are trying to Parent you, or Child you, they try desperately to draw you in by pushing your buttons, while at the same time you are pushing their adult buttons. Easier said than done? Not really, but it does take a lot of practice.

Staying in the adult begins by seeing the other person as an adult and your equal, and by respecting them.  My brother recently had an exchange with his boss where he told his boss that he did not feel respected by his boss.  The boss huffed and said, “respect has to be earned” to which my brother, quickly responded, “No, respect is a given. When I meet someone for the first time I respect them and it’s theirs to lose.” I like that, and I will use it for the rest of my days, both in practice and in rhetoric.  So if a person deserves your respect you treat and talk to them like you would like to be treated and spoken to. When an adult speaks to someone in the parent mode, one doesn’t challenge them or use aggressive language. They remain assertive and state their case rationally and firmly. Let’s take our examples from above, instead of put your safety glasses on” or the more gentle “where’s your safety glasses? An adult might say, “hi Gary, what’s going on with your safety glasses?” not as an accusation, but as a genuine inquiry, Gary will instinctively go to his comfort mode, but no matter how he responds, you have to stay in the Adult mode which will cause him to escalate, but you have to stay cool and assertive. “Okay, Gary, but we all need to wear safety glasses.  Do you need a new pair? I can grab you some” Gary may still try to escalate, but by using a neutral, non-threatening but also not defensive tone eventually he will come around. And the NEXT time you have a transaction with him it will be easier and easier until eventually Gary’s go-to move will be to the Adult mode.

You can apply the same type of approach to Child:Child conflicts.  The key is always stay in the adult, see and treat others as equals and treat them with respect.  For example, you might say, “okay guys why don’t we sit down and talk this through. We’re all adults and I’m confident that between the three of us we can settle our differences.  By inserting yourself into the conflict as an equal, and remaining in the adult, you can relate to them as equals and avoid coming off as parental. Listen to both sides, but don’t allow name calling, and be careful to avoid becoming parental.  “Okay, knock off the name calling” is parental whereas “why don’t we all try to remain calm and focus on the issues instead of making it personal?” is a more neutral way to diffuse.

The greatest thing I have found about using transactional analysis (and I do a LOT) is that every time you use it both you and the person with whom you are interacting get better at it.  It makes your life easier, better, and you aren’t an ass who sees himself/herself as superior to people who just happen to have made a different career choice than you.

Phil LaDuke

Phil LaDuke

Principle and Partner at ERM
Phil LaDuke
Phil La Duke is a principle and partner in Environmental Resources Management (ERM) a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. With over 140 offices in 40 countries and nearly 6,000 top professionals, ERM can help you wherever you find yourself doing business. At ERM we are committed to providing a service that is consistent, professional, and of the highest quality to create value for our clients. Over the past five years we have worked for more than 50% of the Global Fortune 500 delivering innovative solutions for business and selected government clients helping them understand and manage the sustainability challenges that the world is increasingly facing. Phil works primarily in the Performance and Assurance practice at ERM; a speaker, author, consultant, trainer, provocateur…Phil La Duke wears many hats. As an expert in safety, training, organizational development, and culture change, Phil and ERM can help you motivate your workforce, conduct safety performance assessments, help you to build robust training infrastructures, craft interventions to improve how your work place values safety, provide insights to your executive staff, and craft and execute business solutions. If you’re interested in what Phil La Duke and ERM can do for you, or if you would like to inquire about employment opportunites at ERM, contact Phil at

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