‘Thank you for making that cup of tea, it really made a difference to me’; ‘I really noticed how you took the time to explain something to that family’; ‘I’m so grateful to have you as a colleague’; ‘that was a really good piece of work, well done’.
What do these comments all have in common? Psychologist and creator of the communication theory ‘Transactional Analysis’ Eric Berne calls psychological transactions like this ‘positive psychological strokes’, which are ‘units of human recognition’. They are like a form of human-human currency and when we give them and receive them, they feel deeply satisfying. As well as verbal interactions, positive strokes can also be smiles, nods, and appropriate use of touch- such as a smile of appreciation, an acknowledgement of someone’s presence, touching someone’s hand or arm when they are distressed in an appropriate manner.
All strokes can be conditional (focused on a specific context and our behaviour in that context) or unconditional (just for being). Positive unconditional strokes feel especially great to receive and might include ‘I really like working with you’; the verbal comments in the first paragraph are examples of positive conditional strokes where the appreciation is linked to a specific behaviour or circumstance. When giving positive feedback to others at work, we need to focus on ensuring there are positive conditional strokes so the other person understands specifically what they bring to their role.
We can all give (and receive) negative strokes too, criticism, sarcasm, angry or hurt looks. When these are conditional they are hurtful but less damaging as they relate to a specific circumstance, but negative unconditional strokes can be very damaging as they are usually attacking someone’s character not their behaviour.
In adult couple relationships there is research that a couple needs five positive strokes to every one negative stroke, and I think this is a good formula to consider applying at work as an absolute minimum. We aren’t saints and while we don’t want to ever choose to give negative strokes at work (outside the context of carefully considered negative feedback) sometimes it happens when we’re tired or under pressure. When this happens, it is important to own one’s behaviour and make up to the other person explicitly, and the role of (genuine not fake!) positive strokes can help here to repair a relationship in the period afterwards.
How psychological strokes were used in our childhoods determines how we use positive and negative strokes as adults. By being more consciously aware of how we are communicating as adults in the workplace, we can learn to be increasingly skilful in our units of human recognition, and to shift the balance towards more positive (conditional and or unconditional) strokes. It feels good to give and good to receive positive psychological strokes- thank you for taking the time to read this 😊.
Dr Fiona Day (MBChB, FFPH, Dip Occ Med, ILM 7 Executive Coaching and Mentoring) is an expert Medical Leadership and Medical Careers Coach. Fiona helps Doctors and Healthcare Professionals to succeed as Leaders and to improve their careers and working lives, using evidence based psychological theory and behaviour change science. Download a free career planning workbook and find out more at www.fionadayconsulting.co.uk; to explore working with Fiona please book a confidential half hour Career Consultation here.