“I’m OK, make sure you’re ok..no matter how long it takes.”—lyrics, “I’m OK, You’re OK”, by the 70s punk group the Dickies

KNOT OK/Image: Michael Moffa

Given that there are so many personality-type classifications that are floated, many of which sink after even the casual scrutiny test, it’s nice to find one that is at least on intelligent inspection not only interesting and fun, but also useful and durable.

One in particular that I’ve always found helpful in describing, explaining and predicting behavior and motivation is the “Transactional Analysis” theory of “(Not) OK” interactions between and among people. Simple, clear, easily remembered, logically structured and empirically well-supported—by common sense and daily observation as well as by clinical psychological analogues, what I shall call the “(Not) OK Theory” may be very helpful to you in identifying and managing your recruitment interactions with the Big Three Cs: candidates, clients and colleagues.

A Brief Overview

A classification of 2-person interactions inspired by Eric Berne, author of the best-selling Games People Play, and developed by Thomas Harris in his book I’m OK, You’re OK, the 4-fold 1970s categorization of types of interactions is utterly simple and mnemonic (easily remembered). Just imagine any two people and their attitudes toward each other on any specific occasion (a “state”) or their habitual attitudes and dispositions toward each other (as “traits” of personality or character).

Adapting the Harris-Berne framework for the purpose of this explication, here “OK” can be informally and approximately rendered as “not viewed with negative emotions, such as suspicion, blame, hate or doubt and not regarded as inferior”.

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”

The first one, “I’m OK-You’re OK” describes the attitude that “I don’t  blame,  or have doubts, hate, suspicions or a sense of inferiority regarding either you or me.” An applicant who seems at ease with a recruiter, doesn’t put on airs, is not suspicious, guarded, critical, rude, defensive, self-deprecating, insecure, obsequious, unctuous, hostile, aggressive, or otherwise “off” is in all likelihood approaching the interaction with a very egalitarian, democratic, fair-minded and open attitude.

Not only is this a cultural ideal in democratically-minded eqalitarian societies like that of the U.S., it is a common clinical and therapeutic ideal for people striving for self-help and self-improvement and not a bad goal to aim at for the rest of us.

“Sex in the City”, Patterns in the Office

My hunch is that the enormously popular  “Sex and the City” TV series and movies had the character “Carrie Bradshaw”, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, narrating each episode because she seemed to have most closely approximated this very even-handed, fair-minded type and ideal role-model—or so I and various female friends have thought.

On the other hand, “Samantha Jones” (Kim Cattrall), the most sexually predatory of the four characters in “Sex and the City” is, by consensus among those I’ve asked and in my judgment, the “I’m OK-You’re not OK” type—but mostly in her situations and dealings with men, which, of course, did not exhaust her interactions with people, even if they exhausted the men (in both senses of “exhaust”).

For her, the “I’m OK-You’re not OK” stance was much more than an occasional state: It was a pronounced trait, but one most prominently displayed in her frequent encounters with men.

Her “I’m OK-You’re Not OK” counterpart in recruitment is best exemplified by a writer I interviewed in Tokyo for a position with Business Insight Japan Magazine, for whom I was the editor-in-chief in the late 90s. Not an apprentice writer, he had strong street cred, having been, as he was quick to mention, published in Newsweek, an accomplishment of which he seemed inordinately proud. The problem was that he regarded his talents as a license, not as a gift.

Confidence that had mutated into arrogance was evident the moment I offered him a coffee: As I did so, he said with a clearly imperious tone of voice, “Do you have real cream, or crap?” For me, the interview was basically over at that point, and we didn’t hire him, Newsweek or no Newsweek. What went wrong?

As I saw it, he was approaching the interview from the “I’m OK-You’re Not OK” position—something a job applicant should never do, unless it’s for a posting as strutting SS Obergruppenführer and the placement is a shoe- or boot-in.

Of course, labeling his attitude is not enough. But it is a good, insightful first step in understanding the dynamics and revealed patterns of behavior in situations like that.

Making Use of the Labels

First, it makes it clear how “relational” interactions are. Instead of trying to figure him out by making him the entire focus of your reflections, your task becomes trying to make sense of the relationship with you and what would tempt a candidate to try to run that kind of “I’m OK-You’re Not OK” scenario with you, given that, like Samantha of “Sex and the City”, the targeting is likely to be selective. Of course, that unwelcome “OK/Not OK” strategy could be a blanket one, used on everybody. In that case the trait is pervasive, persistent and more likely to be incorrigible.

Another benefit to be derived from the “OK” model is that it can sharpen your detection skills: You may be able to extrapolate something very important from an otherwise ostensibly innocent and innocuous bit of behavior that seems to raise no red flags, e.g., an applicant telling you that although the prospective employer company’s total sales last year were pretty good, their rate of growth was flat. Of course, the facts are the facts. But the way in which they are cited, e.g., the tone, intent or the timing and context of the comment, e.g., anything that suggests the applicant is “too good” for the company, can serve as a coal mine canary warning of possible trouble on-site, after placement. Moreover, identifying the pattern as “OK/Not OK” may facilitate the connection of previously unconnected dots of the applicant’s behavior.

The Unhappy Dream Employee

The “I’m Not OK-You’re OK” applicant can, for certain kinds of companies or bosses, be the dream employee: Saddled with self-doubt, or shaky “self-esteem”, someone with this stance is very likely to make strange efforts to please: to fear, as opposed to simply dislike, confrontation and conflict with anyone with whom he interacts on this “Not OK/OK” basis; and to waive various rights.

Symptoms of the pattern might include hesitating to take earned time off, hesitating to voice any complaint or criticism, tolerating abusive co-workers, or in extreme instances displaying a pronounced tendency to fawn or grovel.

On the positive side, a milder version of this can be manifested as a consistently sunny disposition and willingness to please—which, of course, certainly does not mean that any given happy person must feel he or she is not OK. Just as two men may refuse to fight each other for totally opposite reasons—one from fear, the other from the self-discipline of a martial artist, any two employees can display the same behavioral trait, such as a pleasing manner, but from entirely different, indeed opposite motives and self/other-perceptions.

To intelligently apply the “OK Theory” perspective, you must apply it to discern underlying motivation and emotions as well as to raw behavior, such as tone of voice, body language and actions.

Of course, helping an employee change his or her stance from “I’m Not OK-You’re OK” to “I’m OK-You’re OK” can benefit everyone, e.g., through encouragement of a more proactive approach to work and workplace relationships. Sometimes this can be as simple as sincerely complimenting the employee for a job well done; other times the “Not OK/Ok” stance will require prolonged and varied efforts that may nonetheless not effect significant or enduring change.

Welcome to Our Nightmare

The final category, “I’m Not OK-You’re Not OK” is the nightmare pattern. The analogue of this in clinical psychology seems to be that of the hopeless and panicked hysteric who doubts, fears, suspects or is otherwise negative about not only himself or herself, but also you—and possibly everyone else, as well as the situation. Interestingly, some classical clinical psychology classifications, viz., the “schizoid”, “manic-depressive” and “hysterical”, plus the well-balanced personality seem to roughly—only roughly–map into these four “(Not) OK” types, as “OK/Not OK”, “Not OK/Ok”, “Not OK/Not OK” and “OK/Ok” patterns, respectively.

The “I’m Not OK-You’re Not OK” stance is likely to be manifested as on-the-job hopelessness, helplessness and a tendency to catastrophize and see problems as unmanageable crises. That’s because, from the perspective of this pattern, there is no one to turn to or depend on for a way out of real or imagined emergencies—the latter being more likely the more helpless and hopeless one feels.

On the positive side, the “I’m Not OK-You’re Not Ok” posture does have one thing going for it….

…It’s very democratic.

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