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Posted on March 2, 2020
Updated on October 13, 2021


Autonomy comes from the Greek automonia: freedom to live within one's own laws.   

The New Collins Concise English Dictionary (1988) gives the definition of autonomy as:

'the right or state of self-government; a state or individual possessing autonomy; freedom to determine one’s own actions or behaviour; the doctrine that the individual human will is governed only by its own principles and laws.'

Autonomy is a central concept in TA.  

Transactional Analysts aim to release people from script beliefs, the demands of an internal, Structural Parent ego-state or the views of others.  

The achievement of this is autonomy.  

Free from script, the person has the capacity to enter into authentic, intimate relationships with others.  

It is characterised by an awareness of self, others and the world, spontaneous behaviour with an open expression of authentic feelings and a willingness to take responsibility for oneself. 

Berne (1964) states: “attainment of autonomy is manifested by the release of recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy”.  

Whilst “intimacy” implies relationship, Berne does not highlight or underline the importance of feedback from others.  On the other hand Martin Buber suggests that we require a “Thou” to become (Whitney NJ, 1982).

Autonomy and Organisation

How does this translate into organisations?

Berne saw the importance of working with the social dynamics of organisations but did not explore it extensively.  He also discounted the process when he said, “The same principles which are used in the therapy of small ailing groups can be applied to larger organisations with 1,000 or more members.  It is only necessary to bear in mind that in a small group each member can be dealt with as an individual, while in a large outfit trends have to be taken into account before individual proclivities can be considered” (Berne, 1979).

 Organisations socialise employees into their culture and ideologies.  However, individuals can, and do, alter aspects of the organisational culture and so there is an interchange between the two.  Some of this is at the conscious level and some is not.


There is the formal structure and the informal structure of an organisation.  

These two different structures interact and affect the culture and thus the individuals within the system.  

In TA terms, this will show up in the communication processes and be observed in ulterior transactions, games, frames of reference, empathic responses (or lack of), symbiosis etc.

Historically managers in organisations were using ineffective modes, i.e. Criticising, Inconsistent or Interfering, in relation to shop-floor workers, which developed or maintained symbiotic processes.

 The demand for leaner organisations has increased the need for workers to think for themselves. The demand is for an intelligent, involved, creative workforce.  

However, some organisations are unsure how to manage the very process they require to keep pace with rising costs.

 In order to develop and maintain change processes there needs to be an awareness of psycho-social aspects of organisations.  Organisational TA focuses upon how social systems and change affect the individual as well as the general culture.  

If we are to consider autonomy within an organisation then we need to consider equality in relationships between peers, the hierarchy, work groups, and the styles of leadership adopted.

As well as these considerations it is also important to consider which TA concepts will contribute to changing the status quo.

In relation to the status quo Holdeman discusses the symbiotic chain.  The concept of the symbiotic chain is used to represent the extension of social interdependency downward through several levels of supervision.  

The effect is to separate management from each other as well as from the shop-floor workers. Thus, autonomy is reduced.  

The reduction in autonomous individuals achieving and maintaining leadership means that creativity is also reduced, which has long-term implications for the organisation.

 Within symbiotic chains, policy and command go downward and positive strokes and hero worship move upward. Problems arise when the person who is the pillar to which the symbiotic chain is attached leaves.  

If the person below the “pillar” is promoted then this leaves the promoted person with three choices:

 a.     Find another person in the hierarchy above them with whom they can be symbiotic

b.     Find someone else in the team who is willing to be symbiotic

c.     Become autonomous.

 This latter option would require the new leader to recognise the problem, be willing to change and seek assistance to do so from someone outside the system e.g. a coach.

The concept of autonomy can also be observed within competition, as it can be healthy or unhealthy.  

Unhealthy competition is a sign that the individual or organisation is not autonomous.

Healthy competition on the other hand results in OKness for all.  This occurs when the internal decision is to be OK, and that OKness does not depend on winning or losing.

Where goals are autonomously defined and realistic for the organisation and the current situation then success is possible.

For an individual we use the word “cure” in relation to autonomy, for an organisation we might use continuous development, fundamental change, re-engineering etc.  Blakeney used the word “effectiveness”. 

Blakeney (1980) discusses the organisation as a transactional system. In TA, we view the individual as consisting of ego states.  Blakeney views the organisation as a set of inter-dependent subsystems:

  • productivity subsystem producing goods or services
  • maintenance subsystem, which transforms its inputs to outputs, designed to maintain the organisation’s structure, processes, technological, mechanical and human capabilities.  This subsystem provides satisfaction-reward outputs to keep them contributing.
  • adaptive subsystem which engages in forecasting, planning and improvisation
  • managerial subsystem which allocates resources among the subsystems


Berne E. (1964), Games People Play, Grove Press

Berne E. (1979),The Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups, Ballantine

Blakeney R. (1980), Organizational Cure, or Organizational Effectiveness, TAJ 10:2

Buber M. (1944) I & Thou, T & T Clark

Holdeman Q.L. (1989), The Symbiotic Chain, TAJ 19:3

Krausz R. (1996), Transactional Analysis and the Transformation of Organizations, TAJ 26:1

Mountain, A. & Davidson, C. (2011) Working Together - Organizational Transactional Analysis and Business Performance Gower Publishing

Whitney N.J. (1982), A Critique of Individual Autonomy as the Key to Personhood, TAJ 12:3