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

OKness and Leadership

'OK to be Different, OK to be the same' - Chris Davidson, IDTA Conference Workshop – November 2007. 

"It was great. Liam was finished now; Kevin and me wouldn't even talk to him any more. I was delighted. I didn't know why. I liked Liam. It seemed important though. If you were going to be best friends with anyone - Kevin - you had to hate a lot of other people, the two of you, together. It made you better friends. And now Liam was sitting beside Charles Leavy. There was just me and Kevin now, no one else." – (from "Paddy Clark ha ha ha" by Roddy Doyle, Vintage 1998  p.181-2)

  1. John is a creative, hard-working employee. He has served the company well over many years. However, since he was switched to a new, woman manager, he has been causing problems – refusing to be supervised by her. He says that women should not be in charge of men. 
  2. Jack manages a team, who, when he meets with them as individuals, are very positive and motivated. However, as a team, they can be obstructive and resistant, even though there doesn't seem to be any obvious reason for this. They are a varied group of people, and Jack senses that they are struggling to work effectively together.
  3. Jane is a team member who has her own individual style and works hard, although she does lack somewhat in confidence. The issue with her is that the rest of the team seem to identify her as a problem within the team. She doesn’t seem to help in this, at times almost inviting their disapproval and critical remarks.

What is OKness?

OKness has been defined in many different ways. It has been variously used to describe:

  • a belief as to how we regard other people. This is, in other words, an ethical goal - that we treat all people as "OK". We may not always live up to this goal, but it is arguably not only a worthwhile objective to work for, but also a pragmatic one. People, even those we do not like or agree with, tend to respond to us more positively when we respect them, and their right to be alive.
  • a frame of reference governing a person’s whole outlook on life - a "life position". This is one of the four permutations of "I am OK, You are OK".
  • minute-by-minute behavioural responses to what happens to a person. The positions here are the same ones as the life positions, the distinction being the fact that we can also occupy any (and often all four) of the positions in quick succession - for instance in an argument.

It was Franklin Ernst who developed the “OK Corral” which shows the four basic positions we can occupy in terms of the way we view ourselves and others. However, he was primarily referring to the minute by minute moves in his article.

Our inner well-being has two broad aspects:

1) the overall way in which we see ourselves

This is what Eric Berne called our (existential) life position. In other words, the overall theme to how we see ourselves and others - that we keep returning to regularly. The four basic permutations revolve around whether I see myself as OK or not, and whether I see the other person (I am currently with) as OK or Not.

2) the moment by moment changes dependent on many factors:

    • the degree of "resilience" we have
    • who we are with - and what our “limbic antennae” say about them
    • the internal OKness state of the person/people with are with
    • how tired/energised we are
    • our physical health
    • any script/racket system beliefs we are currently "running"

Ted Novey, in a personal communication with Tony White (White 1994), defined OKness as:

“I am an acceptable human being with a right to live and meet my needs, and you are an acceptable human being with a right to live and get your needs met.”

Stewart and Joines (1987) describe OKness as:

“You and I both have worth, value and dignity as people. I accept myself as me and I accept you as you. This is a statement of essence rather than behaviour.” – (Stewart and Joines, 1987, p6).

Thus, OKness can be seen as the way in which I value and feel comfortable with Myself, You and Others. I, You and They have a right to exist, have needs and set out to meet them. To see someone as 'Not OK' is not necessarily the same as disliking or disagreeing with them. It is possible to strongly differ from someone else, or be unhappy with what they are doing, and still hold them as being OK.

OKness is an elusive concept to define, even though people can feel that they have a clear idea of what it is. Fundamentally, it might be seen as the way in which we hold ourselves, and others, in balance and respect.

The African philosophy of Ubuntu 'humanity towards others' is relevant here:

"You are only a human through other humans… through your relations to other humans. The term is about caring for each other and being in harmony..."

Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children."

Colleagues at work may spend most of their time vying competitively with each other, and may give a strong impression of disliking each other. However, it is still possible for them to keep each other OK.

We might think that it is impossible to stay OK with ourselves and others the whole time - and that is probably a fair assessment - however, it can be argued that it is a goal worth at least aiming at.

OKness & Life Positions

The ‘OK Corral’ shows the four basic positions we can occupy in terms of the way we view ourselves and others. We can be either OK or Not OK with ourselves, and either OK or not OK with the other person:

Figure 1 The OK Corral: The Grid to Get on With (Ernst, 1971)

In a personal communication to White, Ted Novey defined OKness as meaning that: ‘I am an acceptable human being with a right to live and meet my needs, and you are an acceptable human being with a right to live and get your needs met’ (reported in White, 1994, p.271).  

Stewart and Joines (1987) describe OKness as meaning that: ‘You and I both have worth, value and dignity as people. I accept myself as me and I accept you as you. This is a statement of essence rather than behaviour.’ (p.6) Thus OKness can be seen as the way in which I value and feel comfortable with myself, you  - and, in the context of this chapter, others.

Richard Erskine described OKness as:

“The belief and associated feeling of comfort that no matter what happens to me, no matter how bad the situation, I will learn and grow from the experience”.

Berne (1972/1975, p.87-88) went on to discuss the adjectives which can be assigned to the different positions. For example: Rich-Poor. These can be sorted into four variants, dependent on parental attitudes:

Ø  I am Rich (and therefore) OK, You are Poor (and therefore) not OK

Ø  I am Rich (and therefore) not OK, You are Poor (and therefore) OK

Ø  I Poor (and therefore) OK, You are Rich (and therefore) not OK

Ø  I am Poor (and therefore) not OK, You are Rich (and therefore) OK

(note that I’m OK, You’re OK and I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK do not appear in this formulation)

The traditional western view about wealth is that those who are rich either have innate superiority as members of the aristocracy, or have become rich because of their hard work. In contrast, according to this view, those without money are in the position they are because they are lazy, or not as “worthwhile” human beings as their “betters”. 

Wealthy people who accept this view would correspond to the position of (a) above. Conversely, those without money who take on this view would correspond to the position (d). Occasionally, someone of aristocratic birth rejects their socialised view of class and assumes position (b), possibly romanticising the realities of poverty. Finally, the hard-line socialist view of wealth would correspond to position (c).

We have an illustration here of the subjective nature of the not OK positions – it is arguably desirable to hold none of these four positions on wealth if we believe in the innate value of all human beings!

Other examples of the assignment of adjectives in this way would be black-white, young- “grown-up”, male-female and any other kind of difference.


No relationship exists in isolation. All of our interactions with one or more people take place in a variety of contexts - families, friendships, communities, teams, organisations, society at large and, increasingly, the global context. 

A young person is dealing with a complex web of relationships in their living situation, at school, in their local area, and in terms of the media. They may view themselves as ‘OK’ within their family, for instance, where they experience positive relationships. They may experience bullying at school, leading them to move to a ‘not OK’ position for at least the period they are in, or on the way to and from, school. They may see young people portrayed in a negative, uni- dimensional way in newspapers and on television, leading them to identify with and adopt an “I’m not OK” position, because “We’re not OK”.

Three Dimensional OKness

Berne (1972/1975) made a brief reference to three-handed OKness in which he referred to ‘They’ as the third-hand complement to ‘I’ and ‘You’. With the exception of the present author (Davidson, 1999), Summers and Tudor (2000) and, in a specific context, Jacobs (1987), the third position of this three-handed vision has been largely overlooked in the TA literature.

I have chosen the term three dimensional in preference to Berne’s (op cit) term, on two grounds. Firstly, it carries something of the flavour of the difference, for instance, between seeing a scene in a two- dimensional way, and seeing the same scene in three dimensions – either by having a moving picture, or by being physically there. A photograph conveys a good deal of information, but this is incomplete when compared to being able to move around the space and see it from different perspectives. 

 Secondly, I prefer the term “dimension” because it has the flexibility of allowing the positions to consist of either one person, or many.

In the familiar formulation, I’m OK, You’re OK, “I” and “You” represent two persons or positions. The third dimension of ‘They’ may represent an actual third person or, in different situations, the rest of a family, a group or gang, everyone else/the world, and so on. 

It could be argued that I may not know the relationship between ‘You’ and ‘Them’ or that it may be irrelevant (see White, 1994, 1995).  However, as with two-sided OKness, we are dealing with subjective judgments: it represents an internal process. 

When a person views ‘You’ or ‘Them’ as not OK, this does not mean that this is an objective fact! What is important is that it reflects the person’s perception of that relationship. Such judgments are, of course, influenced by the nature and quality of the social relationships in which we grow and develop.

The Three-Dimensional Model

If we are to take account of the third hand of three-handed positions, the OK Corral needs to be extended in order to include a third person or persons (see Figure 2). It can be seen that each of the four original positions is related to two three-handed positions – where the third person/s are either OK or Not OK – as indicated by the arrows in the diagram.

Figure 2 The three-dimensional three-handed position

Figure 3 shows the development of this model, which represents the eight different three-handed positions as related triangular wedges in an ‘OK square’. The segments are numbered from 1 to 8. Each of the pairs of wedges (1 and 2,  3 and 4 etc) represent the two options which emerge from the original OK Corral. The options of OK – plus (“+”) or Not OK – minus (“- “) are in the order of I, You and They:

Figure 3 The OK square

The extension of the two-handed ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ to include the third hand of ‘They’ offers a way to understand a person's social context in a way that accounts for differences in their sense of their own and others’ OKness. 

Whilst everyone may have their particular existential life position, this may not necessarily fit with the observable, social level of their interactions with others. 

This model can be used to work with a person to assist them in understanding their transactions with others and to put words to some of their experiences. It can also be used from the perspective of a manager, or colleague to help make sense of a person’s responses in relation to others.

It has been successfully used in organisations with teams of individuals struggling to relate to each other in effective ways. In that context, once they recognise the patterns they perpetuate, individuals frequently make changes, or at least set-out to make them.

We have reflected in our language the fact that there are three perspectives:

Ø  "First Person" - the person (or persons) who is speaking

Ø  "Second Person" - the person/s being directly spoken to

Ø  "Third Person" - the person/s being spoken about, whether explicitly or implicitly (in other words at ulterior level)

Our personal pronouns illustrate these three dimensions:

Pronoun Table


Education into this format starts early: Parents talk to their children about how the world is - an exciting place, how people are - whether they can be trusted and so on. The child starts to build up a view of themselves, of the specific people they directly relate to around them and "people out there".

New employees equally get socialised into the culture of their new organisation. "The people in finance are a waste of time", "The boss is great all the while you agree with him/her" etc.

Moment by moment, we are influencing others and being influenced by them in terms of our experience of OKness. 

We put out invitations for others to respond to us, whilst others are individually and collectively putting out invitations to respond to them:


In teams, it seems to be the case that in the absence of structuring and/or nurturing leadership, not-OKness is more likely to develop. 

Somehow in the vacuum of what people need, there is an out-of-awareness belief that something must be wrong and so someone must be Not OK. The meaning that is attached to this will most likely relate to the person's life position. If this is "I am Not OK You are OK", then the person will tend to move to that position and believe that "what is wrong" is them - and this can revolve around who I am and/or what I do (or don't do). It may or may not be explicit in either their thinking or their behaviour.

The social situation can also be seen as a co-creative mix of what people bring, put out to others and how this "pans out". On a day when I am in an especially good mood, I am less likely to take up other people's invitations to move to a NotOK position.

Organisations, even the smallest ones, have to relate to their environment. Some organisations have a popular image - others are seen in a negative way. This may relate to the values or activities of the organisation, or to the people seen as representing it. 

This social context includes legal, economic, and other aspects. It impacts on the organisation and potentially on people working within it. An example here would be The Rover group of companies, who in April 2005 had to call in the receivers. Several employees when interviewed, said things like "well the British public has been buying foreign cars all these years and this is their fault". 

Many commentators saw the possibility of the government putting in funding to prevent the closure of the company being misguided or even an immoral use of taxpayers money - given their view that directors of the company had taken out large sums of money in bonuses etc. So the public and their buying habits are Not OK from some workers point of view, the directors are Not OK from the point of view of those feeling that they have exploited the company's assets and the government is Not OK because they are bolstering up "fat cat" bosses by baling out their companies.

If we take a medium-sized organisation with say 100 employees, then the people within the organisation will be organised into sub-groups or teams. Each of these is likely to have different functions, though some may share the same activity base. Problems that occur often get apportioned to a particular team or individual in terms of "blame".


The secret of OKness is developing a way of monitoring our own internal reactions, which will be a mixture of our responses to our script beliefs and the invitations from others to move to different life positions. 

We are much more likely to remain effective in our communication with others if we stay as much of the time as possible in an OK-OK position. What we will be doing, apart from communicating clearly, is inviting the other person to join us - wherever they may happen to be at the moment.

Some useful self-monitoring questions are called for here:

  1. is this person important to me?
  2. do I need to work with this person, regardless of my liking/disliking for them?
  3. can I actually work with them even if I disagree with them on some issues?
  4. is there a recognisable pattern here for me in terms of other times and other relationships?

We cannot will other people to move to an OK-OK position. However, we will increase our chances at some point of succeeding in this aim if we consistently stay in OK-OK in our dealings with them. It may come as a surprise that people who we find difficult experience us (and others) as difficult. 

Many years ago, I worked in an office where the postman arrived each morning grunted, threw the post on the desk and disappeared. We resolved in the office to make sure (and we had to be quick in our responses!) that we enthusiastically welcomed and thanked the postman each morning. 

After just one week, he came in and said animatedly "Good morning!" After a further few days, he said that this was the only place he sent to where people were friendly. So, from his perspective, it was others who did not welcome him, rather than he who presented in this way. We can imagine that people's responses are intentional and conscious, when they may be conditioned, and arising from a narrow range of experience of how to be with others in this particular situation.

OKness is about relationship and connection. If there are problems with these two areas in an organisation then it is highly likely that effectiveness will be negatively affected. 

The most crucial factor in this is the culture of leadership and power within the organisation. Where there is a lack of positive structuring and positive nurturing, this will almost certainly manifest in Not OKness through the organisation. 

Since OKness is first and foremost not a conscious decision, we will at times find ourselves drawn into making ourselves or others Not OK without noticing. We can decide to enter situations with a resolve to hold an OK-OK position, and this can be an effective strategy, but to be successful this needs to be congruent.


Barnes G. (1981) On Saying Hello. Transactional Analysis Journal, 11(1), pp. 22-32

Berne, E. (1962) Classification of Positions Transactional Analysis Bulletin 62(3) p.23

Berne, E. (1975) What Do You Say After You Say Hello. London: Corgi. (Original work published 1972)

Davidson, C. (1999) I’m Polygonal, OK. INTAND Newsletter, 7(1), pp.6-9

Davidson, C. (2005) see Mountain, A. & Davidson, C. (2005)

Doyle, R. (1998)  Paddy Clarke ha ha ha. London: Vintage.

Ernst, F. (1971) OK Corral, The grid to get on with. Transactional Analysis Journal, 1(4), pp. 231-240

Goulding, R. and Goulding, M. (1976) Injunctions, Decisions and Redecisions Transactional Analysis Journal 6:1 pp 41-48

Jacobs, A. (1987) Autocratic power. Transactional Analysis Journal, 17(3), pp. 59-71

Karpman, Stephen (1968) Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis Transactional Analysis Bulletin 7:26 pp. 39-44

Mountain, A. and Davidson, C. (2005) Assessing Systems and Processes in Organisations Transactional Analysis Journal, 35:4

Nabudere, Professor Dani W. (accessed October 2007) Ubuntu Philosophy: Memory and Reconciliation

Stewart, I. & Joines, V. (1987) TA Today. Nottingham: Lifespace Publishing.

Summers, G. & Tudor, K. (2000) Co creative transactional analysis. Transactional Analysis Journal, 30(1), pp. 23-40

White, T. (1994) Life positions  Transactional Analysis Journal, 24(4), pp. 269-276

White, T. (1995) I’m OK You’re OK. Further considerations. Transactional Analysis Journal, 25(3), pp. 236-244