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One of the leadership blogs that I track on a regular basis is by Art Petty — as far as I know, no relation to Richard Petty. He wrote an article earlier this month entitled, “We All Make the Choice to Transact or Transform.” The basis idea is this: in every encounter, we either choose to simply transact (do what’s necessary) or look for ways to transform the experience.

Here’s an example of what he’s talking about:

“You see the transaction effect in the big, impersonal retail stores where cashiers seem to be trained to not make eye contact and almost never smile. You experience it at the airline counter and your doctor’s office and in so many other encounters in your daily life. These organizations and those in them who run the business simply don’t care. That’s too bad, because the cost of striving to transform is negligible and the returns remarkable.”

In our busy, always-in-a-hurry world, the default mode is transactional. We focus on the task and nothing more.

  • I’m just buying groceries.
  • I’m just getting coffee.
  • I’m just …

Perhaps it’s why Americans love the drive-through; it reduces the risk of actually having to meaningfully interact with another person. Outside of online shopping, it might be the purest form of transactional business. A simple smile and “hello” might transform the moment, even if it’s only for thirty seconds.

But the choice between transact or transform isn’t limited to the customer experience.

We can easily slip into transact mode at work. We hire staff to do specific things and those things can become the focus of conversations and meetings. We might not see (or seize) the opportunities to develop or grow that staff member — to transform their abilities and their contribution to the organization.

A transactional boss is pleased when the numbers are met. A transformational boss is pleased when she sees growth, both personal and professional.

Many relationships begin with an eye towards transformation but quickly slip into the trap of being transactional. “I’ll do this if you …” is a transactional statement. “I will love you regardless …” is a transformational statement. If a marriage stays too long in the transactional rut it will become nearly impossible to sustain.

Good coaches, by nature, are transformational. The whole idea of coaching is improvement, not maintenance. We seek out a coach, either in tennis or for public speaking, because we want to improve. No one asks a coach to simply help them tread water.

As Petty points out in his article, it doesn’t take much more effort to add a transformational element to your interaction. A smile or pleasant comment may be all that’s needed. A sincere question that really does want to know how a person is doing. An offer to help.

As in all areas of life, that extra effort often makes all the difference.