Why are personal issues relevant in a professional setting? How do our internal dynamics shape our external effectiveness as leaders and managers? When designing leadership and management training programs, is it even necessary to address internal issues, or should we focus on external behaviors that are visible to others?
One of the most profound influences on my professional and personal growth has been my participation in "T-groups," an interpersonal training methodology (the "T" stands for "training") developed by social psychologist Kurt Lewin. I first participated in a T-group through the Interpersonal Dynamics class at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and over the past two months I've been co-facilitating a T-group consisting of second-year MBA students who are taking the same class (generally known as "Touchy Feely.")
I believe that the class's emphasis on the disclosure of personal issues is deeply relevant to my work of developing leaders and managers, but recently I've been asking myself why. What's the mechanism by which participation in a T-group translates into greater effectiveness as a leader or manager?
First, I begin with the premise that trust = motive + reliability + competence. We can discern others' reliability and competence from external signals, but we can only understand their motives by having candid (and thus difficult) conversations with them about internal (and often quite personal) issues.
Trust is so important in an organization because of the difference between alignment and agreement. When people in an organization trust each other, alignment is sufficient for decision-making purposes (i.e. everyone can fully support a choice that's made, even if it's not their first choice.) But when they don't trust each other, their skepticism or fear often compel them to require agreement (i.e. everyone has to get their first choice in order to proceed willingly.) It's obviously much easier to obtain alignment, so if an organization can operate on that basis, it's going to be much more productive.
T-groups allow people to come together in a professional setting, have candid and difficult conversations about internal and personal issues, and in the process develop powerful bonds of trust. People do get a lot of valuable feedback in T-groups about communication mechanics, means of gaining and losing influence, and similar dynamics that could be replicated in a less personal setting, such as a workshop focused on external behaviors.
But they also get hands-on experience asking and answering challenging questions on personal topics, which allows them to practice having difficult conversations when emotions are running high and being authentic in order to develop trusting relationships with colleagues. Those dynamics are unique to T-groups (or at the very least would be difficult to replicate in a typical behavioral workshop.)
Do people grasp how to do these things skillfully after taking a single class? No--and if my experience is any guide, it's a lifelong process. Do students come out of the class and apply these techniques unskillfully and even inappropriately? Absolutely--but they have to make those mistakes if they're going to continue learning.
I don't view this as an either/or proposition. I'm a big fan of workshops, role plays, video analysis and other techniques that allow us to better understand how our external behaviors are perceived by others and how they enhance or diminish our effectiveness. That said, I also believe that these training tools have the greatest impact when they're complemented by something like a T-group that addresses internal issues as well as external behaviors and allows to better understand the connections between them.