Have you ever had a performance review conducted simultaneously by 13 people? It may sound terrifying, but I actually consider it one of the perks of my job. As a Leadership Coach at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, once or twice a year I serve as a co-facilitator for teams of MBA students enrolled in Interpersonal Dynamics. The class, casually known as "Touchy Feely," uses the T-group methodology developed by Kurt Lewin and the National Training Laboratory to help participants understand how they function in group settings, how they're perceived by others, and how they might modify their behavior to be more effective interpersonally.
The role of facilitator in a T-group is an unusual and challenging one--it's highly differentiated at the outset, because the experience is so unusual for the students and they look to the facilitators for guidance. But the success of the group is dependent on the facilitators' ability to lead not through positional power or directive authority, but rather by modeling effective interpersonal behavior. We have to "walk our talk" and do what we ask every group member to do: identify and share learning goals, express ourselves fully, and develop and grow in the process. Of course, this isn't to say that the facilitators have mastered any of these practices--we've just had more experience with them in T-groups--and the most important modeling we do is making mistakes and repairing relationships.
But as this process plays out over the course of the group and the facilitators participate fully as (undifferentiated) members, we retain a special responsibility for maintaining a sense of safety and a supportive learning environment in the group. This involves a delicate balancing-act between the ability to express myself candidly and spontaneously and a keen awareness of how my self-expression is affecting others in the group and the group as a whole.
It's hard but highly rewarding work, and one of the greatest values I derive from it is the sense that my own self-development can help others. In fact, to be an effective facilitator I have to be committed to that process of self-development--I have to have some skin in the game--in order to be of service to the group. So I find myself eager to hear what the group has to say in our "final feedback" exercise, which comprises the class's last T-group session. Each person receives roughly 90 seconds of feedback from the other 13 people in the group, and that feedback is typically framed as (something like) "What I've appreciated about you..." and "What I wish for you..." or "What I hope you'll continue to work on..."
From a facilitator's perspective, it's a 20-minute performance review (conducted simultaneously by 13 people!), and even when it's hard to hear, I inevitably learn a ton. We record the feedback so the recipient can listen to it later--when I was a student 10 years ago we used these; today, thankfully, we use these--and here's what I learned about myself this Quarter...
Things I've Done Well:
- I have a strong communication style: clear, concise, and powerful.
- I readily share my learning goals.
- I model behavior effectively, rather than directing or criticizing others' behavior.
- Even when I draw on past experience, I don't come across as condescending.
- Even when I'm an active group leader, I come across as subtle and helpful, rather than overbearing.
- People experience me as candid, genuine and honest.
- I inspire confidence and trust.
- I stand my ground in disagreements, which others respect.
- I maintain a balance between strength and vulnerability.
- I identify and express a wide range of feelings, including difficult feedback.
- I'm seen as thoughtful. (But this has a downside--see below.)
- I share my intentions and feelings, which helps others understand my position and increases my effectiveness as a communicator.
- I'm seen as willing to take risks, which furthers learning and helps build trust.
- I'm seen as trying to improve myself and working actively on issues like everyone else.
- I can express caring and encouragement. (But not always--see below.)
- I can identify and express a complex mix of feelings, even when they conflict.
- I model supportive confrontation.
- I help create a sense of safety in the group.
- By expressing compassion, empathy, vulnerability, I make it safe and comfortable for others to do the same.
- My eye contact and facial expressions help to convey both my feelings and a sense of genuineness and authenticity.
- People understand that I have good intentions, even when I'm pushing them.
- I'm seen as perceptive; I pick up on subtle feelings and ask people to explore them further.
- I'm able to identify and share a wide range feelings at all times--not only when I have strong feelings--which helps people understand me better.
- I'm seen as being genuinely concerned for others' feelings and their learning.
- I don't hesitate to check in with someone if I'm concerned that something might be wrong.
- I'm willing to push and challenge people.
- I'm seen as being good at understanding and expressing my emotions, and modeling this behavior helps others do the same.
- The strong language and sharp tone that some people experience as harsh (noted below) was effective and had a helpful impact with others.
- I'm willing to push and challenge people, but I also provide safety and support for those who need it.
I have to say that it feels great to read that, and given that many of these comments speak directly to my current learning goals, I feel that I made substantial progress this Quarter in my efforts to be more effective interpersonally. But there's still plenty of room for improvement...
Things I Need to Keep Working On:
- I can sound harsh at times, which undermines my effectiveness as a communicator.
- I could give more positive feedback.
- I expressed more emotion when I was pushed by others, and I might not have done that on my own.
- My voice gets soft when I'm expressing strong emotions (both positive and negative), and this can create confusion or diminish my impact.
- I continued to be a more active facilitator after a point when the group was capable of facilitating itself.
- I could be more lighthearted; I tend to be very serious at first, which can make it harder to build relationships.
- I could have shown more emotion and taken more risks sooner in the group.
- I can be perceived as figuring people out by labeling them or "putting them in boxes," and even when those labels are positive this can have a binding effect on the other person.
- Because I was influential in the group, my actions created unspoken norms; this helped to establish a sense of safety, but when certain norms became binding, my reluctance to engage in a discussion about them hurt the group. ("People do model themselves on your behavior, even when it's not in their best interests.")
- I can be seen as too influential, which may undermine my ability to establish productive relationships.
- I can express many sides of an issue and many feelings, but this can also create confusion; at times it would be more effective to express only my most important or leading feeling.
- I can appear physically intimidating, tough, or cold (because of my look, gaze, dress, or posture) and this hides my warm and tender side.
- My comments can be too thoughtful; I can be too particular with my words and seem too controlled.
- I was initially seen as not spontaneous, which made it harder to trust me; becoming more spontaneous over time was essential in establishing trust.
- My comments initially seemed formulaic, although this changed after I showed more emotion, which also helped to establish trust.
- Stepping out of my authority role sooner would allow me to establish deeper connections with people.
I'm particularly struck by the theme that runs through the last few comments--I can definitely stand to ease up, let go, and just be myself sooner in groups, which would involve being both more spontaneous and more emotional.
Another key theme is the idea that being too influential has unintended negative consequences, from keeping others at a distance to locking a group into unproductive norms. My reluctance to discuss norms stems from a belief that cognitive meta-discussions about "How we should act" are ultimately less effective than simply acting in ways that are consistent with your desired aims, but I do recognize that making some room for different ways of processing these changes would serve me better.
I'm left feeling proud of what I've accomplished, chastened by how much I have yet to do, eager to keep learning and growing, and (most of all) grateful for the efforts of all my colleagues--students, co-facilitators and faculty.
Photo by Mobilski. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.