In a recent discussion of the history of management theory, James Gibson referenced T-groups with a link to a 2007 post of mine on T-Groups, Trust, Leadership and Management. According to Gibson, T-group theory...
bloomed in the flower power 1960s, and espoused that people are more effective working in groups that are aware of their feelings and sensitive to the feedback of others. In most businesses, people didn’t enjoy opening up and the idea died with disco.
In response, I wrote the following comment:
Hi, James--while I agree with your overall premise that command-and-control style management has been phased out in many organizations, and we're better off as a result, I want to add my perspective to what you call "T-group theory" (which you illustrate with a link to my site.)
I can't speak to the excesses of the 1960s, but I can say that today T-groups are thriving at places like the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I first participated in a T-group as a student 12 years ago and where I now work helping current students develop their leadership skills. T-groups are the basis of our most popular elective course, Interpersonal Dynamics, which is taken by roughly 90% of our students. Although we jokingly call the class "Touchy Feely," the idea is not simply that being "aware of feelings" and "sensitive to feedback" automatically translates into greater effectiveness at work.
Rather, the class highlights the fact that our interactions with others generate all sorts of feelings that influence how we express ourselves in the workplace and which have a significant impact on our working relationships. If we want to improve those relationships, it's important to be able to better understand, express and manage our emotions and to help others do the same. This doesn't mean just expressing "warm fuzzies" and getting everyone to feel good--far from it. It means taking some risks and being more candid about our feelings--both positive and negative--so we learn more about how we respond to others and how others respond to us. Being "aware of feelings" is by no means a panacea, but it's an important place to start if we want to be better leaders, followers and colleagues.
And the example you cite of the supervisor who was ultimately let go emphasizes how important it is for managers to get feedback about the effectiveness (and ineffectiveness) of their leadership style. Perhaps this guy was so old-school he never would have changed, but perhaps if he'd gotten some blunt feedback and realized that his career was derailing he would have made the effort. More generally, the challenge is that workplace norms typically make it very difficult to give honest feedback to our colleagues, particularly to leaders--and that includes meaningful praise, not just criticism. If we want to know how our colleagues truly feel about us and our effectiveness, we're going to have to work hard to invite their candid input. Framing this as being "sensitive to feedback" makes it sound like a joke, but I think most of us are extremely interested in how our colleagues feel about us. I may choose not to change in response to any particular piece of critical feedback from you--the cost of changing my behavior may outweigh the benefits in this case--but I'd rather make that decision consciously, with full awareness of those costs, rather than proceed in ignorance because I didn't invite your input.
Obviously, I'm a strong believer in the value of understanding the role of emotions at work and, specifically, in the utility of T-groups as a means of achieving this goal. I actually see this perspective as entirely consistent with your overall theme, and I hope you view these comments as additive and not critical.