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Touchy-Feely (Re)visited

by Rick Booth, MBA ’96

A highly structured quant jock takes a risk on the course he avoided in B-School, with good reviews from his coworkers and spouse.

The email might have been written just for me: “Have you always regretted not taking Touchy-Feely when you were at the GSB? Would you like to take it now?”

During my years at the Business School I had been far too serious to take many of the “soft” classes. While my classmates were taking Interpersonal Dynamics, I was auditing a PhD elective in options theory. Seven years later, as a partner in a consulting firm, I had yet to use options theory, but I had often felt the impact of my interpersonal skills—or lack thereof. My life increasingly revolved around managing relationships, yet I often felt trapped in my preferred analytical style of interaction.

The course description seemed perfect for me. In one week we would cover much of the material from both Interpersonal Dynamics and High-Performance Leadership. It promised both a rigorous intellectual foundation and plenty of hands-on practice. I signed up immediately, even calling to follow up on my email to confirm they had room for me.

The pre-readings were excellent but voluminous, and I began to feel the first faint stirrings of doubt. The course required getting peer feedback on our interpersonal style, and mine clearly showed that I had, shall we say, “lots of opportunities for growth.” My wife was supportive, but some of my partners asked, “How can they teach you interpersonal dynamics in a week?” and, incredulously, “Do you really want to get involved in all that stuff?”

By the time I boarded my flight to California, I was really nervous. I was fumbling with unfamiliar concepts and theories, and at the same time my memory was dragging up every T-group story I had ever heard. (For example, that the experience was “so powerful you can’t describe it.” Worse, that “everyone cries.”) By the time I arrived, I had half convinced myself I’d be met by a pack of hippies in tie-dyes and love beads!

Reality was much less “out there” than I had feared. The group was composed of approximately 25 Business School alums who had been out of school for anywhere from six to 30 years, from organizations ranging from universities and not-for-profits to Fortune 50 companies and the consulting firms that support them. About a quarter of the group had taken Interpersonal Dynamics at the GSB and was back for a tune-up. The rest of us milled around in a mild state of confusion.

One thing that hadn’t changed was the immediate sense of connection I felt with Stanford alums. I’m shy by nature, but I soon found myself drawn into meaningful conversations with people from all over the country and the world. When we finished introductions and settled in, we really went to work. Most days began with a mini-lecture summarizing a key concept or tool, and included both unstructured T-group time and more structured exercises. The exercises used all available tools to help us practice our growing skills, including videotapes, role-playing, and lots of feedback from classmates. The approach was much more interactive and application-oriented than anything I remembered from the GSB, and I pushed myself intellectually, emotionally, and physically in ways I could not have anticipated before I arrived. And yes, I did cry.

The heart of the experience revolved around a group exercise called a T-group. (Don’t worry, the “T” stands for training, not therapy.) A T-group is a group of people who come together to create a learning laboratory with minimal structure. The concept is difficult to explain, especially for a left-brain, recovering quant-jock like myself. My best description is that you take 10 to 12 overachieving MBA types, put them in a room, and give them no assignment other than to pay attention to the group’s dynamics and learn.

From that improbable beginning, incredible things happened: People struggled with their need for structure and the desire to do things right, and the group provided feedback and coaching to itself under the watchful eyes of Stanford faculty and highly trained PhD facilitators. One of the most remarkable outcomes is that each person got something different out of the experience, yet everyone found it valuable. Unlike traditional training, the learning that occurs in T-groups is individualized, since all the participants have their own goals.

Our initial meetings were awkward and somewhat hesitant, but soon we were grappling with real issues. It was fascinating to observe the same dynamics we had read about and discussed in the lectures play out in real time, with each of us acting simultaneously as observer, participant, and coach. The overall lesson—to trust the group and accept that unstructured exercises could have good outcomes—was especially valuable for me as I tend toward a highly structured approach to almost everything.

The combination of activities was intense and rewarding. By the end of the day we were totally overloaded and saturated in a way that was both exhausting and exhilarating. Each morning we woke with new insights into our own and others’ behaviors, and each day we plunged into the work with a fresh burst of energy, ready to experiment anew. The learning was cumulative and the sense of progress and struggle was palpable. We were always challenged and sometimes overwhelmed, but we were never bored.

By the end of the week I felt like a sponge that could absorb no more. Professor David Bradford reassured the class with data suggesting the effectiveness of T-group training actually increases over time, but I still worried about whether I could actually apply all of this knowledge back in the real world.

Now, six months after the experience, I can confirm that Professor Bradford was right. There is something about the intensity of the week and the combination of theory and practice that seems to have burned in many of the lessons of the course. I know I’ll never be a warm and fuzzy manager, but my partners and staff have commented on the change in my demeanor. In particular, I have found that I am much more able to pay attention to people’s underlying emotions and adjust my reaction to match. For example, now I am likely to table a sticky item for later discussion, rather than take a bulldozer-like approach to it. One unanticipated benefit my wife notices is that I am more relaxed after work, and so it is easier for us to enjoy ourselves at home.

I’m of two minds as to whether I still wish I had taken Interpersonal Dynamics while I was at the Business School. On the one hand, I regret not having had access to some of these tools until now, but on the other, there was a depth and richness to the work that I’m not sure we could have achieved without the significant experience everyone brought to the room. Perhaps the ultimate answer would have been to do both!

Rick Booth recently joined EMC Corporation to lead the Domestic Audit and Special Projects Group after four years as a partner in the Boston office of Mercer Management Consulting.

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Learning to Work with People
  2. The Power of Feedback
  3. Is Chest Beating as Good for People as It Is for Primates?

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