Feeling Your Way to the Top

By Susan Orenstein

Published in Business 2.0 on June, 2004

As they enter the working world this month, more than a few Stanford B-school graduates will swear you can boost your career by criticizing the boss. Fresh out of a course nicknamed Touchy-Feely, they also firmly believe that you should divulge your weaknesses to employees and own up to your mistakes.

Sound like ivory-tower fantasies that won’t cut it in the real world? Then perhaps you should stop watching The Apprentice and click over to Dr. Phil. After all, research consistently shows that a trait shared by most top execs is the ability to sense others’ needs. No wonder the overwhelming majority of today’s newest MBAs want better training in getting along with their peers, as was reported in a study by Educational Benchmarking and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Enter the 38-year-old course officially known as Interpersonal Dynamics. Touchy-Feely, which has influenced the careers of Stanford alumni like Sun’s (SUNW) Scott McNealy and Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) Ann Livermore, is one of the school’s most popular classes. “It’s about learning how to create productive professional relationships,” says Carole Robin, a business consultant who has taught the course for the past two years. The key to the class is its free-form, three-hour-long “T-groups,” in which students talk openly about their interactions. They get a better understanding of how to treat others and gain insight into their own behavior.

Fortunately, you needn’t go back to school to get in touch with your sensitive side. Take the following Touchy-Feely lessons and apply them to your very own T-group — otherwise known as the office.

Listen to What They’re Saying About You
“It takes two to know one” is Touchy-Feely-speak for watching the reactions of others to better understand yourself. Course alum and former Egreetings CEO Tony Levitan recalled that lesson when he decided to sanitize the greeting-card site for a potential partnership with Hallmark. After his staff nearly mutinied, he realized the error of his unilateral decision-making process. “They vehemently told me how wrong I was,” Levitan says. “It was a public flogging.” He quickly reversed the move.

Know When You’ll Snap
Touchy-Feely instructors want students to be emotional, but only so long as they can rein themselves in. “If you become cognizant of when you start to freak out, then you have a better chance of intercepting it,” says Sun CEO McNealy, who took Touchy-Feely some 25 years ago and still recalls its teachings. “The people who can’t figure themselves out end up making illogical decisions.”

Give Away Secrets
It pays to tell a newcomer some of your faults. Such “situational openness” lets people know what rubs you wrong before they do it. “I’m 51, and there’s a guy I’m supervising who’s 26,” says Craig Schuler, a Lockheed (LMT) strategic planner and Touchy-Feely group facilitator. “I want him to know how I think and where I get stuck. That lets him better understand who he’s working with.”

Dig for the Whole Story
According to a class text, encouraging employees to speak candidly doesn’t mean they always will. That point wasn’t lost onĀ Jon Huggett, a 1985 graduate who applied the Touchy-Feely precepts when he ran a $75 million contact-lens company. When he was faced with eliminating an underperforming manager, Huggett says, the move “didn’t sit well with my gut.” So he had a few heart-to-hearts with the employee — and discovered someone with lots of good ideas and an appalling lack of confidence. Fueled with a steady stream of reassurance, the manager eventually became a top performer.

Skillfully Win Over Superiors
What if the boss isn’t into group hugs? “You might not be able to say, ‘We have the same goals, but the way you’re communicating isn’t working to your advantage,'” says 2003 grad Michael Wertheim. “That can come off as psychobabble.” Instead, get a superior to admit his faults by offering carefully packaged criticism. Convey that there’s a hurdle — say, his inability to meet deadlines — to improving company performance. You’ll soon have a better working relationship and a boss who’s less of a Neanderthal than you thought.