Workplace

Is mastering your emotions the key to tech leadership?

Startup founders are joining 12-person groups to hone their emotional skills. Picture group therapy for CEOs.

People sit in pairs

Startup leaders pair off to offer each other feedback and insights at a tech-focused T-group in Silicon Valley.

Photo: Jensen Harris

A dozen startup founders spend a weekend together. There’s a confidentiality agreement, two facilitators and a private chef. Think of it like a leadership retreat, but with more feelings.

T-groups — where the "T" stands for training — are well-known to Stanford MBAs, around 85% of whom participate in one through the popular “Interpersonal Dynamics” elective before graduating. Now, T-groups are taking off with startup leaders beyond the university as tech entrepreneurs seek to optimize not just their businesses, but their own emotional skills.

“It kind of feels like you’re hacking the communication cycle,” said Dallin Harris, founder and president of the design and web development company Skyhook Interactive. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything before or since that was more helpful to my career.”

For some, that can mean learning when to quit. Chase Adam — now the interim executive director of Leaders in Tech (LIT), a nonprofit that runs T-groups for startup executives — discovered T-groups in 2019. Adam had been running Watsi, a surgery crowdfunding platform he co-founded, for nine years. But years of travel and fundraising wore on Adam, and he started to wonder if it would be best for the organization if he stepped down as CEO. It was a revelation in his first T-group that nudged him to leave his role at Watsi.

“I realized I had this worry that I was a bad person, and that by doing this work [at Watsi], it gave my life purpose,” Adam said. “[Being in a T-group] was the first time I realized that this feeling of guilt was what was really holding me back from acknowledging what I was going through.”

From microdosing psychedelics to digital detox “dopamine fasts,” the Valley is replete with cultish wellness trends. T-groups, by contrast, aren’t new — their heyday came during the personal growth movement of the 1960s — but in the last few years they’ve earned a following among startup founders who evangelize them like Burning Man.

To tech entrepreneurs who love to optimize their companies and their lives, T-groups offer a place to rapidly improve their own self-awareness and people skills: a weekend bootcamp to practice empathy, vulnerability and giving and receiving feedback.

How do T-groups work?

A typical T-group might involve eight or a dozen participants and two facilitators. Attendees are told, as much as possible, to only discuss the “here and now” — generally their own emotional experience and how they’re feeling about others in the group.

“At the beginning, I think it’s always awkward because people don’t know how to start,” said Miju Han, a director of product management at Twitter. “But then somebody will say something that gets people going.”

T-groups encourage a level of feedback that would make many people cringe. At one point, Han asked her T-group members if they would mind if she left for two hours to watch her husband run a half-marathon. The answers, she said, were “overwhelmingly negative, much more negative than I thought.”

“For me as a leader, sitting with my discomfort in that and hearing how I was disappointing everyone, was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had,” Han said. “It really helped me not be afraid to hurt people’s feelings when sometimes you do have to make a hard decision.” Learning to give and receive feedback like this is a major focus of T-group. Some of it can be tough to swallow, but facilitators aim to create an environment that is psychologically safe enough to hear what people really think.

When "Interpersonal Dynamics" course instructor Andrea Corey first started facilitating T-groups, she approached another facilitator in a training activity and told him she’d always admired him and hoped they could collaborate.

To her surprise, he responded that “the way you show up is too much for me, and I find myself holding back,” Corey recalled.

“In my mind, I was being warm and engaging and inviting, but he says, ‘It doesn’t give me a choice about how close to you I get,’” Corey said.

That realization was big for Corey: Her intention — to connect and get close — was “180 degrees different from the impact I was having on this person, and maybe on others as well.”

Alex Lofton, the co-founder and president of the home-buying startup Landed, likened the experience of T-group to “holding up a bunch of mirrors.” By receiving constant feedback from others in the group, he learned that he tends to want to calm people down in order to diffuse tension — which made him realize he needed to prioritize hiring a head of People for Landed.

“I had this tendency to want to take on all the responsibility, or try to deflect responsibility away from somebody else for the sake of harmony, [and it] was minimizing some of our team’s growth,” Lofton said. “We need somebody who is better about letting there be healthy tension.”

When giving feedback or disclosing feelings, participants try to stay on their own “side of the net,” where a social interaction is visualized as a tennis court.

Staying on one’s side of the net is expressing feelings directly and stating thoughts as “stories” instead of facts; for example, “I’ve felt sad ever since I noticed you talk to me less than the rest of the group. I’m not sure why, but the story I’ve told myself is that I offended you when we were having lunch.” Participants try to avoid “crossing the net'' with assumptions and judgments about others’ feelings and intentions. Net-crossing sounds something like: “I know I offended you when I made that comment at lunch, but you’re completely overreacting by ignoring me.”

Also key in T-group are feelings charts: Participants reference lists of words to describe their emotions, and refer to these guides often. People don’t just feel happy: They can feel glad, contented, cheerful, serene, thrilled or ecstatic. And “sad” is just one word for a range of emotions that includes disappointed, distressed, demoralized, hopeless and dejected.

For tech leaders who aren’t used to talking about feelings, becoming aware of a wider range of emotion can be life-changing. In Adam’s T-group, he struggled to brainstorm a list of 15 feeling words, and was amazed to learn that there were hundreds to choose from.

“There’s so much nuance with how to describe your emotions and what you’re feeling that I just never learned,” Adam said. “When you actually think about the day-to-day dynamics of a business, that’s like 80% of work. You’re interacting with your colleagues, with your customers, with your board.”

For Harris, learning to use feeling words more often has changed the way he communicates outside of T-group. Rather than saying he has a meeting, he’s now more likely to say he’s happy about a meeting, for example, or anxious about a meeting, rather than “leaving that up to interpretation, whether it was a nervous experience or an exciting experience or an inconvenient experience.”

Welcome to T-group. Pass the Kleenex.

Profound personal revelations are common in T-group. So are tears. Occasionally, alumni like Adam end up leaving their job or their partner as a result of what they learn about themselves, but many others use their newfound emotional skills to make different choices at work or repair a frayed relationship.

Participants are warned not to make any big life decisions right after leaving T-group, when many experience a powerful rush of emotions. Harris learned that the hard way when he cried in his first staff meeting after returning from T-group. He made one of his longtime employees cry, too, by publicly apologizing for being tough on him for what Harris saw as mediocre work.

“I was overwhelmed with this feeling of, like, ‘Man, this guy has given years of his life to my enterprise, and whatever his shortcomings in performance, he makes up for in loyalty,’” Harris said. Regarding the crying, Harris said, “I got some feedback afterward, like, ‘That was a little weird.’”

Seasoned T-groupers learn to be vulnerable at work without going overboard, as Harris acknowledges he did that day. But increased emotional vulnerability is a common T-group takeaway, especially for men, according to Carole Robin, a longtime T-group facilitator who led the "Interpersonal Dynamics for High-Performance Executives" program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. After leaving Stanford, Robin co-founded LIT, the nonprofit that recently hired Adam.

At Stanford, where women make up slightly less than half of MBA students, Robin saw men enter T-group with the assumption that they would be seen as “less than” if they showed vulnerability.

“All of these guys in these T-groups discover that everybody feels really distant from them, and that when they’re willing to be a little bit more vulnerable, others feel more drawn to them,” Robin said. “Actually would be more likely to follow them, not less likely to follow them."

Robin and another popular facilitator, Anamaria Nino-Murcia, both make a point of planning gender-balanced T-groups.

Before Robin left Stanford in 2017, she would sometimes see T-group sections where men outnumbered women two to one. Some instructors experimented with single-gender T-groups, but Robin said the benefits of this approach — creating an “even safer space” to open up — didn't outweigh the downside of lacking a wider variety of perspectives.

“The men were really pissed off that they had no women, because they believed they would learn a lot more if there were women in their group,” Robin said. “The women were really pissed off because there were no men.” There’s more to learn in diverse groups, which is why LIT makes an effort to recruit executives of color and requires its T-groups to be 40% women. Given how underrepresented women are among startup leaders — as of last year, women made up just 4% of the founder-CEOs leading unicorn companies, according to Crunchbase — Robin said LIT has to turn away “many, many” men who want to enroll.

How T-groups came to tech

T-groups weren’t invented in Silicon Valley, but they’ve gained a major foothold, largely thanks to the work of facilitators like Robin and Nino-Murcia, an executive coach who co-launched the first startup-focused T-group program in 2014.

Nino-Murcia first encountered T-groups at Stanford, where almost all business school students participate in a T-group through the school’s most popular elective, "Interpersonal Dynamics" — often called the “touchy-feely” course.

Robin said she was known as “the queen of touchy-feely” at Stanford. With LIT, she’s working to bring the "touchy-feely" concepts to startup founders and C-suite execs through intensive retreats and a yearlong fellowship program that uses T-group principles in monthly meetings. These programs don’t come cheap — a weekend LIT retreat costs $6,250 — but financial aid is available to those who need it, such as leaders of early-stage startups. It’s open to anyone who needs it, but most of the aid goes to women and people of color, Robin said.

LIT fellowship alumni include the CEOs of MasterClass, Good Eggs and Change.org, as well as the COOs of Cruise, Notion and Scribd, among dozens of other startup founders and chief executives. (LIT fellows must be founders or executives at companies with at least $2 million in annual recurring revenue or a $20 million valuation, or seed-stage founders with a track record of leading a larger company.)

Robin also wrote a book on some of the course’s concepts with David Bradford, whom Stanford first recruited to teach a course on T-groups in 1969. Although T-groups were developed on the East Coast in the 1940s, Bradford said it’s no surprise they resonate with tech entrepreneurs.

“I think that leaders there are tired of having to pretend, because the norm in Silicon Valley is: ‘I have to pretend that I’m smashing this, I’m crushing this, I’m doing this wonderful thing,’” Bradford said. “But most of the time, they’re worried, they’re scared, they feel inadequate. What CEO shouldn’t feel inadequate in today’s world?”

Lofton said entrepreneurs’ comfort with taking risks may make them particularly well-suited to the T-group experience. “That’s probably just going to look different with a group of mid-career, mid-management people at a corporation,” Lofton said.

Participants who feel less trustful of strangers in a professional setting may face a steeper learning curve in T-group, Lofton said. That can include execs who have worked for overly critical bosses or those who have faced discrimination at work.

“If you’re a Black woman in corporate America, there’s a whole lot of experience you usually have that makes it a lot harder to jump in a room and give people the benefit of the doubt,” Lofton said. “[T-group] is easier for some than others to access, but I think it’s possible for everybody to leverage it as a tool to work better together.”

How is T-group different?

There are many avenues for tech executives to develop leadership skills or emotional awareness: They include executive coaching, life coaching and personal development retreats through institutions like The Hoffman Process and Esalen Institute. Preaching vulnerability as a leadership skill isn’t specific to T-group: Just ask the people who’ve watched Brené Brown’s TED talk 56 million times since 2010.

The 14,000-member Entrepreneurs’ Organization (and its counterpart for leaders of more mature companies, the Young Presidents’ Organization) might look similar to T-groups in the sense that members organize into small groups that meet monthly to vulnerably share business-related concerns, Harris said. But EO is much more focused on discussing business problems than interpersonal dynamics, which is the bread and butter of T-group.

What sets T-groups apart from other leadership groups and personal development retreats is its format as a practice lab for interpersonal dynamics. One-on-one executive coaching has blind spots because coaches only hear the observations of their individual client, Nino-Murcia said. Other modes of personal development may have a “specific learning outcome,” said Bradford, whereas T-groups operate as an open-ended learning laboratory.

“I can try out something and learn the effect from you,” Bradford said. “No behavior is universally right or wrong.”

That’s because T-groups are largely oriented around giving and receiving feedback as a way to improve one’s self-awareness and interpersonal skills.

“There are three realities. I only know two of them: I know my intention, I know my behavior,” said Bradford. “But I don’t know the effect. Only you know the effect. But if I’m to be effective, I need to know that information.”

T-groups aren’t for everyone, and facilitators are quick to point out that it’s not therapy. In fact, participants who are currently in therapy should consult with their therapist before signing up, Robin said. The process is challenging for participants who aren’t comfortable with vulnerability, so facilitators often screen for applicants who seem ready to open up.

“It’s a very real situation, but it’s also very not normal,” Nino-Murcia siad. “How often in life do you sit around in a circle with 12 people where there’s no agenda except to learn, and people are giving you lots of really honest feedback?”

And, yes — enthusiastic T-group proponents do worry about sounding like cult members.

“It’s so easy to misrepresent,” Nino-Murcia said. “It needs better branding, because it’s such a great — I call it a technology.”

The ‘Vegas rule’

Not surprisingly, sensitive topics come up in T-groups, and participants often reveal personal information about themselves. But confidentiality agreements are treated seriously, even when participants overshare in T-group, which does happen. Without naming him, Harris recalled one participant admitting to past behavior that Harris said “would make you feel like a pariah if people knew [it] about you.”

Robin uses what she calls “the Vegas rule” — what happens in T-group stays there — but said LIT would report anything disclosed in T-group that was illegal, or if the group’s facilitators were worried about a participant hurting themselves or others. Similarly, Nino-Murcia said her team would consult with its on-call therapist if it learned of child or elder abuse or someone’s life being in immediate danger.

Given the level of vulnerable disclosure that tends to take place in T-group, Robin doesn’t recommend that companies attempt to hold T-groups for their teams. This dynamic would cause problems in a work environment, where there are “power differentials and opportunities and agendas,” Robin said. The other time when T-groups don’t work, Bradford said, is with a bad facilitator: for example, one who doesn’t know when to stop a group from ganging up on an individual.

“Also, trainers who become charismatic tend to produce more casualties,” Bradford said, with “casualty” referring to “a person who feels psychologically worse after the experience.” Even a well-run T-group has a 1.5% casualty rate, Bradford said, compared to around 30% of those who go to therapy.

Life after T-group

So, what happens to participants after T-group? In a world as interconnected as Silicon Valley, it’s vital that alumni respect the confidentiality rules as they orbit around each other professionally. Beyond that, the groups foster meaningful bonds. The LIT fellows program meets monthly, and alumni can continue that cadence even after the program ends, taking turns as facilitator. Some weekend T-groups also opt to stay in touch, said Adam, who noted that he “felt closer to some of the people in that group that I’d only known for three days than people I’d known for a decade.”

Perhaps even more significantly, many T-group alumni go home and use what they learned to connect better with partners and family members, said Nino-Murcia, who added that she “didn’t set out to fix father-kid relationships, and it’s definitely not that experience for everyone.”

“These folks are leaders, but they’re humans first,” Nino-Murcia said. “Maybe they’ll run that company for 10 years, or maybe that company will fold next year. But those marriages, those kids, their friends, their family — those are the things that are really going to last.”

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