An Unusual Day of Development

By Steven J. Stowell, Ph.D., Matt M. Starcevich Ph.D., and Roy S. Yamahiro

Sixteen blind people entered the classroom. The trainers had great expectations. The managers had no idea what to expect.

Imagine yourself one of sixteen managers starting the second day of a week-long senior-management development program. As you walk into the classroom you note a curious change: all the tables and chairs are gone. You mill around hesitantly with other participants. No one knows what is going on.

Enter the instructor with an explanation:

Today you will work with someone you have not yet met. A group of people will enter the room in a moment and pick partners. You will assist in the selection process by talking about yourself, stating your name, then your interests, hobbies, or anything else you think would help a person decide about wanting to work with you. You will continue until you are chosen. Then you will be given a packet of information explaining the activities planned, and shown to a private work area where you and your partner can prepare for the day.

Feeling a little foolish, you begin talking about yourself. The instructor leads 16 blind people into the room, and they mingle among you and the other managers. Each blind person listens to each manager and finally selects a partner. You are chosen by a 55-year old woman who shyly says, you sound like the kind of person I would enjoy working with.

At your work area you open the information packet and read your instructions for the day. You and your partner will begin a series of activities in 90 minutes. You will have until then to get acquainted, review the activities materials, and practice with a roll of twine, tennis ball, and two cardboard mailing tubes that are in your work area. A facilitator will come around occasionally to observe.

Looking through the packet, you note that you will perform two mental and three physical activities. In each activity you and your partner will be scored on your level of accomplishment. These scores will be tallied on a scoreboard so that all participants can monitor each other’s performance.

How do you think you would react to this imaginary situation? If you are like the 16 senior managers at FedEx who actually went through this challenging ordeal, you would experience an emotional rainbow – initially anxious, and ultimately elated. By the end of the day you would feel a deep sense of accomplishment and respect for others, and you would see clearly how you manage and interact with people.

How would your partner react? He or she would gain a greater sense of self-awareness and confidence, plus skill in functioning in a business environment.

The positive results seen by FedEx in this unique training approach far outweighed the risks involved. Yet, their risks were great. Teaming their managers with physically impaired people was not only an unproven technique, but possibly a never-tried technique for management development.

The idea for this technique sprang from FedEx’s desire for a creative training program with impact. Training designers spoke with Oklahoma Special Olympics and watched a film entitled Survival Run. The film, which chronicles a blind person and a sighted partner running an obstacle-filled marathon, convinced the designers that the concept of matching physically impaired people with those not impaired would work in training. What struck the designers most about the film were the interpersonal skills needed to make the experience rewarding for both teammates. The partner who works with a physically impaired person cannot ignore the inherent responsibilities.

Confronting the unavoidable

The training designers experimented with an approach that reached deeper than experimental simulation. They referred to the approach as unavoidable recognition. Having developed manager training programs from three other approaches – the cognitive/conceptual/theorizing approach, the instrument feedback approach, and the experiential simulation approach – the designers believed a combination of all three was most successful. Still, the trainers had a problem. Even with the most successful approach, the level of participant involvement was left to the participants’ discretion. Participants could choose either to get involved or to remain passive and suffer no consequences other than unsuccessful task accomplishment. The training designers believed that participant involvement would be unavoidable if the consequences of noninvolvement affected a physically impaired person. And with participant involvement would come unavoidable recognition of personal behavior. The designers created a program based on these and the following assumptions. (It’s important to note that the program specified working with blind people as opposed to people with blindfolds or other restrictions. These options were ruled out as lacking the realism and unavoidable involvement sought.)

  • When normal roles and management approaches are removed, the true skills a person relies on will emerge.
  • Having blind partners will force the managers to look at how they interact with people and hoe they deal with differences.
  • A combination of physical and mental challenges will show managers and partners how they deal with needs for dependency, interdependency, and independency.
  • Perceived competition in each event will motivate both manager partner, and will illustrate how the manager balances concern for task accomplishment with concern for people needs.
  • The blind participants will gain as much from the experience as the managers and will not feel used or exploited.

The designers listed program objectives for both groups of participants. For the managers the objectives were:

  • To understand the basic style and approaches individuals use when faced with a stressful and unique situation. The managers would be forced to depend on their own resourcefulness, because no guidelines existed for the program events. They would have to reach inside themselves and pull out core strategies they use when interacting in everyday settings. This would focus managers unavoidably on how they manage people.
  • To learn how to deal with people who are different from themselves, and to learn how valid their assumptions about different people are. The lessons managers learned from working with blind people could be transferred to managing any differences – gender, age race, and mental and physical differences – between themselves and others.
  • To assess which skills they tend to over and underuse in giving directions, coaching, providing reinforcement, and structuring a task, managers would be able to measure their ability to adapt appropriate skills to particular situations.
  • To assess their ability to structure effective working relationships, solicit feedback, and learn from work partners.

For the blind participants, the objectives were

  • To learn about the business world. This would be excellent training in working for a middle manager.
  • To develop a sense of accomplishment in achieving specific goals and to promote self-images.
  • To assess skill in functioning in a strange environment with little information about the situation. Together with their counselor they could determine improvement needs.
  • To enjoy what promised to be an interesting experience.

Design for the day

The blind participants for this training program were chosen by the Memphis Alliance for the blind. The only criteria were that the participants be blind, willing to take some risks, and willing to talk about their impressions of the day. Ten women and six men decided to participate. Their ages ranged from 25 to 65. Thirteen were employed, and three were college students. After each of these participants chose a manager for a partner, the teams prepared for the activities. During the 90-minute preparation, the facilitators observed each managers use of time, creativity, and empathy for his or her partner. In the packets of information the teams received were diagramed of six activities and a description of how each would be scored. At no time would any team be idle. All activities were timed to last 30 minutes each, and each team would follow a different sequence in performing the activities.

One activity was the trial preparation for mental activity #1. A box of TinkertoysTM and two diagrams of practice structures to build were given to the team. Each structure required more than 28 individual connections to duplicate the diagram for a successful score. The manager could not touch the TinkertoysTM, he or she could only provide verbal instructions. The purpose of the activity was to establish the team’s communication and feedback style.

Mental activity #1 followed. The team was given a new diagram with 39 individual connections to duplicate. All teams had the same structure to build. Each team was scored on the correctness of its model plus the number of successful connections that were made using the right colors in the constructions.

Mental activity #2 required the manager to coach his or her partner in building a structure using building blocks of various shapes and sizes. The only regulations were that prior to beginning, the team had to establish a goal height, or “contracted” height, they thought they could attain; at some point in the structure they had to have two towers rising from a common base – the base could not rest directly on the building surface; and the manager could not touch the building blocks at any time. In scoring this activity, the contracted height in inches was multiplied by 10, and bonus or penalty points were added or subtracted for every half inch over or under the contracted height.

The purpose of the contracting process was to reveal management style. Would the managers set the goal height authoritatively, collaborate on the decision, or totally delegate the decision?

In physical activity #1, floor hockey, the team had to use brooms to move a soccer ball through designated alleys (marked with colored tape) and obstacles, into the scoring net. The playing field was 6 feet wide by 20 feet long. A partner played on only one side of the field and could not cross over the line into the playing field. The blind partner had to make three passing shots from his or her side of the field and get the ball into the net. The object was to score as many goals as possible in the allotted time. Five points were awarded for each goal, and one point was deducted each time either team member stepped over the line into the playing field.

In physical activity #2, an obstacle course, 20 automobile tires were numbered on the side and arranged in sequence. The manager led his or her partner to a starting area, then returned to a coaching box, from which the tire numbers could be seen. The manager had to talk his or her partner through the course. The blind partner had to step in each tire in the correct numerical sequence. Two points were awarded each time a tire was stepped in correctly, and one point was deducted each time a tire was stepped in out of sequence. A maximum time was allotted for the activity, and each team’s actual time was recorded.

Physical activity #3, a balance beam and tent course, required several steps by the blind partner. He or she had to mount and walk the length of a low but slightly inclined regulation balance beam, turn left, step onto another beam, walk its length, dismount the beam, walk to and enter a geodesic-domed tent, find a hanging flag, return across the two balance beams, dismount, walk to a flag pole, and hang the flag. The manager could only give verbal instructions from behind a coaching line. Five points were awarded each time a step was completed successfully.

The managers were unaware of the next activity. The blind person had to lead his or her partner, who would wear a blindfold, on a 20-minute course outside. The course was set up to create a wide variety of environmental changes. It included steps, curbs traffic, running water, shrubs, and low hanging trees. The only help the blind person had were people approximately every 100 yards along the course, who would respond with the code word “express” every time the blind person called out “federal”. The amount of voice direction the team received on the course was controlled totally by the blind partner.

After completing these activities the participants gave feedback on what they learned. The blind participants spent one hour as a group without the managers, sharing their reactions about how they were managed. This segment was videotaped. During this hour the managers scored and discussed a management style instrument. The two groups were reassembled for awards. Then the managers discussed their learning, viewed the videotaped comments of the blind participants, and received feedback from the facilitators who observed the managers during the activities.

Reactions:

This experience had dramatic and divergent effects on the participants. A sampling of their reactions indicates that the objectives of the training session were met.

The insight managers gained about their management style, their ability to structure the working relationship, and the skills they tend to over – and underuse is evident from these comments.

“It was easy to see how I make bad assumptions about the people I work with and I grossly underestimate their abilities.”

“I have learned that I tend to be overly protective- that I mother hen people way too much.”

“I now realize how impatient I can be with others and how that affects our ability to cooperate with each other.”

“I thought I was pretty competitive and aggressive. I feel bad now that it was me who kept my team from achieving greater results.”

“I really wanted to take over and get my hands on the construction task. I had to force myself to back off and let my partner do her job.”

The blind partners confirmed these insights with the following feedback to their managers:

“My manager needed to spend more time just getting to know me; instead she wanted to jump right into the technical parts of our assignments.”

“It made me mad when my manager didn’t confer with me before turning in our goal on how high we planned to build the tower.”

“I felt over supervised . . . . . I didn’t have enough space.”

“My manager wasn’t clear on what she wanted and expected of me.”

“At times I felt abandoned by my manager; he would leave our work area and never tell me when he would be back.”

“My manager never asked for my feedback; he just charged on ahead.”

“I don’t think my manager really challenged me enough.”

“My manager wasn’t sensitive to me.”

“When I took my manager on the blindfold walk, I could tell he still didn’t trust my abilities. He nearly broke my arm.”

Some of the lessons learned by managers by the end of training:

“I learned how to be more creative in my communications.”

“I have learned to be more participative and collaborative in making decisions when more than one person is involved in a task.”

“I can sure see a need for extensive trust in my partner to get a difficult job accomplished.”

The feedback of blind participants relays managerial behavior they found effective.

“My manager was patient, sensitive, and sincere.”

“My manager gave me clear directions.”

“My manager provided lots of credit, recognition, and reinforcement. He made me feel that I did it all . . . . . . I could tell he was proud of what we did.”

“I received clear, specific feedback.”

What did managers learn about how they deal with people who are different from themselves? These two comments tell:

“At the beginning I felt uncomfortable and arrogant. I was soon humbled. I really underestimated my partner’s talents.”

“At first I was afraid to get close to my blind partner. I soon realized that if I was going to get through the day, we had to build a relationship.”

The following comment from one of the blind participants illustrates barriers put in place by the managers when faced with people who were different.

“My manager seemed uptight. I could tell he was having a hard time relaxing around me. I finally just had to ask him if he had ever been around a blind person.”

As the following comments by blind participants illustrate, the objectives for their group were met.

“My manager was enthusiastic. He hugged me, touched me, and shook my hand . . . . He made me feel good.”

“We worked well together. I felt we were a team.”

Future considerations:

The program designers too learned from this day of training. They mainly learned that creativity can pay off in management development. If the objective was to create a truly significant training experience, they had to take risks to go beyond traditional methods and theories.

Based on their new knowledge, the designers planned specific program changes for future sessions. Even with thoughts on improving the program, the designers judged their first effort successful. The program showed managers the profound effect their degree of sensitivity, compassion, tolerance, and patience can have on their work teams. By demonstrating the strong connection between management skills and productivity, and by challenging the managers with unusual circumstances, the program prepared the managers to perform more effectively in their everyday situations.

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.