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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Masters of the Breakthrough Moment

Certainly it is true that people tend to slide back to familiar responses, but conversations with students of the Seashores, such as Cindy Miller, suggest that they do so only to a point. As Charlie demonstrated with his graph reflecting the history of groups, change in organizations is both cyclical and progressive. The development of high-performance teams tends to subtly but pervasively redistribute power within organizations, which has been a key Seashore goal. This impact of groups is unleashed when people learn to communicate directly and authentically.

If the Seashores have any regret, it’s about the way in which the disciplines they have helped shape have been modified or undercut by recent management trends. For example, although the notion of the group has retained its power, it has been renamed in much of the business world as “the team.” As Charlie notes, “Teams are a way of making groups more comfortable for men by adapting the language of sports. Groups were about collaboration and learning, but teams can be focused just on winning. This appeals to organizations focused on the bottom line, but the ability of people to make breakthroughs is compromised.”

Moreover, group learning in many organizations is giving way to interventions made by a personal coach, a trend the Seashores see as problematic. Edie says, “Individual coaching is the death of the group. Working with a single person, you can’t see how his behavior affects the whole system. And giving people evaluations rather than creating situations where they can learn to evaluate themselves doesn’t really raise their awareness. Do you change just because your coach tells you to? Also, the coach is usually the instrument of hierarchy, a way of asserting behavioral control from the top.”

Diversity, meanwhile, has been bureaucratized and tamed, enshrined as a department in many organizations. “Diversity is a way of not talking about race or gender,” says Edie, “by putting unthreatening language around something difficult and painful. I’ll work at a hospital and I’ll say something about racial tension, and management will leap up and say, ‘Don’t even mention race, it’s too divisive!’ Calling it ‘diversity’ makes it sound manageable and nice, something we can all agree on. You can write an uplifting mission statement about diversity. But really, it’s just a way of avoiding hard truths — the kind of hard truths that always come out in the group.”

These changes reflect the impatience of a culture focused on fast results. Nonetheless, the need for breakthrough moments in the workplace remains compelling, even (or perhaps especially) for hard-driving executives. The central idea that informs the Seashores’ work — offering people a way to learn and change through group experience rather than handing down wisdom from above — will always be in demand, particularly in a technologically empowered environment in which people have become accustomed to asserting greater control over their lives and work.

On the Sunday afternoon following Calvin’s breakthrough in Bethel, Charlie and Edie meet with the developer of a local ski resort to discuss ways to make the Founders House a year-round operation. The Seashores plan to keep their own house, and they have founded a nonprofit, the Lewin Center for Social Change, Action, and Research, which will lease the original NTL property and make it available to a variety of organizations and community groups, including NTL. In this way, they hope to keep the Bethel experience alive, and to continue their own legacy. “The group’s not going anywhere,” says Charlie. “It’s how we learn.”

Reprint No. 06499

Author Profile:

Sally Helgesen ([email protected]) is a leadership development consultant and author of five books, including The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership (Doubleday, 1990) and The Web of Inclusion: Building an Organization for Everyone (Doubleday, 1995). Her website is
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  1. Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor, Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (Wiley, 2000): Overview and update of McGregor’s classic work on human beings as interdependent co-contributors.
  2. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change (Doubleday, 1996): Includes a more detailed history of NTL and the Seashores’ role in it.
  3. Charles N. Seashore, Edith Whitfield Seashore, and Gerald M. Weinberg, What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Bingham House, 1997): The Seashores’ guide to conducting difficult conversations in a way that does not offend, provoke, confuse, blame, or overwhelm other people.
  4. Marvin Weisbord, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century (Pfeiffer, 2004): The history of organizational development, tied directly to the realities of the high-performance workplace.
  5. National Training Laboratories Web site, Overview of the institute’s history and current courses offered in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
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