Therapy

My Office Does Group Therapy, and It’s Amazing

In a safe space, the way we open up feels surprisingly natural.

Posted Jun 14, 2019

To some people, it may sound like a nightmare. Once every quarter at my startup, G2, the leadership team of 10 people spends an entire day in group therapy.

Without fail, we open up about all sorts of things. Some of us sometimes break down and cry. I certainly have.

I’ve never seen anything like it in the other places I’ve worked. And when I first heard about it, I was trepidatious. But it turned out to be amazing—and it works wonders.

Building Workplace Relationships Amid Stress

While the kind of stress tech startups face is particularly notorious, any business in any industry can be filled with pressure. In fact, while all sorts of things can trigger stress, work “tops the list,” according to WebMD. In the United States, people are getting more stressed, worried, and angry by the year.

Stress takes a toll on relationships. And colleagues need to work well with each other in order to achieve common goals. “Many full-time employees spend more of their waking hours with co-workers than they do with their spouses and families,”notes Chron.com, saying better workplace relationships bring improved teamwork, collaboration, and morale. They help attract and retain great employees, and increase productivity.

All kinds of activities can help relieve stress and build rapport at work. But at times, you need to go deep. Frustrations and resentments can percolate beneath the surface. Some quirks in the way we work or communicate may bug our colleagues. They might not feel comfortable bringing it up, or might never feel the time is right to do so. As time goes on, these problems can act like rust, wearing away at a relationship.

And sometimes, the reasons something bothers us may involve experiences we’ve had in the past. It might even remind us of traumas, or moments in childhood that shaped us.

The more we feel comfortable getting these issues out in the open, the better these relationships become. We also get to know each other better, and learn how to interact in ways that are smoother and more successful.

Safe Space

To make our group therapy experiences successful at my company, we all agree that these events are a safe space. Anything we wish to share we may, and nothing personal will leave the room. Also, no one is pressured into sharing anything they don’t want to.

The kind of program we engage in is called Conscious Leadership. It’s led by a former federal prosecutor and former CEO, Sue Heilbronner. With her as a terrific facilitator putting us through exercises, we develop trust. Soon, we find ourselves talking about our stresses, worries, and challenges. It all feels surprisingly natural.

We discuss the moments in which we felt appreciated or left out. The off-hand remarks that made us feel good or that we found hurtful.

And we open up about parts of our past. In these sessions, I’ve shared some of my own challenges. I’ve also learned about my fellow leaders in our organization, and how they think, function and feel. I’ve come to understand what makes workplace interactions better for them. Little by little, I think we’ve all adjusted our behaviors as a result.

"The Missing Link"

Some other companies have experimented with similar programs that bring together groups of people, going beyond the sort of relationship counseling that some pairs of people, such as co-founders, sometimes undergo.

Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School, wrote for Fortune about what he calls True North Groups. “The missing link in leadership development is having a safe place where people can share their experiences, challenges, and frustrations and get honest feedback,” he explained. “This link can be provided by True North Groups—small, intimate groups of peers where people can talk openly in confidential settings.”

Of course, a well intentioned group therapy session, or something like it, could also cause problems. Earlier this year, an administrator wrote to askamanager.org, complaining about mandatory group therapy sessions. In addition to having their schedules adversely impacted, workers were also being pressured to share very personal information. This kind of thing has no place in a work environment.

But done right, these sessions can be freeing. They’re one of the things I take pride in about G2.

I’m no therapist. I highly recommend that anyone considering doing this at their office speak with a licensed professional, and get feedback—from fellow employees, managers, or whoever else might take part—about what kind of program they may find useful. Speaking from experience, I can tell you: Tremendous benefits await.