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Sensitivity Training: Asset or Liability for American Corporations?

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Nov 04, 2017 | #1

Sensitivity training includes various group therapy approaches like laboratory training and encounter groups, which are all intended to increase empathy and awareness of the viewpoints of others. It is commonly used as a human resources or organizational development intervention in order to defuse conflict within the workplace or make it more inclusive. This paper focuses on the costs and benefits of sensitivity training for the American corporate workplace. After a brief history and theoretical presentation of the goals of sensitivity training using the encounter training model, it examines the costs and benefits of sensitivity training for the organization. It concludes that despite the financial cost and potential for conflict, sensitivity training is a net benefit for organizations that are undergoing conflict or change, especially around areas regarding diversity.


Sensitivity training is an exceptionally polarizing organizational development practice. As case involving the Toronto, Canada Police Department demonstrates this polarization. According to Saks and Haccoun's recounting, a 2000 raid on a lesbian women's bar in Toronto, a suit was filed against the department alleging significant violations of patron's privacy rights. The settlement of this case included a condition that the department had to host sensitivity training for its officers, focused on gay and lesbian rights. Julian Fantino, the police chief, reacted highly negatively, feeling that it was "being forced upon us" and was unnecessary; in contrast, Toronto's mayor David Miller argued that the training was "a very positive step" (Saks & Haccoun, 2010, p. 409)." Thus, even within a single management hierarchy, there was a substantial disagreement over the value of the sensitivity training process. Of course, not all sensitivity training decisions involve the top leaders of a major city. However, in many cases there is a similar lack of consistency in perception surrounding the costs and benefits of the practice. This essay discusses the costs and benefits of sensitivity training in the American corporation, exploring whether it is a net asset or net liability. It finds that for many organizations, sensitivity training may actually not be needed, or may only be needed in a certain set of limited circumstances. However, for organizations with known issues in integrating diversity with empathy, or where the structure of the organization may be changing too rapidly for members to assimilate these changes effectively, sensitivity training is a significant benefit.


Sensitivity TrainingThere are many different models of sensitivity training, all of which use slightly different approaches and focus on slightly different issues. For the purposes of this analysis, the encounter groups model of sensitivity training is selected. This will provide some insight into how sensitivity training can benefit the organization, as well as what its cost can be. The analysis proceeds as follows. First, a brief definition of sensitivity training is offered, in order to clarify terms and ensure a consistent set of working terms. Second, a brief overview of the encounter groups sensitivity training approach is offered. This illustrates what is meant by sensitivity training generally and how it may be implemented. Third, the costs and benefits of this approach are analyzed, in order to determine what considerations organizations need to make before adopting the approach.

Definition of Sensitivity Training

Sensitivity training can be briefly defined as a group therapeutic discussion intervention that is focused on learning empathy and respect for the views of others. It was initially developed by Carl Lewin as a means of allowing for group development and change. The precise structure of sensitivity training groups vary depending on the model that is used for discussion; for example, encounter groups (the model discussed here) are member-led, while Gestalt groups are leader-led. However, the main goal of sensitivity training is generally to establish new group norms pertaining to diversity and difference and enable acceptance and understanding of these new norms. This suggests that sensitivity training may often be used as a means of coming to terms with changes in identity within a group or in the context the group operates within. The illustrative story of the Toronto Police Department's encounter with sensitivity training reinforces this idea. Miner notes that many (though not all) sensitivity training models are based on Lewin's model of change, which posits that in order for change to be effective existing practices or norms must be unfrozen (or disturbed to allow for change), the change must be made, and then the new practices or norms must be refrozen (or cemented into the organization's or team's structure). This common origin is not accidental; in fact, sensitivity training is directed to a particular type of organizational change. Using this information, it is possible to more fully define sensitivity training as a group change process focused on building empathy and understanding for the views of others and cementing this empathy and understanding within the norms and practices of the group and of individuals.

A Brief Overview of Encounter Groups

In order to reduce the complexity of analysis, only one of the many different models of sensitivity training is used to illustrate issues. The encounter groups model was first proposed by Moreno in the 1910s, but did not become popular until the 1960s, when it began to be used in family and couples therapy (Corey, 2008). An early supporter of encounter groups was therapist Carl Rogers, who was also the first to position it as a primarily group-led model that was only initially structured by the therapist and group leader. The original encounter group model was highly confrontational, but Rogers and others moderated this aspect of the encounter group during the 1970s as the focus shifted to empathy and awareness rather than confrontation. Early research into the effectiveness of encounter groups showed that although they were generally helpful, some people actually had negative outcomes from the experience. These negative effects stemmed from the increasing sensitivity of the group members to each other's needs and viewpoints, as well as the intense, short therapeutic structure. More detailed research into this situation showed that individuals that had an unusually low level of ego, or who had a poor personal interaction or match with their group, could have a poor experience. In contrast, the quality or characteristics of the leader was not a reliable predictor of positive or negative experience. Thus, on the individual level, encounter groups may not be effective, but on the aggregate they are helpful.

Today, the encounter group retains a focus on empathy, communication, and understanding each other's viewpoint, as well as the group-led dynamics established by Rogers and others. Typical groups include between seven and 20 members, and are usually short-term groups formed from existing teams. The group may meet for a few hours, or the training may extend to a multi-day workshop, but the encounter group is not ordinarily a continuing or long-term intervention. Encounter groups may be used in the organization for a number of different purposes. For example, they may be used to resolve conflicts, help integrate viewpoints and allow groups to deal with diversity, and develop and restore group and individual trust and positive viewpoints. The members of the encounter group focus on interacting, questioning, explaining, and understanding the experiences and viewpoints of others, forming emotional and trust bonds, and hopefully extending these bonds and viewpoints to others. These activities are meant to develop and enforce new ideas about the organization and potential changes. Although encounter groups are primarily member-led, there is still involvement from a leader (typically a psychologist or a training and development specialist), who arranges and coordinates meetings and makes sure that they do not become too derailed. Typically, the leader may open the meeting with a particular focus and then, unless intervention is required, let the group members continue until it is time to summarize and close the meeting.

In summary, encounter groups serve as a typical model of sensitivity training that can be used to understand the costs and benefits. For the individual, benefits can already be seen, including improved interpersonal relationships and trust among those he or she routinely works with. However, there are also some costs, particularly for the minority of people that have a poor experience in the encounter group. However, this does not answer the question of what benefits can be seen for the organization.

Costs and Benefits to Organizations

The main issue in this research is how sensitivity training benefits organizations, as well as its costs. In order to try to resolve this question, recent research (2003 to present) has been searched in order to find insight regarding the costs and benefits of encounter groups to the organizations. Additional research regarding sensitivity training generally is also included, in order to provide a broader perspective on the possible outcomes.


The most obvious and banal cost to the organization from any training activity is the financial cost, which will vary depending on the number of employees included, the required training resources, the hours devoted, and other practices. However, there are far more important potential costs to the organization that need to be considered.

One possible cost to the organization is that the sharing of negative behaviors during the training process may actually counteract the goals of the organization in integrating diverse viewpoints. During encounter groups, individuals are encouraged to share emotions and feelings about the situation, including negative feelings (or possibly especially negative feelings). However, this could result in career setbacks for those who do so, according to a study that examined strategic emotional display and its influence on career prospects. Liu et al. found that while employees who shared positive emotions had positive career effects, those who shared negative emotions had negative career effects. Thus, there may be a perception that full participation in encounter groups or other sensitivity training exercises may result in negative career impacts, and this perception may be justified. Whether or not it is justified, the organization could have less positive outcomes than expected. This effect may also be seen with individuals who do not find encounter groups or other forms of sensitivity training helpful (or who even find it harmful), although effective leadership and matching individuals to appropriate groups can help reduce these effects.

Another potential way that the organization could experience reduced benefits or even negative outcomes from encounter groups is if inadequate leadership or inappropriate communication approaches are used. For example, one study of Israeli-Palestinian encounter groups that were conducted online found that the communication styles common to these groups were not conducive to empathy or understanding. This study found that when conversations focused on politics (a central point of conflict between the groups), communication styles began to exacerbate rather than resolve conflicts. This relates to the individual and cultural communication styles involved and the perceived importance of the topic, as well as the perceived opposition based on the group makeup. (Group makeup has been known to be a factor in the minority of negative outcomes associated with encounter groups since the earliest research studies in this area.) Thus, the use of leadership that is inappropriate or communication styles that are mismatched is also likely to have negative results.

A subtler problem with sensitivity training generally, including encounter groups, is that they can actually serve to enforce majority views and perceptions of the organization as well as majority norms and values. In this scenario, which can occur regardless of the stated goal of the organization, rather than developing empathy for minority viewpoints, the majority viewpoint is enforced and even further developed and the dominance of the majority group is further entrenched. This does not always happen, and in fact organizations can also achieve increased diversity. However, if it does happen it can have serious consequences for the organization. A study of professionals of color in the United States found that in cases where there was a perceived breach of the psychological contract regarding diversity, the group of interest experienced a loss of organizational commitment and increased turnover intentions. This was only partially mediated by interventions intended to correct the problem. In other words, if the encounter group or other sensitivity training exercise is positioned as a means of integrating diverse and minority viewpoints, but actually results in enforcing the minority view, this could result in a significant loss of diverse human resources power. Furthermore, the organization may have few opportunities to prevent this loss of skills and human resources. At the same time, the majority viewpoint may see sensitivity training as an imposition of political correctness designed to force a change in viewpoint, as illustrated by the example of the Toronto police chief discussed above. Discussions surrounding cultural sensitivity training (which specifically focuses on points of cultural and ethnic difference) indicate that excessive focus on politically correct viewpoint, or the appearance that a program is a punishment measure for inappropriate action, can introduce resentment and resistance. Thus, if inappropriately implemented sensitivity training can result in negative outcomes for both minority and majority groups.

Benefits for the organization

Much of the research focused on benefits for the organization suggest that the organization is likely to experience reduced organizational conflict as a result of the sensitivity training process generally, regardless of what its goals are. This is an obvious benefit to all organizations, since a reduction in non-productive conflict increases the productivity of teams and work groups.

Sensitivity training approaches, including (but not limited to) encounter groups, are one of the approaches to reducing and managing team conflict. This is important for the organization because of the need to increase team cohesion in order to improve long-term performance within the team. By introducing improved conflict management and empathy within the group, it is possible to substantially increase the group's performance in the long term.

One particular area where organizations may have a use for sensitivity training approaches like encounter groups or other areas is in training and employing expatriate managers and other expatriate workers. Expatriate workers, who are embedded long-term in other cultures, can experience reactions ranging from disorientation and displacement to severe stress and frustration when exposed without preparation to work practices common in other cultures. This phenomenon is commonly known as culture shock. It is also a more extreme version of the feelings of some workers in previously homogeneous workplaces when these workplaces begin to diversify. Both expatriate workers and workers in diversifying organizations may become resentful or may try to preserve their existing status quo; sensitivity training, including formal cultural awareness training or diversity awareness training and informal encounter groups or other sensitivity training methods, can reduce the uncertainty associated with this change. Thus, organizations where employees are exposed to a different or changing work environment, especially with cultural or other changes, should be aware of the benefits of sensitivity training to improving acceptance and empathy with the new viewpoints.

The cases of expatriate workers and workers in formerly homogeneous workplaces can be generalized in terms of the need to recognize diversity. Functional and non-functional forms of identity can both have productive impacts on the organization through improved problem-solving capabilities and expanded information and viewpoints. However, the importance of diversity within the organization is not always recognized, which can lead to the loss of organizational capacity. Furthermore, if members of a group cannot learn to trust each other during the early stages of group formation, there is an increased chance that the group will fall apart due to task and relationship conflict at a later stage. Conversely, if diverse groups do develop trust, this can lead to improved conflict resolution ability for both task and relationship conflict and increased group cohesion over time. This argues that ultimately, the success of the diverse group or team (or indeed, the homogenous group or team) is that it can develop trust, which it then uses to overcome relationship and task conflict at a later point. For groups that do not naturally cohere, the use of sensitivity training is known to increase the level of trust and empathy between participants. Thus, for organizations that are having difficulty with group cohesion, either systematically or in specific groups, sensitivity training to increase trust and empathy between group members can be a good approach to ensuring that conflict becomes more productive.

The organization that is dealing with a significant organizational change, either internally or externally, that is related to diversity is likely to be the strongest beneficiary of sensitivity training. One example of organizational goals that may be met through sensitivity training is the organization that is trying to integrate diverse perspectives. (However, as Olsen and Martins noted, the same approach may be used by organizations attempting to enforce acculturation of minority groups.) Sensitivity training may also be used by organizations that are bringing in new workforces or customer groups, in order to provide awareness of the needs and viewpoints of these groups. Organizations that have experienced difficulty in interacting with diverse viewpoints may also benefit from sensitivity training (though the precise extent to which it is required may be difficult to discern). All of these examples represent organizations, groups, or even small teams that undergoing change related to viewpoint, emotion, and social hierarchy and structure rather than to work processes. In change management terms, the unfreezing process does not relate to work practices or physical habits, but instead relates to ingrained psychological and emotional habits, viewpoints, and norms. These are not necessarily the easiest aspects of the individual worker to change; however, it also is not necessarily the goal. Instead, the goal may simply be to demonstrate alternative viewpoints and allow the natural empathy and trust built between team members to take hold.


In summary, there are some obvious costs to the organization for sensitivity training. These may include perceptions that full participation and negative emotional sharing may influence career prospects, which can impede full participation (and possibly justifiably so); inadequate leadership and communication, which do not allow for full sharing; and the more subtle problem that sensitivity training can enforce majority views and values rather than accomplishing a stated goal of integrating diverse views, resulting in the loss of organizational commitment and increased turnover from minority organizational members. Ultimately, sensitivity training cannot force the development of trust, empathy, or integration of diverse perspectives, no matter how well designed the program. However, sensitivity training can provide space for their development and facilitate open communication between team members. Organizations do generally experience lower levels of conflict related to diversity after undertaking sensitivity training, which is a significant benefit. However, the real benefits are realized by organizations that require change management related to organizational conflict and diversity (either internal or external diversity). These organizations are likely to benefit much more than homogeneous or more static organizations, or those that are already well integrated and reflect diverse viewpoints. Thus, for these organizations the benefits may be substantially greater, particularly if programs are designed to avoid some of the major problems of sensitivity training, like reinforcement of majority ideas. In summary, for organizations that are not undergoing conflict the benefits may be equivocal to costs, or even lower. However, for organizations that are undergoing diversity-related conflict and organizational stress, an effectively implemented encounter group or other sensitivity training approach may be highly beneficial.


This analysis has focused on sensitivity training, which is often a controversial and somewhat polarized organizational development practice. It first provided a unified definition of sensitivity training, which (regardless of model used) can be understood as a group change process focused on building empathy and awareness of the viewpoints of others and cementing these new insights into the norms and practices of the group and individuals. There is a range of different sensitivity training models that can be used in this case. This analysis focused on the encounter groups model, which is one of the oldest and most widely used models of the sensitivity group. After explaining the model briefly, it then addressed the costs and benefits of the encounter group for the organization. Costs are obviously financial costs, but can also include organizational resistance and resentment to the process. Benefits can include increased awareness of the benefits of diverse views and improved teamwork, among other and more personal improvements.

There is no clear answer as to whether a given model is better or worse - instead, the benefits and costs depend on the organizational context. Although this analysis has focused on the encounter groups model of sensitivity training in order to reduce the set of possible variations, the general costs and benefits are likely to be similar. For organizations that are currently well integrated and do not have issues dealing with internally diverse views or external demands, sensitivity training may be an unnecessary expense. Organizations that are experiencing diversity-related conflict, have had negative incidents that are related to lack of understanding and empathy, or have a rapidly changing external or internal environment may experience some significant benefits from the use of sensitivity training. However, even these organizations must take care not to alienate or isolate the participants, make sensitivity training into a punishment, or otherwise impose negative connotations onto the group practice. If it does so, then even organizations that could potentially benefit from the practice are not likely to have a positive outcome.


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