By Rafael Altavini
Transformational programmes can trigger relationship dynamics that unfold like a play in five acts.
At certain junctures in our lives, we humans feel the call to change, just like a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Business schools provide transitional spaces, similar to a cocoon, where exploration is allowed and encouraged. Faculty, knowledge and peer groups all act as catalysts to a new identity. The problem is participants and their spouses may not transform at the same speed.
I experienced this myself after embarking on the INSEAD Executive Master in Consulting and Coaching for Change (EMCCC) in 2015. Early in this transformational, 18-month programme, I found myself struggling to keep my wife involved in what was going on with me. The programme seemed to create a distance between us. After learning that some of my classmates had similar difficulties, I decided to focus my thesis on what I called the view from outside the cocoon.
In my model, the inner theatres of the non-studying life partners are described as a play in five acts, marked by feelings of neutrality, engagement or exclusion. While the data show that, over time, potential outcomes of transformational programmes are predominantly positive for couples, I saw a need to equip all stakeholders with a framework for discussion so that the ride can be as smooth as possible.
The five acts of an unfolding play
I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 10 life partners of participants in the EMCCC. Their ages ranged from 38 to 53 years old, and half were female. As I probed their perceptions, emotions and fantasies related to their partner’s participation in the programme, a five-act structure emerged.
In the first act, called the Leap of faith, partners described their reactions to the news that their partner was considering doing the EMCCC. The programme is complex to explain so most of them struggled to make sense of it. It represented a step into the unknown, which they took with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
In the second act, Rationalisation via previous experiences, partners responded to the anxiety of the unknown by relating the programme to their own closest experiences (perhaps a similar programme or past journeys). This helped them to process the possible meaning of EMCCC for their partners.
The third act, Interactions with the transitional space, is when the programme made a grand entrance into the couple’s routine. Aside from travel-related disruptions and extensive study time, the content of the modules – including their emotional load – began to regularly feature in the couple’s life and conversations.
In the fourth act, Jealousy kicks in, several (but not all) partners mentioned jealousy, with various levels of intensity, contained or not. To some extent, the affected partners feared losing the relationship and experienced a mix of fear, anger and suspicion, projected towards other participants or even the programme itself.
In the fifth act, Studying partners’ new ‘magic powers’, programme participants started to enthusiastically share or experiment with their new knowledge. This tended to annoy or put off their partners, but some partners found it amusing, even if a bit awkward.
The three inner theatre themes
Of course, these five acts didn’t have the same intensity in every case. Three overarching themes arose to describe how life partners experienced the programme overall: neutrality, engagement or exclusion.
Neutral partners didn’t think too much about the programme. Provided the matters of logistics and financing were under control, they were happy to follow their studying spouse at a distance. They also tended not to see significant change in their spouse during or after the programme.
In contrast, engaged partners became deeply involved with the programme. They extensively discussed the course materials with their studying spouse. Engaged partners reported a feeling of self-development during the programme and saw positive changes in their spouse as well. If jealousy or conflicts were present, they were processed constructively.
Meanwhile, excluded partners tried to interact with the cocoon, but either lacked the tools and skills to engage, or were denied access by their studying spouse. Over time they grew distressed or resentful. When the spouse tried to use their new ‘magic powers’, it was met with resistance bordering on scorn.
In my dataset, 40 percent of partners mostly or completely felt engaged. The major theme for the remaining partners was equally split between neutrality (30 percent) and exclusion (30 percent).
A number of backdrop elements also played a role in shaping the inner theatres of the life partners during the EMCCC journey. It helped when the partners had already worked out at least part of their midlife transition. Beyond this life stage, Olson and Gorall’s circumplex model of marital and family systems also offered predictive value. In short, a couple or a family will cope well under pressure depending on its ability to communicate, adapt to change and maintain a healthy balance between togetherness and separateness.
I found personal attachment styles to also be of particular importance. These refer to how secure or insecure we tend to become based on how our primary caregiver responded to us in infancy. Babies with responsive caregivers tend to grow up to be secure and trusting individuals. Others become insecure, with a tendency to cling or, conversely, to avoid any form of emotional reliance on others. A secure attachment style is most likely to be associated with a positive inner theatre in the presence of a life-changing programme.
What participants can do
Participants should recognise that the key accountability in addressing potential issues lies with them. After all, transformational programmes are largely about self-leadership. They should thus be able to tackle the issues that come up in their lives. Participants need to seek techniques to properly engage their partners and debrief them about the programme and the transformation they’re undergoing.
What couples can do
Life partners also have a responsibility to speak up if something is not right. Too many suffer silently, perhaps afraid of the consequences. Couples should engage in honest, non-judgmental and continuous communication during the programme, starting at the application process phase.
One possible tool is having profound dialogues in which couples practice listening without judging, following a method (Zwiegespräch) developed by the late German psychoanalyst and couple therapist Michael Lukas Moeller.
What faculty members can do
Faculty may want to bring the topic up for discussion during relevant classes. It could be part of modules in which the topic surfaces, such as family systems or self-leadership.
What business schools can do
Business schools should ensure their students are aware of the importance of sharing their learning journey with their life partners. Before entry into the programme, they could provide relevant information (along with the usual pre-readings) or even run assessments involving the participants and their partners. During the programme, they could provide guidance on the dialogue between life partners.
Breaking the taboo
While it is common knowledge that business school programmes can be transformational, how couples deal with one member changing more rapidly than the other remains somewhat of a taboo. Many couples seem to quietly suffer their way through the journey. With sufficient awareness, open communication and proper guidance, taboos can be broken.
Rafael Altavini is Head of Talent Management and Organisational Development for the Schindler Group.
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