Involved Observations in Training Seminars
I spent approximately seventy-five hours in two week-long management training seminars and observed a total of thirty-seven managers and six trainers. Of the thirty-seven participants, twenty-two were women and fifteen were men; twenty-nine were white and eight were black and other minorities. For the participants in both seminars, the average tenure in the bank was eight years. The seminars I attended were run by small mixed-gender groups (two women and one man in one case, two men and one woman in the other); in addition, a stream of future trainers, as well as those coordinating the seminars, flowed through each seminar with little or no warning and sat in the back of the room as observers.
I cross-checked my observations with twelve managers from the seminars with whom I conducted follow-up interviews; I interviewed other managers (whom I did not observe) about their seminar experiences. Managers in the management development division gave me permission to observe and interview seminar participants. The trainers and the participants at the seminars I attended knew that I was a sociologist from the University of California, studying the response of middle managers to corporate change. My role was a peculiar one, insofar as I believe that my presence was somewhat a challenge to the trainers. They prided themselves on a social-scientific approach to working with managers and thus took my role and my work very seriously.
For this reason, they occasionally, on and off during the seminars, attempted to manage my perception of the seminar proceedings by talking with me about events that were "objectively true" and those that were merely "subjective opinions." In both seminars, the trainers seated me between them at the trainers' table. This position-I was wedged in between them-gave them many opportunities to peer over my shoulder to examine my notes, which they did quite frequently. When one particularly contentious participant was going on about the problems with top management, one of the trainers went to great lengths to let me know that this person was unusually prickly and that she had rarely seen any manager react in the fashion he did. Because I had observed these dynamics before, and because in interviews other managers had described similar controversies in seminars they attended, her comment seemed to arise from some sense of alarm that an outsider would draw the conclusion that the management seminars were something other than consensual and harmonious. That same trainer also went to great lengths to assure me that some interactions I had recorded reflected only one person's opinion about the corporation.
Despite the fact that I was not a participant in the fashion typical of the participant observer (Becker 1970) (that is, I was not filling the shoes of the participant working as a manager, and I was not the direct target of the trainers' resocialization efforts), I was nevertheless an involved observer, a participant in a different and important way. Much as for the "observer as participant" (Gold 1970), involved observation allowed me to interact with trainers and participants and to assess, from their diverse perspectives, the progress and obstacles of the seminars.
During the numerous breaks taken throughout the seminar, various participants approached me, seeking out my opinion about what I had observed and sharing with me the "deep" feelings they felt they could not express in the context of the seminar group. As an involved observer, I frequently felt like a partial participant.
Involved participation created an occasional dilemma for me. After one prolonged and contentious debate between seminar trainers and participants, one of the trainers asked whether I would mind giving her a copy of my notes, which contained a near-verbatim record of the exchange. Because she was very confused about the participants' anger, and because she was unwilling to believe that these managers were unjustified in their anger, she felt that the trainers could benefit from going over the interaction at a later time. I was loath to lend her my notes as it was conceivable that the trainers might retaliate against certain seminar participants. Fortunately, I was able to refuse politely on the grounds that I was obligated to preserve confidentiality for all the people I was observing, trainers and seminar participants alike, an explanation she accepted.
I recorded by hand all seminar interactions; along with my notes I maintained an informal coding system that allowed me to note not only spoken passages but voice inflections, silences (where trainers failed to respond to specific issues raised by participants), unanticipated activities (trainers pacing about, calling unscheduled breaks as a response to tense moments), and particular types of interactions (contentious, consensual, and the like). After each seminar I wrote extensive notes on my observations.
The material in Chapter 3 is presented not sequentially but topically. Because the curriculum was the same in both seminars, and because the seminar dynamics were strikingly similar (both in the way they were taught and in managers' responses), I have combined the data from the two seminars and organized them according to significant themes. Although there were other important topics (for example, the problems in shifting to the pay-for-performance or merit plan), I use the discussion of minimum job requirements and structural changes because they clearly illuminate middle managers' concerns and trainers' objectives and discourse.