The crying boss: Activating “human resources” through sensitivity training in 1970s Sweden

AHP readers will be interested in a new open-access article in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences: “The crying boss: Activating “human resources” through sensitivity training in 1970s Sweden,” Linnea Tillema. Abstract:

This article examines the introduction of “sensitivity training” to 1970s Swedish work life. Drawing upon a range of empirical materials, I explore the politics that were involved in the process of translating and adapting this group dynamic method to the Swedish context and consider how its proponents argued for its value. By approaching sensitivity training as an attempt to govern, shape, and regulate both human beings and the work organizations of which they were a part, I argue that sensitivity training presents an unexpectedly early example of a governing rationality that has elsewhere been described and theorized as “neoliberal.” The fact that sensitivity training was established in Swedish work life already in the early 1970s thus challenges the historiography of neoliberal modes of government, which have elsewhere been associated with a neoliberal shift in state policies occurring in the 1980s and 1990s. The article demonstrates how emotionally liberating practices in the late 1960s and early 1970s were embraced by some of the most politically influential actors in contemporary Swedish society, such as the corporate sector and the trade unions. As blue-collar trade unions and social democrats voiced increasingly far-reaching demands concerning workplace democracy and improved workplace conditions, advocates of sensitivity training presented their method as crucial to the process of “democratizing” and “humanizing” Swedish work life. Intimately associated with the new therapies of humanistic psychology, sensitivity training was used within the corporate sector to foster a more emotional and authentic leadership style that would embrace the values of emotional awareness, self-expression, and self-actualization. The crying boss emerged in this context as a key figure in the project of creating a “democratic” and psychologically satisfying organization. Yet, sensitivity training was also described as a means for companies to make better use of what was now asserted as their most important economic asset: the human being. From the outset, the idealistic vision of an emotionally liberated, democratic workplace was thus entangled with a specific kind of economic rationality, in which the emotionally liberated, self-actualizing individual emerged as a capital or asset that would be better utilized if the organization allowed—even encouraged—employees to engage in their own well-being and self-optimization.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.