The motor trade might not be the first place you would look to find a group of males discussing the things that get them down at work and home. It's a healthy trend - but will it catch on? By Peter Baker
A SMALL room above a workshop on an industrial estate near Tunbridge Wells probably sounds an unpromising place to try to help a group of men develop greater self-awareness and inter-personal skills. Also, these men are definitely not new-agey types into tree-hugging or sweat lodges, but regular blokes working in the motor industry.

Hardly a week goes by without another instalment in the "Men in Trouble" story. Last week, a NSPCC conference on Men as Fathers heard that many men are struggling to balance work with family life, with many feeling obliged to hide their involvement with children from their colleagues. And a survey of 1,000 office workers showed that 82 per cent of men hate working for a woman - tricky when female managers have increased by 60 per cent since 1994.

But at the MCL Group, a car importing, distribution and marketing company, they know about these things. Ten men, all junior managers in their 20s and 30s, have volunteered to join Navigator, a unique workplace-based personal development programme for men run by The Springboard Consultancy. This is the second of four one-day training sessions. Downstairs, the latest shiny and sporty Mazdas are being lovingly inspected by men in overalls. Upstairs, in the training room, their colleagues, mostly dressed in jeans and trainers, are exploring how to cope with change, better understand body language and improve their listening skills.

There is, of course, plenty of banter. When the facilitator, James Traeger, explains that everyone has a "personal zone" extending up to 46cm from their body, he is told "you must have a big 'un". When asked about goals, David suggests: "I might try lager rather than bitter tonight." And John's decision to lose 5lbs is greeted with: "That's just one dump." Traeger reminds the group that they discussed banter and agreed it was acceptable so long as it did not turn into put-downs. But the joking is sporadic and good-humoured and does not inhibit discussion of serious issues.

Listening is a key topic in the afternoon session. Traeger begins by asking the men to work in pairs. One man has to talk about something that interests him while the other pretends to be bored or indifferent. The aim is to demonstrate how hard it is to communicate when you are being ignored. Traeger then explains that when people talk they are communicating three things: thoughts, feelings and intentions. To demonstrate this, the men are divided into small groups. Each man talks for five minutes while his colleagues observe and then discuss.

The subjects would amaze anyone who still believes most men are incapable of reflecting on little besides sport, beer and politics. David talks openly about the effects on his life of surviving a serious car crash and, soon after, a life-threatening case of testicular cancer. James (not Traeger) describes how he wants to put more energy into his family life, while Andy speaks of his doubts about marriage and how difficult that is for his girlfriend.

Traeger moves on to other key themes. He explains how men can cope better with the feelings engendered by change (which range from shock and denial to anger and depression), take risks at work and in their personal lives and adopt new ways of learning. The day ends with a goal-setting exercise for the next session in four week's time.

A recurring issue, and one that explains why these men chose to join Navigator, is that they feel in a rut at work and that, despite decent salaries and subsidised sports cars, their jobs seem to be going nowhere. Several explain that their work has become very specialised, making it hard to move within the company, and, because there are no similar firms in the local area, changing employers would require difficult life-changes.

This sense of dissatisfaction with work resonates with many men's experience of the contemporary workplace. The end of the job for life, the replacement of manufacturing with service industries, the flattening of traditional hierarchies, the increasingly important role of women and the demand for new "feminine" skills, such as communication, teamwork and flexibility, are fundamentally altering men's relationship with work, profoundly affecting their sense of identity and self-esteem.

Navigator aims to help men deal better with these issues. While many commentators bemoan contemporary masculinity, this programme refuses to accept that men are inherently hopeless and is one of a few attempts to help men adapt to the changing times. "It's about giving men a sense of direction, enabling them to take responsibility for themselves and extending their skills," explains Traeger. "Navigator examines male identity and values, explores relationships with women, provides an opportunity for realistic self-assessment and develops interpersonal abilities. It's not about creating `new men'; it's about helping men develop their own solutions."

As MCL's interest in Navigator suggests, it is not intended to appeal to firms which are weird or wacky. Indeed, the programme has already been piloted with a banking group, four local authorities, a telecommunications company and a university and is due to be formally launched this summer. Traeger is already discussing introducing the programme to several government departments and Navigator will soon be marketing itself to companies as a means of creating "improved efficiency from a more realistically self- assessing male population", "better customer care from more empathic workers", and "motivated men with self-directed learning agendas".

Sally Vanson, MCL's human resources director, has no doubts about the value of the training." We first ran a women's development programme but then realised that our junior male managers were also lacking in confidence about their careers. The aim is to help all our employees be more fulfilled and the feedback I have had from the men so far has been positive." There have been more applications from men wanting to join Navigator than there are places available.

Whether this type of training will make a long-term difference remains to be seen. It has been argued, for example, that many men are incapable of fundamental personal change until they experience a personal trauma, such as redundancy, divorce or serious illness. One ironic outcome of introducing such programmes could be that, instead of developing the skills of flexibility and empathy, they simply start competing about their ability to co-operate.

But listening to Nick tell his colleagues that he has recently become a father, is suffering from backache and no longer wants to work a 65- hour week, it does seem possible that Navigator could be one way men can develop a much-needed new sense of identity at work as well as a better balance between work and home that will ultimately benefit women and children, too.