T-group as Cutting Edge: Today? Really?

An edited version of the following appears in a recent edition of the ODPractitioner

The author, Robert P Crosby, is trained by the founders of Organization Development (OD). His first “Training-group” (T-group) was in 1953 followed by “Train-the-Trainers” with Lippitt, Benne, and Bradford, and NTL’s first OD intern program with Goodwin Watson and W. Warner Burke. In 1966 he became an NTL associate. In 1973 he started the first Masters in Applied Behavioral Science and began adapting the “T-group” for organizations. His OD change strategy integrating the “T-group” is described in “Cultural Change in Organizations.” He works with his sons in “Crosby & Associates.”

T-group as Cutting Edge: Today? Really?

Yes, really!

In 2011, President Obama visited a Fortune 500 manufacturing plant to celebrate its productivity! A major contributing factor was that in the previous eight years, 1,300 of its 2,000 employees had experienced an evolved T-group. This evolution is a cutting edge model adapted for business.

The History of T-Groups

The T-group birthed OD! Out of its emphasis on group processes grew an expanded interest in organizational and systemic development. Other strands contributed, but the spark that took OD from a concept to a vital energizing movement was the T-group! The first T-group is a paradigm shift for most participants creating a fundamental change in one’s perception of relationships and group dynamics.

Readers familiar with NTL (the National Training Laboratories) will be acquainted with the T-group which was invented in 1946-1947. Led by Kurt Lewin, the founder of SocialPsychology, this unique training grew out of his discussion with Ken Benne, Leland Bradford and Ronald Lippitt. Originally called the Basic Skills Training Group, it was soon nicknamed T (for training) group, and became well known nationally through coverage in the popular media of the 1950’s. Life Magazine, perhaps the best known journal at that time, featured it in one issue. They called it, “Sensitivity Training,” which in the early years had been a phrase used in reference to participants becoming sensitive to groups processes and dynamics. However, Life highlighted a growing popular trend to identify this new training as a “pop-psychological” new-age “hip” activity. That kind of marketing led to the popularity and proliferation of T-group training led by leaders both untrained and unaware of the original T-group intention. Variations with names including “Sensitivity” and, in the 1960’s, “Encounter,” were used. I attended two Esalen Institute Encounter groups in the 1970’s that bore little resemblance to my extensive experiences in the previous decade with the founders and others such as Goodwin Watson. Esalen, located in California, was highly respected at the time.

Describing the T-group or any deep, profound event in life to those who have not experienced it has always been a challenge but here are some critical distinctions of its learning process. The T-group offers the cognitive domain (theories/concepts) as in traditional education. However, It also engages the affective (emotions/values) and motoric (skills) domains in ways that are strikingly uncommon in a typical classroom. The T-group leader does not lead in a discussion of the topics in which the participants are engaged. Rather, the leader helps individuals and groups be aware about that which most are usually unaware such as: how are decisions being made (e.g., about what to talk about), how are members dealing with disagreements and authority issues, how aware and open are members about emotionality in the group interaction, and what norms/rules are members operating from about how to behave, most of which are both unspoken and outside of usual awareness. While what we say has importance, in the Tgroup how we interact is highlighted! Strikingly, participants are encouraged to be aware in the “here and now.” Most humans are much more aware of the past or anxious about the future, yet all that we have is the “fleeting” now.

Here is a “nutshell” of the electric moment, the “aha” insight in 1946 that brightened the eyes of those four founders mentioned above, Lewin, Benne, Bradford, and Lippitt. A workshop was held in Connecticut aimed at improving interracial practices in the state government. The primary method was discussion. Kurt Lewin of MIT’s Research Center for Group Dynamics, the key leader, had a research observer attached to each of three groups. They were concerned about the effects on attendees, and the transfer to backhome situations.

The staff met each evening to review the research, paying attention NOT to the content of the conversations, but rather to how the participants were interacting with each other! A researcher might report, “…..and he and Mrs. X became involved in a heated exchange. Others (took) sides. Others seemed frightened and tried to make peace.” (Bradford, Gibb, Benne, 1964) Early in the workshop, a group of participants wandered in and overheard the staff review of the day’s events. “They were fascinated by what they heard. Analyzing how a group formed and evolved was much more fun than simply being in one.” (Bennis, 2010) Lewin enthusiastically not only welcomed the participants, but also invited the rest of the attendees to the nightly debriefs. Each evening more and more came. Often upon hearing the review, they became dynamically engaged and sometimes defensive about the information. “Lewin and the others realized that a group that scrutinized its own process as it formed and changed was something new and valuable.” (Bennis, 2010)

“To the training staff it seemed that a potentially powerful medium and process of reeducation had been, somewhat inadvertently, hit upon.” (Bradford, Gibb, Benne, 1964) During a group conversation they decided that the following year they would report these interaction dynamics in the midst of the discussions! Most participants are unaware of such dynamics except at some level of discomfort when tension surfaces. In this way participants would learn how to focus on the processes that are constantly taking place between them and the other people in the conversation as well as the content. Thus was birthed the T-group which still creates an “electric moment” of openness for most new participants.

Openness, defined to mean my ability and willingness to share what I’m aware of in the “here and now” (I’m sad, glad, mad, afraid), is an awareness and skill missing for most. The T-group can increase that awareness, but usually not without some frustrating moments as this ambiguous learning unfolds. Unskilled trainers turned openness into personal confession which everyone already knows how to do! While openness is about what’s happening between us now, personal confession is the sharing of private stories from outside the group such as past history (e.g., I’ve been married four times). That lack of clarity is but one example of how the original intent can become lost. While the sharing of secretly held past stories may be important in a certain therapeutic setting that was not the original intent of the T-group.

Learning to be present, here and now in all of life is exhilarating and enriching. Two thirds of the business participants in our T-group trainings report, in an anonymous questionnaire, that this event is the most applicable training to both work and life outside of work that they have experienced in their life.

Even currently T-groups, reports David Bradford of Stanford, have “…a central role at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It is seen as one of the ‘must’ electives. We teach eleven sections of the course and about 85% of the students take it. Alumni regularly name it as one of the most important courses they took as an MBA.” Annually, Stanford also offers a high quality 6-day residential T-group as part of the GSB
Executive Program. David Bradford of Stanford is the son of Leland Bradford, who with Kenneth Benne and Ronald Lippitt led the first T-group’s in 1947 after Lewin’s untimely death. The work they initiated is constantly evolving and also continues both through NTL and in the religious domain.

Churches have been deeply involved in T-groups since the early 1950’s. During the 60’s, I headed the Laboratory and T-group program of the Methodist Church. Currently the EQ & HR (Emotional Intelligence & Human Relations) Center, formed six years ago by trainers from various churches, offers training to Faith-based groups. Directed by the seasoned Lutheran Pastor Roy Oswald, it offers quality training in the T-group tradition.

The mid-50’s Life Magazine article mentioned above featured the Episcopalian’s Tgroup movement. The Episcopalians developed ways to bring some of the dynamics of these groups, though not the T-group itself, to the local parish. I founded a for-profit secular Institute in 1969 with the T-group at its core. (Leadership Institute of Spokane/Seattle) Its first board chairman, Episcopal Bishop Jack Wyatt, was an experienced T-group trainer!

Next I will offer examples of how we have been taking the T-group, which Carl Rogers reportedly described as, “The most significant social invention of the 20th century,” into the belly of the workplace. We have now done this with thousands, but since this is rarely done by others it presents a possible edge of depth for OD practitioners.

Next entry: Making the Case for T-Groups Today – A Manufacturing Plant Adaptation

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com
This entry was posted in Organization Development, T-Groups and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.