Almost all T-groups have been composed of people meeting each other for the first time. Thus they were called “stranger” groups or laboratories (“laboratory training” was an early common term for the workshop that included T-groups). Even in corporations like Avis, which in the 60’s offered many T-groups, stranger groups were the unquestioned practice.
A major challenge immediately recognized was the transfer of learning difficulties faced when participants would return to their workplace. With Richard Schmuck, who had received his doctorate with Ronald Lippitt at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, we wrote, “Laboratory training is based on the important premise that what is learned during the laboratory may be employed in real life situations…The term transfer describes the utilization in a second situation of what has been learned in a former situation. A denial of the importance of transfer would be tantamount to saying that what one learns in the laboratory is in order to do better in laboratories.” Later we state, “The problem of transfer is complicated by cultural-island approaches to laboratory training. Participants are removed from their workaday worlds to help ‘unfreeze’ daily sets, expectations, and patterns and to take fresh looks at themselves, their colleagues, and their back-home situations. In contrast, transfer would be enhanced by learning new skills in virtually the same situations as the ones in which they must be applied.” Schmuck wrote later that, “Lewin reminded his students that a focus on the intact group as the target of social-skill training necessarily differed from current visions of how to engineer community change.” (Schmuck, 2008) Indeed! The ability to transfer learning also greatly increases when T-groups are done in-house with intact groups! That intact group distinction, though historically referenced, is very cutting edge in practice today.
This is not meant to disparage stranger groups. Indeed we do two such groups annually in our “adapted for industry” style. Yet to work effectively with intact groups, we have developed new strategies that maintain some significant continuity with the older forms, while also incorporating some key innovations.
Continuities with Classic T-Groups
A typical early statement by trainers historically and in our style is often something like:
“We don’t provide a topic and we don’t guide the discussion of whatever you talk about. Rather, we attempt to help with the dynamics happening while you engage.” I’ve heard novice trainers say you can’t have a topic, which, of course, is impossible. In a business environment, topics often arise about tough issues they are facing! Our task is to assist them to be 1) here-and-now (there is always a “now” component in a conversation); 2) speak from the “I” when appropriate- I feel, I think, I want (you or we is also sometimes accurate); 3) Talk to any member directly rather than about them in the 3rd person; and 4) paraphrase when differences surface.
In addition, we note dynamics such as how decisions (for instance, about the ‘topic’ being discussed) are being made in the here-and-now in the group (usually by default). As in the classical T-group, we may also mention the current stage of this group’s development. Factors such as who is talking to whom, how differences are being managed, or what patterns are emerging are also noted. One common pattern is that each person speaks but no one paraphrases or builds on what the other has said. All of these are ‘here-and-now’ moments with ‘there-and-then’ implications because these behaviors often run rampant in the workplace. “I imagine this is also familiar at work,” says the trainer. Heads nod affirmatively. “Solve this here, and you will more likely be able to solve it there.” Our ‘there and then’ interventions take them briefly to their workplace and help them begin to see the relevance of this T-group moment.
Next post: T-group Innovations: Our “Tough Stuff” Model