From Conflict to Collaboration – A true T-group story

Be the change you wish to see in the world.
—Mahatma Gandhi

The T-Group based workshop has just begun. The 24 participants and the 3 faculty members have introduced themselves, and the CEO (who is himself participating) has briefly explained why he has sponsored this week-long workshop and its follow-up session. The plant he runs has been losing money for years, and he believes that the people must learn a new way to work together if the plant is to survive. Relationships are tense throughout the organization, especially between management and labor. Because of his trust in the facilitators, the CEO has taken the risk of inviting twelve members of the Union leadership, including the President, who is barely on speaking terms with the CEO, along with eleven other members of the plant leadership team. There are formal and informal layers of reporting relationships in the mix, and years of animosity. As the participants sit in a large circle (un-encumbered by tables) to begin the week, there is no escaping the initial awkwardness. The Union President choses to stand near the door, in his own words “uncertain” as to whether he will stay.

The workshop, and a broader OD strategy is designed to help the organization decrease tension while increasing business performance. The facilitator has already worked with the management team on their own group dynamics and, with his colleagues, will be working with every team in the organization during the weeks and months to come. He has also met with the Union leadership, both to show respect, to inform, and to allow them to get their own feel for the OD strategy and his team of facilitators. It doesn’t hurt that one of the facilitators used to be an electrician in a manufacturing plant.

Following the CEO’s kickoff, the lead facilitator asks the participants to talk in pairs. Working in pairs is a critical part of the workshop structure. He explains that they will be doing this a lot throughout the week, and they will be learning as much from each other as they will from the facilitators. He even walks the room, saying, “So you two are a pair, and you two, and you two,” etc. to assure that pairing occurs. The task is to talk about what they just heard…what they think and feel about it. Instantly 50% of the room goes from being quiet to being verbal. This simple structure is repeated throughout the week, with different pairings, and is a big asset both to learning and to decreasing stress. Lewin knew that group change was more powerful than individual change…pairing brings peer-to-peer influence to life, while also allowing some privacy for processing one’s experience. In these workshops, people quickly get it that they are all peers in being human, even while they have different roles in the organization.

Now the room is buzzing with talk. The facilitator regains attention and invites anyone to speak. After an anxious silence, the conversation with the CEO begins. People admit their fears, “You guys are just here to brainwash us,” and their hopes “We need to work together so maybe this will help.” The CEO admits that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that he and the management team had made some mistakes. The HR Director explains why he thinks the workshop is needed. The Union VP says, “I don’t know what he just said, but I’m against it!” The room goes silent. The HR Director begins to fight back. The facilitator says something like, “This is a good example of why we are here” and manages to lighten the mood without taking sides. Even though the facilitator is working for his customer (the CEO), neutrality when helping with interactions is vital to effective facilitation. Everyone relaxes. The President choses to stay. The workshop proceeds.

While it is possible to stubbornly stay outside the learning process during one of our workshops, it isn’t easy. This is in no small way due to the brilliance of Lewin’s understanding of group dynamics. It’s hard to stay separate when your peers are participating, and even harder when the peer pressure is coming in the privacy of paired conversations. Most people are willing to give the process a chance, and the next thing you know, people are learning about themselves and trying on new behavior! It’s tough to resist.

The same was true during the management-labor workshop above. The process was rolling along, and then sometime shortly after the “Active Listening Skills” a critical incident occurred. Sitting in the same T-group, and talking to each other directly, the Union President looked the CEO in the eye and said, “I don’t usually listen to you when we talk. I’m just wrapped up in what I am wanting to say.” The CEO said, “I do the same thing. I don’t listen to what you are actually saying either.” From that moment on they made a commitment to actually listen to each other and to be honest if they don’t think it is happening. They shifted from adversaries to collaborators for the remainder of that president’s term, and the entire plant shifted into a more collaborative direction. It wasn’t just a critical incident for the workshop…it was transformational for the organization.

Amongst many emergent joint management and labor strategies that followed, they also became co-sponsors for a series of T-group based workshops, and the Union President became a reference for our work.

When a critical mass in an organization increases their capacity to foster a productive and safe work environment by giving clear direction, taking a stand for what they believe in, holding themselves and others accountable, fostering communication up and down the hierarchy, managing conflict, connecting with emotional intelligence (EQ) to all levels of the organization, and continually developing themselves, others, and the organization, high performance as measured by industry metrics follows. Participants consistently say T-group learning enriches their personal and professional lives. My hope is that T-group learning, with proper discipline, once again becomes a “movement.”

Excerpted with permission from, “T-Groups Adapted for the Workplace” an unpublished article by Gilmore Crosby

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
This entry was posted in Change Management, Culture Change, Emotional Intelligence, Gilmore Crosby, Leadership, Organization Development, T-Groups and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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