A History of the T-Group and Its Early Applications in Management Development (by Scott Highhouse, Bowling Green State University)
The growth of the field of group dynamics was synonymous with the rise of the T-group in leadership education. This article documents the tumultuous history of the T-group movement in the United States, particularly as it has been applied in management development. Although the T-group is commonly dismissed as a management fad, the author suggests that it represented an important phenomenon in the hisiory of applied behavioral science and was the first serious attempi at large-scale management and leadership developmenti. The notion of providing managers with feedback on how their behavior impacts others is as popular today as it was 50 years ago. What has changed is the mechanisms by which such feedback is provided.
Although training programs
in human relations far supervisors had been introduced during thè 1920s
and 1930s, they rarely extended beyond the first line of management. Indeed,
prior fo World War II, the grooming of future executives involved little more
than job rotation and mentoring (Dooher & Marquis, 1952). Following Worid
War II, however, management development took the business world by storm in
the form of the T-group, or sensitivity training. Although some people distinguish
between the T-group, which is primarily associated with National Training
Laboratories, and sensitivity training, which is often associated with Western
Training Laboratories (see L. K. Lee, 2001), the two approaches were almost
indistinguishable in practice. Therefore, I use the term T-group to encapsulate
all management-related sensitivity or encounter groups. T-groups involved
small unstructured groups of managers engaging, typically off-site for as
many as 3 to 4 weeks, in honest and open communication in what was commonly
referred to as the "here and now." These groups were devoid of any content
or subject matter, except for the immediate experience of the group members.
Thus, the focus of the T-group became the behavior of the group members struggling
to deal with the lack of structure. This struggle was exacerbated by a passive
facilitator. The primary mechanism for learning was the feed-back received
by each individual from group members. Resistance to self-examination was
broken down, and an atmosphere of openness to change often emerged. What may
sound today like a silly exercise in organizationally sponsored summer camping
was actually a profound emotional, and sometimes life-altering, experience
for many of the participants. T-groups have been derided as cultlike, faddish,
and even unethical and damaging (e.g., Back, 1972; Drotning, 1966; Kane, Wallace,
& Lipton, 1971; J. A. Lee, 1980; Odiorne, 1963), but there is little question
that the T-group movement represented an important phenomenon in the history
of behavioral science applied to me workplace. At their height of popularity
in the 1960s, T-groups were experienced by thousands of executives from organizations
such as TRW, Westinghouse, Eastman Kodak, IBM, General Electric, Eli Lilly,
Monsanto, Pillsbury, Boeing, Maytag, and many more. Experiences of T-group
participants were widely recounted in popular magazines, business journals,
and books (e.g-. Back, 1972; Chase, 1951; Coghill, 1968; GIueck, 1968; Klaw,
1961; Marrow, 1964; Poppy, 1968), and an astounding number of T-group leaders
were pioneers in the field of organizational behavior. Despite its
important influence on the entry of behavioral science into the executive
suite, however, it seems that the contemporary generation of social psychologists
and management scholars knows little if anything about the T-group movement.
In this article, I trace the history of the T-group from the early democratic ideals of its founders to the later establishment of the technique as a necessary milestone in executive self-discovery. I argue that T-groups were more than soft, mushy, touchy-feely encounter groups but were often serious interventions aimed at instilling authenticity and confrontation in organizational life. I examine the reaction of the academic and business community to T-groups and speculate about the reasons for their dramatic decline in popularity. Finally, I discuss the legacy of the T-group movement and compare its assumptions and practices to modem executive-development techniques.
One Night in Connecticut
The period immediately
following World War II was an exhilarating time for the behavioral sciences.
It was marked by a profound scientific curiosity for derstanding conflict
and the impact of the group on the individual, along with an unabashed social
consciousnessaimed at curing society's problems through action-oriented research.
A leader in this movement was Kurt Lewin. Lewin was a strong believer in the
need to leach democratic values and his experiences with J. R. P. French at
Harwood Manufacturing Corporation in the late 1930s taught him that learning
was best accomplished when the student experienced how his or her behavior
impacted others. Thus, techniques such as role-playing and feedback were seen
as effective in bringing out criticism in a healthy and constructive way.
Lewin was recruited by Douglas McGregor to establish the Research Center for
Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1944
(Invented Here: A Brief History, 2002).
Lewin's center was contacted in 1946 by the executive director of the Connecticut Interracial Commission to help train leaders to deal with intergroup tensions in their communities. The goal of the Connecticut Interracial Commission was to facilitate learning and compliance with the Fair Employment Practices Act, under which the commission had been created. Lewin, who saw an opportunity to put into practice his humanistic values for social good and also saw an opportunity to conduct field research on group behavior, quickly agreed to the assignment (Bradford, 1967). Ronald Lippitt agreed to direct the project, and Leiand Bradford and Kenneth Benne both agreed to join the training staff. The workshop was conducted in New Britain, Connecticut.
The major goal of the workshop was to enable businesspersons, labor leaders, and school- teachers to better deal with intergroup tensions, but most of the actual participants in the workshop in 1946 came from teaching and social work professions. The idea was to find better methods of changing people's attitudes and provide them with greater insight into their own attitudes and values. Lewin believed that leadership training was effective only when it provided trainees with opportunities to see how their customary way of acting affects others (Marrow, 1967). The major method used by the trainers was group discussion and role-play. A research observer recorded the group interactions, and Lewin arranged for evening meetings of the research observers to pool and record on tape their process observations.
Although the evening meetings were intended only for the trainers and research staff to go over the raw data from earlier in the day, three students who were living on campus stopped by one evening and asked if they might attend. Most of the trainers feared that the students would not react well to hearing the confidential discussions. Lewin was initially embarrassed by the awkwardness of the situation but was intrigued by the idea of having them sit in (Bradford, 1967). As Lippitt described it,
And we went right ahead as though they weren't there, and pretty soon one of them was mentioned and her behaviour was described and discussed, and the trainer and the researcher had somewhat different observations, perceptions of what had happened, and she became very agitated and said that wasn't the way it happened at all, and she gave her perception. And Lewin got quite excited about this additional data and put it on the board Co theorize it, and later on in the evening the same thing happened in relation to one of the other two. She had a different perception on what was being described as an event in that group she was in. (cited in Back. 1972. p. 8)
Eventually all students
attended the sessions, which often continued well into the night. Thestudents
reported that they were gaining important insights into their own behaviour
of their groups. Moreover, the training staff realised that it had "somewhat
inadvertently" hit upon a powerful method of reeducation (Benne, 1964).
Energized by the experience in New Britain, the trainers decided to repeat the workshop the following year. Although the Connecticut Interracial Commission did not continue its interestin the project, Lewin, Lippitt, Bradford, and Benne forged ahead with plans to develop a workshop for teaching people to be more efficient in their work within groups. Delegates could be selected to represent government, industry, and civic organizations. Rather than focusing on intergroup relations, the focus was to be on the group itself. That is, the discussion of the day's events, which the Connecticut participants renamed "feedback," was to be the central focus of this new workshop (Back, 1972).The workshop was to take place at the Gould Academy, in Bethel, Maine. The trainers choseBemel because it was close enough to MIT to keep travel costs down but far enough away tocreate a "cultural island" effect (Bradford, 1967). Lewin secured support from the Office of Naval Research, and Bradford secured financial backing from the National Education Association (NEA). Thus was born the National Training Laboratory (later shortened to NTL) for Group Development.
Roots of the T-Group
Although the history of the T-group is usually traced to Kurt Lewin and the serendipitousevents in New Britain, a number of experiments with group processes preceded the Connecticutworkshop. In fact, Lippitt and Bradford had earlier experimented with confrontational meetings among nurses and doctors at the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington while they were both at the Federal Security Agency. Much earlier, the German psychologist Jacob Moreno had developed the concept of encounter, which emphasized breaking social constraints and dealing honestly with others. Certainly, Moreno's psychodrama techniques were predecessors to the role-play exercises used in the early NTL workshops. Moreno himself expressed public bitterness over the attention given to the NTL innovations. According to Moreno (1953),
It can be shown on the basis of printed records that the close contact with me, Their's [sic] is not a problem of productivity, their's [sic] is a problem of interpersonal ethics. In the case of duplicity of ideas the carriers do not know one another, they work in different places, the eggs, they are parasites.... It is unfortunate - and this is why I am breaking my silence now - that these students of group dynamics have not only published distorted versions of my ideas and techniques, but they are practicing them on actual people in socalled [sic) research and training laboratories (p. 102)
Moreno explicitly identified
Lippitt, French, Bradford, Benne, Paul Shears, and others as "the bright boys
silting in my classes" who later engaged in "astute and Machiavellian practices"
(p. 102). However, the mild-mannered Bradford acknowledged meeting and observing
his psychodrama methods for training, not knowing that Lippeit, French, Alvin
Zander, and others had preceded him (Bradford, 1967).
In addition to Moreno's influence, Sherif (1936) introduced the concept of social norm and showed that such norms can be created experimentally. By placing people in a situation that had no clear structure, he showed that individual experiences tended to converge with the normative ranges of experience established by the group. In addition, field research by Newcomb in the 1930s (Newcomb, 1943) showed how the community rewarded students for adopting the approved attitudes of the group. Both of these studies influenced Lewin's concept of the individual-change process in groupsinvolving unfreezing the current situation, changing attitudes, and refreezing the new behavior. This unfreeze-change-re freeze framework has been a guiding force in the evolution of me T-group, as well as subsequent theorizing on the change process in organizations (e.g.. Beer, 1976; Schein & Bennis, 1965).
More immediate influences on the ideas of the T-group developers were the projects conducted during World War II by the Tavistock Institute in England and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the United States. The Tavistock Clinic was formed after World War I as an outpatient clinic for dealing with war-related neuroses. Members of the Tavistock Group,most notably Eric Trist and W. R. Bion, were widely known for their experimentation with group therapy techniques. Bion (1946) theorized about aggression and withdrawal that occurs in groups and developed the leaderless group techniques used for crew selection. In fact, the term "here and now" was commonly used by the Tavistock staff in the early 1940s(Back, 1972). Trist and Lewin had direct contact in 1945, and prior to his death, Lewin had made plans to spend the year at Tavistock in 1948.
Lewin and Lippitt's involvement in OSS spy selection was probably also an influence on the development of T-group methods. Under the primary direction of Henry Murray, Lewin. Lippitt, and others devised methods to identify men and women to serve as agents to conduct destructive operations behind enemy lines, train resistance groups, and "disintegrate" the morale of enemy troops (Office of Strategic Services Assessment Staff, 1948). OSS candidates were taken to a secluded farm house, stripped of their personal belongings, dressed in army fatigues,and instructed to create false identities over a period of 3 days. The candidates participated in assessment activities together, spent leisure time together, and revealed much about their personalities as a result of being isolated as a group. The observed effects of this seclusion likely influenced the decision to create a cultural island for the conduct of T-groups.
National Training Laboratories
As a result of his untimely death, Lewin was not in Bethel to see .the first National Training Laboratory for Group Development in 1947 The training staff included Bradford, Benne and Lippitt, along with Sheats, Zander, and Robert Poison. A research staff was under the direction of J. R. P. French. Although these people were inclined toward application, most had strong academic, social psychology backgrounds. The NTL workshop was described in of its literature as a place to learn change-agent skills and concepts and to understand and help with group growth and development (Benne, 1964). An initial attempt was made to recruit powerful decision makers, but the typical participant in 1947 was president of the parent-teacher association or a middle manager in industry or government (Back, 1972). The workshop centered around the basic skills training (BST) groups, which emphasized skill practice through role-playing, and intensive discussion and feedback. These groups were highly experimental. For example, Leiand Bradford used a leaderless group discussion method in which students were assigned to roles that involved negotiating over the construction of a war memorial To Bradford's chagrin, the process spiraled out of control, with group members arguing over the communistic implications of one proposal. According to Bradford (1967),
The scene went on for two days and very quickly got out of hand. I did not know how to end this type of thing, and I guess the way I ended it was by slaying away one morning and the scene died of its own weight, (p. 139)
One problem was that
the training objectives of the early workshops were overly ambitious. The
trainers set out to teach diagnostic and action skills of the change agent,'
to provide an understanding of behaviour in small groups, and to enhance understanding
of democratic values. All of this was to be done in addition to helping people
internalize more effective processes of solving human problems by examining
and an alyzing ongoing interactions in the groups. According to Benne (1964),
mere was an early tension between discussing here-and-now happenings and discussing
outside case materials. This tension was typically resolved by rejecting the
outside problems as "less involving and fascinating" (Benne, 1964, p. 86).
The focus of the BST groups was now almost entirely on sharing impressions
and gaining greater understanding of oneself and others. Figure I shows Leiand
Bradford leading an early BST group at Gould Academy.
Because the trainers began to see the interrelatedness of social and clinical approaches to group dynamics, a deliberate effort was made to invite more clinically oriented trainers to NTL in 1949 (Bradford, 1967). Almost immediately, conflict arose between the new trainers, holding either Freudian or Rogerian viewpoints, and the Lewinian old-timers. The old-timers were out numbered, and Bradford, Benne, and Lippitt were deposed in 1949 from direct leadership of the BST group (now rechristened the T-group). According to Benne (1964), the language of interpretation of events became more psychoanalytic or Rogerian and less sociological or Lewinian. This should not be interpreted to mean that Bradford, Benne, and Lippitt had dropped out of the picture. Indeed, Bradford was executive director of NTL until 1970. The old-timers simply took a less active role in the guidance of T-groups and were actually supportive of the leaner, more clinically focused approach to T-grouping. They were concerned, however, that the training sessions might turn into therapy sessions. This, they felt, would violate the contract between the staff and the participants, who came to the lab for an educational experience in human relations, rather than psychotherapy. Despite these misgivings, an attempt was made to have participants go through T (training) groups in the mornings and A (action) groups in the afternoons. The A-groups were led by prominent educators, sociologists, and social psychologists who were generally unfamiliar with NTL and its methods (Bradford,1974). Whereas the T-groups were clinically oriented, the A-groups were focused more on larger social systems. The problem was that the A-groups usually turned into T-groups (Benne, 1964).
In 1956, the first homogeneous groups for executives were conducted. Throughout NTL's short history, T-group participants had been teachers, social workers, priests, and, only occasionally, managers. Most of the trainers feared that occupational homogeneity would cause people to "talk shop" rather than engage in here-and-now interactions (Bradford, 1974). However, the T-group method naturally lent itself to corporate leadership training, and NTL was in need of some financial support. A grant from the Carnegie Institute had run out by 1954, and money from the NBA barely covered Leland Bradford's salary and that of one or two others. The decision to move into executive training was helped along by an article in Business Week, extolling the virtues of T-group training ("What makes a small group tick?", 1955), along with Douglas McGregor's recruitment efforts at MIT's Sloan School of Management. McGregor, known for his Theory X and Theory Y approaches to management, was one of the early practitioners of T-groups in industry and a long time, advisor to NTL. He was also on the board of Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), which sent a number of executives to NTL during the early 1950s. Rensis Likert, of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, was also involved in the design of the new "key executive" labs (Bradford, 1974). To accommodate the new influx of executives to NTL, many of the sessions were held in the more geographically convenient Arden House in the Hudson Valley, and the sessions were cut down from 3 weeks to 2 weeks in duration.
What Happens in a T-Group
McGregor (1960) used
the term "gut learning" to describe the kind of learning that took place in
NTL labs. Such vague terminology is characteristic of attempts to describe
the T- group experience- For example, it was not uncommon for T-group participants
to return from the cultural island unable to express what they had experienced.
According to Marrow (1964), the returning executive "usually ponders a moment,
tries to formulate a description that will convey the essence of the experience
in terms his questioner will really understandand then finds there is
no easy way to do it" (p. 28). Fortunately, a number of firsthand accounts
of T-groups were recorded that allow a peek inside this mysterious process
(e.g., Coghill, 1968; Glueck, 1968; Klaw, 1961; Poppy, 1968). Although much
was often made about the variations in T-group methods from trainer to trainer,
more striking is the commonality that is evident across the various published
The first step was usually to get executives to expose their behavior and attitudes by creating a situational dilemma (Argyris, 1963). This dilemma was usually created by the lack of structure and agenda in the T-group. The trainer would open the T-group with a short statement about the need for each person to gain more self-insight and enhance his or her effectiveness as a group member. The trainer then informed the group that the work to be done was up to the group itself and mat he or she (i.e., the trainer) did not intend to act as a group leader. This statement was usually followed by an uncomfortable silence that might be broken by a group member comment or suggestion (Coghill, 1968). Klaw (1961) recounted his experience as a participant in. a T-group led by NTL director Leiand Bradford:
"Our idea would be simply that we observe our behavior in the here and now," Bradford said. Then he fell silent. The silent lasted for more than a minute. It was broken by a thin, gray-haired man named Hank. He nervous. "You feel like a June bride," he said. "You know what's coming, but you don't know what to expect." (p. 150)
Often, participants would decide to introduce themselves and tell what they do and what they expected to gain from the experience. Once this process ended, tension would again build as the group struggled to structure this unstructured situation- The trainer might interject by questioning the relevance of the introductions and whether the people might better spend their time figuring out how they could learn to work more effectively together as a group. This intervention would often intensify the tension, leading members to angrily question whether the entire procedure was not just a waste of time (Coghill, 1968). Tannenbaum, Weschler, and Massarik (1961) described the behavior of a T-group member named George Franklin:
George Franklin appeared particularly disturbed. Finally, pounding the table, he exclaimed, "I don't know what is going on here! I should be paid for listening to this drivel. I'm getting Just a bit sick of wasting my time around here. If the prof(essor)s don't put out I quit!" (p. 123)
George Franklin was purportedly beginning the process of unfreezing, wherein he was relying on old behaviors that he would soon find to be ineffective in this setting. For instance, the group's reaction to George's outburst was as follows:
"What do you mean George, by saying this is nonsense?" "What do you expecta neat set of rules to meet all of your problems?" George was getting unconfortable. This were questions difficult for him to answer. Gradually, he began to realize that a large part of the group disagreed whit him; then he began to wonder why. (Tannenbaum et al., 1961, pag.24)
But the groups would not focus long on members like George. A trainer might, for example,
shift the group's attention toward one of George's attackers, pointing out that at least George was expressing his feelings whereas others sat by passively. Another member might be put on the spot for feeling the need to protect George, and still another might be challenged for smugly sitting by and watching everybody else's reactions. This process of exposing the behavior and attitudes of members to the rest of the group was aimed at creating more authentic communication- Executives were encouraged to shed their facades and become aware of their own selves as others see them. Lewin's change model calls not just for an unfreezing of outmoded beliefs and behaviors but also for change in current attitudes and behaviors. The refreezing processes, wherein the new attitudes and behaviors take hold, is expected to follow this change. The notion behind the T-group was that people could try out new ways of thinking and behaving and that positive feedback from other group members would reinforce those changes. However, the degree to which executives took home their new learning was always an area of concern for NTL. Herbert Thelen, a former T-group trainer, remarked:
The comments made (in T-group) are more likely to talk about the guy who is doing the perceiving than the guy he is perceveing. And by and large it is a mischievous enterprise and an anxiety-producing enterprise. Of course that explains something of what happens. The group goes through these tremendous anxiety phases at the beginning and then begin to develop solidarity, and then begin to develop a kind of uneasy complacence in trusting each other, and then they feel tremendous relief, and so they go out saying, "God what a wonderful experience: we went into the depths (ciled in Back, 1972, p. 42)
Kleiner (1996) noted that T-groups were clearly the most effective unfreezing device known but diat "the NTL people didn't quite understand how to refreeze" (p, 38). The transfer-of-training issue would continue to be a thorn in the side of T-group advocates in the years to come.
Antidote or Epidemic?
The 1960s were heady
limes for NTL and its trainers. T-groups were being championed by such luminaries
as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and executives were beating down the doors
of NTL to become "Bethelized." More than 20,000 business men and women thronged
to the workshops by 1966 (Friendly. 1966). T-groups were not without their
critics, however, as William Whyte's (1956) widely read book The Organization
Man opened with an attack on NTL practices for discouraging initiative and
leadership in groups. Unfreezing, it seemed, was seen as a method of breaking
down an individual's resistance and creating the conditions for brainwashing
(Kleiner, 1996). The irony was not lost on the T-group trainers, who believed
that they were providing an antidote to individual manipulation by breaking
down social taboos and creating an environment of open inquiry. Bradford (1974)
noted experiencing considerable hostility, as early as the mid-1950s, from
academics in social work, psychiatry, and much of psychology. The response
from NTL's executive committee was to strengthen its connection with universities
and research to "develop and maintain scholarly respectability" (Executive
Committee, National Training Laboratories, 1959).
One of the most conspicuous critics of the T-group was George Odiorne, of the University of Michigan (Odiome, 1962; 1963). In 1963, Comell University hosted a debate between Odiome and Yale professor Chris Argyris. Argyris, a cautious adherent of T-groups, found himself unprepared for the onslaught of criticism he was to receive from Odiorne and members of the audience ("Yourself as Others See You," 1963). Odiorne argued that T-groups lacked any research to support their effectiveness in changing behavior and that trainers conducted the interventions without any notion of the outcomes they wished to achieve. He argued, moreover, that the fundamental assumption of T-group trainingthat autocratic management is bad managementwas flawed, because "it isn't consistent with the business and economic world we live in" (Odiome, 1963, p. 18). Odiorne adhered to a more "situational" approach to leadership, in which executives were sometimes autocratic, sometimes nurturing, and other times somewhere between the two. According to Odiorne (1963),
Until the sensitivity triners have come forth with a school which cakes [he overly sensitive man and toughens him up into a rough and ready model of man as well as the reverse. I can only suggest to businessmen that they avoid the entire cult. (p. 19)
The argument that drew
the most attention, however, centered around the damaging effects of T-groups
on their participants. Odiorne suggested that T-groups created stressful situations
that frequently spun out of control He noted how in one of the T-Groups he
attended, a woman "went berserk" and required psychiatric treatment until
she" returned home. Trainers were accused of playing God and tinkering with
a powerful psychological instrument that they were often not equipped to control.
Although Argyris responded by challenging many of the allegations as distortions
of facts, it was clear that the damage had been done. Suspicions about the
mischievous activities of T-group trainers would continue to raise doubts
in the minds of the members of academic and business communities throughout
the l960s and 1970s.
As me size of NTL grew and the number of regional labs increased, trainers had less physical and emotional attachment to NTL and Bethel (Bradford, 1974). Demand for T-groups increased steadily in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and trainers could not ignore the lucrative opportunities to consult outside of the NTL umbrella. One of the earliest NTL defectors was Robert Blake, of me University of Texas at Austin. In 1958, Blake, along with Herb Sheperd and his Texas colleague Jane Srygley Mouton, were recruited by the Bayway Refinery of Esso (then Exxon's East Coast operation) to conduct T-groups on a massive scale. Blake, who is often credited with first using the term "organization development" (OD) in describing activities at the Bayway Refinery (Kleiner, 1996), and Mouton developed their own variation of T-groups called "instrumented groups."
Instrumented groups relied heavily on responses to paper-and-pencil questionnaires to provoke discussion in T-groups. This process eventually evolved into their well-known Managerial Grid system (Blake & Mouton, 1967), which many NTL insiders derisively referred to as "T-group in a box" (Kleiner, 1996). By copyrighting the Managerial Grid system, Blake was the first to violate the unwritten sharing code at; NTL, and he demonstrated to NTL trainers that it was far more lucrative to take the T-group on the road.
Another dramatic shift in philosophy, ushered in by Blake and those who followed, was the use of T-groups on managers working within the same company. Recall that NTL was even nervous about implementing "homogeneous" T-groups made up of executives from different companies. This new approach to T-group training, referred to as "family" T-groups, involved conducting sessions, either off-site or on-site, with coworkers. Whereas a manager might have been able to leave Bethel and his T-group partners behind when the experience ended, the family T-group members had to face one another at the water cooler after the sessions were over. According to Glen Varney, a former T-group participant and trainer, "the internal [T-groups] were the ones that were most destructive" (personal communication, July 27, 2001). Varney noted that Chrysler had T-groups running throughout the company in the early 1970s and later viewed it as the worst thing they had ever done. Participants reportedly quit, told their superiors off, or, in some cases, had psychological breaks. One suicide was thought to have resulted from the T-group intervention. At least one other suicide connected to T-groups occurred following a family T-group session at a testing laboratory at General Foods (J. A. Lee, 1980). Although standards for the conduct of T-groups within NTL were strict, the use of T-groups by consultants, who- might have merely attended a sensitivity group in the past, was mushrooming- What was increasingly being referred to as "therapy for normals" was being conducted by people with no training in the use of psychotherapy.
Not all of the attention to T-groups was negative, however. A profile of TRW's experimentation with T-groups, published in Look magazine, heralded the use of the technique as signaling a "new era in industry" (Poppy, 1968). In the 1960s, the TRW Systems Group in California implemented a large-scale leadership development laboratory aimed at increasing interpersonal openness and decreasing defensiveness. The central tool in the leadership program was the T-group. Consultants to TRW included Robert Tannenbaum of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Herb Shepard of Case Western Reserve University, and "almost every top person in the country who was involved in OD as an external consultant" (Tannenbaum, 1996, p. 328). The TRW T-groups were vertically structured, meaning that participants represented each level of management in the organization. Although an attempt was made to avoid having someone participate in a T-group with his or her boss, this situation did occur on occasion Tannenbaum, 1996). Participants were instructed to be "absolutely honest" and to let others in the group share what they felt "from the gut" (Poppy, 1968, p. 66). TRW representatives detested (he "sweetness-and-light" impressions that were often associated with T-groups. They instead emphasized the importance of T-groups for instilling directness and candor into organizational problem solving (Davis, 1967).
Attempts to avoid the trendy, feel-good, unbusinesslike image that was beginning to become associated with T-groups were hampered by the explosive growth of the encounter movement in the general population. The T-group had inspired countless spin-offs, including Esalen groups, Gestalt therapy, Synanon groups, nude workshops, and so forth. Of course, the most extreme abuses of the technique were the ones most likely to be covered by the press (e.g., Howard, 1968). Bradford lamented the erroneous connection between NTL and the burgeoning growth centers such as Esalen. According to Bradford (1974), "NTL faced the problem of living with an image foreign to its activities. This began to have a subtle, but nevertheless, important influence on sources of delegates and of support" (p. 129). On the other hand, many of the T-groups run in industry could easily have been mistaken for group therapy sessions. Tannenbaum (1996) discussedhow, at TRW, the T-groups operated at a "fairly deep" level. He noted much crying and expressions of anger, which often frightened many groups away from achieving a deeper understanding of their developmental needs. Poppy (1968) described how one TRW manager confessed to his fellow T-group members an episode in which he physicaily abused his wife:
I started saying. "Listen damn it, listen, don't try 10 run away." And I grabbed her by die oulders. 1 can remember her eyes, so wide staring.... I started shaking her, but my right hand slipped as I pushed her back and forth, and smashed her in the throat.... Then she broken her windpipe. I thought she was going to die.... Everything inside me broke. I held her in my arms and cried and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I love you...." How could I kill her? What happened to me? (p. 70)
Although such confessions could have positive effects in individual psychotherapy, it is difficult to see a direct connection to managerial development or work-group performance. Indeed, in the context of these vertically integrated T-groups, the potential for career damage to the confessor seems unreasonably high.
The cost-benefit trade off was a central theme in Campbell and Dunnette's (1968) review of the literature on T-groups published in Psychological Bulletin. 'The authors concluded that although T-groups have been shown to result in behavioral changes in participants, it is unclear whether these changes impacted job performance and, more important, whether such changes could not be achieved using less invasive training approaches. The authors gave particular attention to the question of transfer of training and noted that existential life enhancement should not be confused with the development of executives in their organizational roles. The latter, according to the uthors, requires rigorous scientific evidence to support its usefuiness. Although the Campbell and Dunnettearticle was a balanced critique of the evidence, it confirmed for skeptics that the T-group was nothing more than an overhyped management fad. Indeed, the article became among the 10 most-cited pieces in the history of industrial psychology (Sackett, 1994).
By the end of the 1960s, the T-group movement had peaked. Articles began appearing in the training and business Journals questioning whether T-groups were worth the financial and psychological costs (e.g., Joure, Frye, Green, & Cassens, 1971; Mann, 1970; Wohlking, 1971).Psychologists began to question the ethics of conducting therapy in a business setting (Lahin, 1969; Peters, 1973), and psychiatrists condemned T-groups as an example of "psychological pollution" (Crawshaw, 1971; Kane, Wallace, & Lipton, 1971). In an article in Modern Management, William Gomberg of the Wharton School of Finance referred to T-group training as a "shambles and a disgrace." According to Goinberg, "I think they're playing with dynamite" ("Is sensitivity training a valuable tool or a risk?", 1970, p. 15). Enrollments at NTL began to decline, and the organization reluctantly began promoting itself through direct mailings and advertisements. This was too little too late, however, as NTL lost $142,742 in 1970 alone (National Training Laboratories, 1970). It was clear that T-groups were becoming unfashionable. Surveys of personnel and training directors showed that sensitivity training was no longer seen as an important pan of management development by the mid 1970s (Kearney & Martin, 1974; Rettig & Amano, 1976). Figure 2 shows the number of references to the T-group in periodicals registered on the PsycINFO database. This figure shows that the dramatic rise in T-group popularity in the mid-1960s was followed by an equally dramatic decline in the mid-1970s. What was at one time considered the most potent social invention of the -20th century (Rogers, 1970) was suddenly a part of management folklore. NTL declared bankruptcy in 1975 and carried on as a shadow of its formal self in subsequent years.
What Happened to the T-Group
The failure of the T-group to persevere in its original form was partly due to the actions of NTL and partly due to factors outside of the organization's control. The research Jocus of NTL, which was quite heavy in the 1950s, gradually dwindled to nonexistence by the 1960s. Bradford (1974) attributed this to a lack of resources, the shortening of the sessions to 2 weeks, and "a, wave of anti-intellectualism" (p.73) that swept the staff at NTL. The idea of theorizing about and analyzing group processes became antithetic to the increasingly clinically oriented staff who were focused on living in the here and now. Even the early social psychologists who sat in as observers found it hard to resist becoming part of the group, and remarked that it was hard for them to leave the "churchlike" experience only to be presented with facts and figures in an evaluation session (Back, 1972, p. 53). Although NTL had founded the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science as an outlet or small-group research. Goodstein and Dovico (1979) documented a slow and steady decline in the percentage of small group theory and research articles published in the journal' between 1964 and 1978- The increasing gap between T-group practice and small-group research cost NTL much of the academic respectability that it once enjoyerf and diluted the talent pool for trainers and advisers (Warner Burke, personal communication, July 23, 2001).
A trend away from a focus on the dynamics of the small group was evident in the evolution of (he T-group itself. The early focus on democracy and group process had shifted toward a focus on the individual and self improvement. Below are the lyrics to a song that was written and performed by NTL staff and participants in 1949:
When I met my group
I got that we feeling
Soon's we gathered 'round. I lost that me feeling.
The moment the leader spoke, my tension cleared
All insecurity broke when he appeared.
Consensus is consensed in every day's meeting,
Aggression Is aggressed in every member's greeting
There'll be no autocracy on anyone's part.
'Cause that we feeling is here in our heart. (National Training Laboratories. 1949)
The emphasis on gaining
the "we" feeling and losing the "me" feeling stands in stark contrast to the
T-groups of the late 1960s, which primarily focused on self-discovery and
personal growth. It seems also that the NTL staff had lost that "we" feeling
over the years. Harold Bridger of Tavistock in London first visited the Bethel
staff in 1959 and then not again until 1972. He noted that the difference
in staff feeling was palpable. Whereas in the early days there was a "magic"
in coming to Bethel and a feeling of collegiality among the staff, Bridger
reported that the magic was gone in 1972 (cited in Bradford, 1974)
. Perhaps most damaging to the T-group, however, were the excesses of the movement's followersover which NTL had little control. Although NTL maintained high ethical standards for the conduct of T-groups at Bethel, it had no ability to monitor the consultants who were running their own sensitivity centers or "family" T-groups around the world. Whereas Bradford had agonized over cutting the length of T-groups from 3 weeks to 2 weeks, many consultants were conducting one-shot T-groups in the afternoons or over drinks after work. One can easily imagine an OD consultant opening interpersonal wounds among coworkers and then riding off into the sunset (Back, 1972). Undoubtedly, many of the troubling practices of T-group trainers were well intentioned. It is important to recognize that the T-group movement peaked during a period of cultural revolution in which it was common to break social taboos and encourage self-expression. It was taken for granted, for example, that removing one's mask was necessary, even if it meant experiencing considerable turmoil and sometimes emotional breaks. According to Vamey, the attitude of trainers toward psychological breakdowns was cavalier:
The training was, if they do [have breaks], let it happen because its probably good for them Some people never came out of it... they quit their jobs, they divorced their wife. Maybe it corrected their problem. I don't know, but it led to some kind of action many times (Personal communication, July 27, 2001)
T-groups quickly developed a reputation, deserved or not, for hurting people and damaging work relationships (Kaplan, 1986). In addition, the growing association of T-group participants with "white-collar hippies" was bound to create a backlash. Tannenbaum described experimenting in the late 1960s with radical extensions of the T-group, In one instance, participants were encouraged to dress up in strange clothing and let things happen, spontaneously. Tannenbaum (1996) described one instance in which the UCLA police intervened:
One policeman blurted out: "Whats going on here? An orgy?" And there was silence. One of them said, "Who's in charge here?" I gulped and started walking back to them, saying "I am. Im Professor Tannebaum from the Graduate School of Management." The only problem was that I was wearing a smock and had a baseball mask on. (p. 239)
Clearly the T-group could not overcome its association with every free-expression movement of the period. As Saranson noted, the goals of the original T'group pioneers were noble,and the procedures for increasing openness had their place. However, according to Saranson (1972), "their current faddishness will undoubedly result in their disrepute and obscure what merits they have" (p. 131). History has show that Saranson was correct.
To dismiss the T-group
phenomenon as an embarrassing fad would be to ignore the important influence
it has had on modern executive and organization development. It is well known
that the entire field of OD was founded and built by former T-group trainers
(French, 1982: Kleiner, 1996). However, the T-group has had a more subtle
influence on modem techniques considered to be mainstream management-development
practices. For instance, the practice of team building evolved from "family"
T-groups like those conducted at Esso's Bayway Refinery (Woodman & Sherwood,
1980). The early approaches to team building were nothing more than T-groups
with a work-related focus. More modem versions of team building, often referred
to as outdoor leadership training (e.g., Holden, 1994; Keller & Olson,
2000; Laabs, 1991), incorporate many of the leaderless-group tasks introduced
by Bion for the War Office Selection Board during World War H, and nearly
all of them use the cultural-island concept. It is also popular these days
to use "360-degree" feedback techniques for providing developmental feedback
to managers in organizations. These management-development programs involve
managers completing a self-evaluation on a set of criteria and having evaluations
completed by a superior, peers, and direct reports. The manager men receives
a "gap analysis" detailing how his or her self-perception compares with how
he or she is perceived by others. One-on-one coaching sessions are used to
guide the development process. The basic notion behind 360-degree techniques,
therefore, is that managers will develop insight into their own behavior and
how it impact others (e.g., Diedrich, 1996; London, 1995). This is the very
principle that guided the development of the T-group.
Perhaps the nearest relative to the T-group existing on a large scale today is the diversity training movement. Edie Seashore, a shining star among the T-group trainers at Bethel in the 1950s, was hired by AT&T in 1973 to conduct training for women and minorities. This move followed a class-action suit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, in which part of the agreement included the provision that women and minorities be taught skills needed to advance in management. Seashore quickly discovered that the individuals in need of training were the White men in management positions (Kleiner, 1996). This first experience with diversity training inspired Seashore to pick up the pieces of what was left of NTL and focus its efforts toward the use of T-groups for enhancing racial, ethnic, and gender sensitivity in organizations (Jones & Griffin, 1989). In 1991, the Public Broadcasting System aired the documentary The Color of Your Skin (Galan, 1991) showing the U.S. Military's extensive race-relations training program, considered the state- of-the-art at that time. At. the center of this program was a multiweek small-group laboratory that differed little from a T-group run in Bethel over 40 years earlier. For example, early Bethel terms like "fishbowl" are used to describe the setting for the primary group exercise, and the group discussion is characterized by a lack of structure and a passive facilitator who occasionally intervenes to put someone on the "hotseat."
Poppy (1968) noted the irony in the fact that a national movement toward free emotionality and expression was led "not by flower children but by no-nonsense businessmen" (p, 73). Although the love-trust model of group interaction may not have revolutionized business in the way that early T-group pioneers envisioned, it has inspired countless organizational change efforts and management development programs. Whether we will ever return to this humanistic approach to executive self-actualization is anyone's guess. What programs such as team building, 360-degree feedback, and diversity training show is that we are not as far away from it as some would have us believe.
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