A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE T-GROUP

by Steve Potter[1]

At the core of the story of the T-Group is something resembling the paradox of order which Proudhon nicely captured:[2]

"As man seeks justice in equality so society seeks order in anarchy.  Anarchy:- the absence of a master, or a sovereign."

The Human Relations Laboratory

In its origins the T-Group is the principal tool of a particular form of education - the Human Relations Laboratory - in which traditional educational power and authority relations are abandoned, albeit within tightly organised limits, and anarchy is experienced.  The learners become their own subjects and no longer objects to be filled with packages of knowledge in the manner of what Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner call the vaccination approach to knowing - "where education is something you take and, when you have taken it, you've had it, and if you've had it you are immune and need not take it again."[3]  The learner in the T-Group learns from his own and others' immediate experience by researching it, giving and gaining accurate and open information about it, and engaging in a shared process of making sense of events.

Although he died shortly before the first Human Relations Laboratory, Kurt Lewin was the guiding light behind the development of the T-Group.  He coined the term group dynamics for the study of the field of forces affecting a particular moment or event in a group.  Lewin's field theory made static objects moveable by focusing on our perceptual relationship to them.  By applying this to concepts such as will, motivation, power and change in groups, it is possible to see that our construction of society is relative and unstable and can not be taken for granted.  Nothing brings this home more vividly to me than the image of the dam wall holdng back a mountain of water.  All appears calm, yet there are powerful forces keeping it so, and a change in the equilibrium of these forces could bring the dam wall crashing down.  When "nothing" is happening in a group or society, there are powerful forces keeping nothing happening.  It is a simple perspective that is easily abandoned; it would have appealed to Proudhon.  The Lewinians and the anarchists have in common a dynamic view of society and social change which needs further study.

Kurt Lewin - 1890-1947

One of his favourite sayings was: "If you want truly to understand something, try to change it"

It was whilst Lewin and his colleagues from the Research Center for Group Dynamics in the USA were studying the learning processes at a workshop concerned with the new Fair Employment Practices Act, under the Inter-racial Commission in 1946, that their evening research reports on the group dynamics of the discussion groups proved more interesting to participants than the daytime activities.  Participants challenged researchers' perception of their behaviour, and Lewin encouraged such exploration.  The basic formula of the T-Group: joint research and feedback in the here and now by the "researched " for the researched was established in those evening sessions.

The Basic Skills Training Group

The following year the first of many Human Relations Laboratories was held and its central tool, the Basic Skills Training Group (forerunner of the T-Group) had two principal aims:

    1.  It served as a medium for learning how to encourage planned change in social systems.

    2.  It provided an opportunity to understand and to facilitate individual and group growth and development.

After a number of modifications and mixing with other traditions, this two-pronged strategy can be found in many settings today.  Invariably the possibility of the two prongs acting in a joint and creative way, linking the individual with the social forms of education, has been defeated.  Those who contest this view, and cite examples of real combined organisational and personal change in the one educational package, I dismiss as only presenting a management by appearance, an apparent change because it is only organisational and has not altered or even addressed the political, cultural and institutional levels of reality.

One of the key instigators of the T-Group, Kenneth Benne, notes that quite soon in the early 1950s the "laboratories" were attracting as leaders clinicians and Rogerians whose primary interests were the inter-personal and intra-personal dynamics of the small group, and who did not share the initial Lewinian interest in the Laboratory as a vehicle for learning about self in the wider society.

"The language of interpretation used in clarifying events became more psychoanalytical or Rogerian and less sociological and Lewinian." [4]

In the 1950 programme design there were A-Groups (Action Groups) as well as T-Groups (Training Groups).  The A-Group staff had a sociological orientation, but the T-Group was the more compelling, and the A-Groups were discontinued.

It would require a fair bit of second-guessing to understand why the innovative energy of the Human Relations Laboratory (a) turned inwards into the small group, and (b) narrowed to a social-psychological explanation only.  But several developments are worth highlighting.

"Lewin, Bradford, Benne, and Lippitt knew that something exciting had happened, a new and important method of adult learning had been discovered and needed development. This methodology confirmed Lewin's beliefs that experiences shared by the training group-learning by experience rather than lecture and reading-provided high potential for diagnostic study, evaluation and, most important, for changing behaviors. This was action-research at its best." [5]

Where did the T-Groupers of the 1950s come from?

One of the reasons for turning inward into the T-Group was to steer clear of the ideological questions raised by the more diverse "organisational and social change" designs.  Whether this resulted from the prevailing mood of the McCarthy era in 1950s America is hard to judge, but worth exploring.  It has recently been argued that what fed the McCarthy era most was not the witch-hunt mentality of the right-wing, but the deafening silence of the liberal community.{6]  Was it from the ranks of that dumbstruck liberal community that the T-Groupers of the 1950s were drawn?  Why was the parallel invention in Britain to the T-Group, the Tavistock Study Group based on Bion's theory of group processes, after a period of experimentation in the immediate post-war years, not explored again until the late 1950s?  Certainly the 1950s in Britain and the USA were a period of what Gramsci[7] called hegemony, that is a conformity of views because opposition has been co-opted, flowing from the head of society to its little toes without disturbance or interruption.  Perhaps the interpersonal focus of the small group was easier to experience without contradicting the dominant social order.

The T-Group nowadays is usually so dominantly thought of as a form of "therapy for normals", and as a way of becoming sensitive to face-to-face relations between people, that the laboratory of its birth is forgotten.  It is therefore surprising that in the early days general sessions were held within the programmes on generational problems: the meaning of democracy, values, and nuclear power.  The last issue may give a clue to one direction the T-Group took in the sixties and seventies: the personal growth movement. 

What then was the key dynamic of the fifties?

"One of the most visible changes in the 1950s was the advent of affluence . . .  The shift in social emphasis away from work and production towards a focus on the home, leisure and consumption was one vital base for the consensus politics of this period, offering visible proof that the problems of capitalism had been solves and that politics was now about who would manage the new industrial society most efficiently."[8]

The T-Group with its small group focus and the anti-ideology bias was a reflection of this era.  What were originally the two prongs of the HR Laboratory - learning to make change in the wider society, and personal development through group processes - were the basis of a split.  But a complex one.  The former surfaced in only muted form in organisation change programmes for industry.  The latter took on a conservative form in the sixties in the shape of training a new managerial class in the interpersonal skills and role analysis that would enable them to cope with their new found authority.  On the other hand these T-Group programmes were bint used to compensate for a lack in these new managers, not just in themselves as men, but in their class backgrounds.  They lacked the cultural training to be the new middle class rulers.  But in contradistinction the T-Group was part of a search for new organisational and managerial relations in response to the more complex systems and relations of production.  Traditional hierarchies and bureaucracy were not functional in (to take an influential example) a factory building space rockets and ICBMs.[9]

The T-Group was necessary to dislodge managers, research workers and technicians from their authoritarian and deferential set of values.  It would be a little foolish to be too deterministic about the reasons for using the T-Group and its mutations in the white-hot-technology period of industry up to the oil crisis.  There were many gains in personal awareness, more creative work relations, and flexibility of organisation.  Some of the T-Group leaders were genuinely seeking new organisational forms.  But these were largely restricted to middle lass occupations, or highly skilled and non-production line working-class occupations.  The changes were geared to those who, subsequently in this country, joined ranks with Clive Jenkins and the likes of ASTMS.  In fact I can think of more than one major example where the hidden curriculum of Human Relations Training was to thwart the drift of the new managerial class into unionism.

Living as we do in a world that is characterised by rapid change, this reality is reflected in society's undertakings and institutions. Many contributors to the management debate have commented on the impact of change on organisational life which is necessitated by the turbulent and demanding environments in which they operate.[10]

A massive amount of research was being carried out.

At the same time as this managerial and functionalist view of personal effectiveness was taking over the T-Group, a massive amount of research was being carried out to get a grip on the T-Group method.  Much of it was piecemeal and not grounded in theory building (Cooper 1975) and the conclusion is tempting that its underlying purpose was to prove the T-Group a safe and reliable method for Middle America to use; the reduction of the T-Group to a one-off package, a vaccination against excessive deference and conformity in a society obsessed with conformity.

Perhaps one day a social historian will make some use of all these PhDs and research papers on the dynamics of the T-Group; they certainly failed to protect the method fro, at times, a reduction to banal educational packages which encouraged an illusory emotional honesty in work teams: an "honesty" which produced a management by appearance bereft of intellectual honesty.  This gap between the head and the gut could not easily be resolved in the managerial T-Group.  The solution lay elsewhere - in the emergence of the Encounter Group from the T-Group.  Such a development was always latent.  The "natural" tendency of the T-Group to an anarchic struggle which exposes traditional social relations and encourages what Argyris terms Model II behaviour (openness, owning of feelings, MSR talking in terms of new ideas and points of view)[11] or its near equivalent, was bound to throw up questions about life style and personal liberation.

The Middle Classes wake up

In particular the emphasis was bound to break the artificial limits of the T-Group.  Feeling once expressed had to be acted on and could not be frosted over by intellectual rationalisation.  So an educational method alongside many other influences was transformed into a libertarian middle class movement.  What the method needed to take off was a change in the times, and this arrived with the awakening of the middle classes from their deep sleep of the 1950s.  This change is too well known to need chronicling.  It was partly a youth-led movement (Bob Dylan and the Beatles), but it had deeper and wider symbols.  For America a new era under Kennedy.  It was at base part of an economic need to shift the middle classes out of their prptestant thriftiness and trn them into free-wheeling big spenders and consumers.  In other words it was a function of the changing nature of capitalism.  And it was also a reaction to this changing nature.  This is clearly seen in the most vivid case of middle class radicalism - to which I would argue the encounter group is a sequel - the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain.

According to Frank Parkin[12], the main payoff for the middle class radical is that of a pyschological or emotional kind.  He argues that CND served as a rallying point for a variety of causes, and that the middle class is more interested in expressive politics than instrumental politics geared to a specific goal.  Where working class radicalism is geared largely to economic and material reforms, middle class radicalism is directed to moral reforms.

The encounter group fitted the needs of the new middle class radicalism very well, and its importance along with the new therapies and personal growth methods that it coalesced should be be under-rated.  Of course, the cultural context of the method is rife with contradictions: the commercial basis of most of the new therapists, the reduction of them to a weekend away from the oppression of the nuclear family, and the marital couple, the poverty of values and methods in mainstream mental health and welfare that leads people to expect magical solutions from the new therapies, and the consequent magician-guru temptation for the leaders.

But the methods of the encounter groups and the new therapies have rich actual and potential partners in the middle-class counter culture established in the 1960s and not yet declining: the women's movement, alternative life styles and technology, the commitment of the radical middle classes to solidarity through community action with the poor, for example some social works and other radical groups within the new helping professions.

In all this it is important in my view to uphold the early Lewinian T-Group principles in relation to the group dynamics of the new therapies: the consciousness-raising groups and community groups.  Something akin to Model II behaviour needs to be kept on the agenda as a means, not an end.  In which case, the contradiction that Argyris inevitably could not solve (although he struggled with in in espoused as well as practised theory) given the apparent horizons of his work, needs to be worked through with a social character and political analysis.

The contradiction to Argyris's thinking can be solved by adding a class and gender analysis to the T-Group dynamics, which I shall reveal later.  Or, in other words, taking a sociological journey from Lewin's starting point rather than a psychological one.

"The trend towards the intensive group experience is related to deep and significant issues having to do with change.  These changes may occur in persons, in institutions, in our urban and cultural alienation, in racial tensions, in our international frictions, in our philosophies, our values, our image of man himself.  It is a profoundly significant movement, and the course of its future will, for better or for worse, have a profound impact on all of us." [13]

The split aims of the early T-Groups

To return to the initial split aims of the early T-Groups, how did that relate to the different radicalism of the middle and working classes?

The instrumental and material politics of the working class radicals are more in line with the external social and organisational change side of the T-Group.  The fact that this focus was incorporated by big business is a subject for a separate study.  On the other hand, the expressive and personal politics of the middle class radicals are more in line with the encounter group side of the T-Group.  This split can be found also in left and socialist politics: those that opt for community action and a structural analysis of social change; those that opt for personal liberation and a character analysis of social change.  It is essential that the split be transcended, and any interest in the pioneers of the T-Group is that to some extent, in groping for a unity between these two purposes, they were on the right track.

Linking the personal (T-Group) to the political (A-Group) ws the original unconscious possibility of the Lewinian approach.

Lewin considered that change ensued from the competition between driving and restraining forces. In other words, when a change is instigated, some forces drive and facilitate it while others create resistance to it. The required change can be achieved by decreasing the restraining forces and increasing the facilitating forces. [14]

Intrusion of the clinical leadership model

It has been argued that the possibility was forestalled and distorted by the dominant social order of the 1950s.  This possibility was lost to the extent that the anarchic tendence of the T-Group was prevented from doing its educational work by some intrusive, or over-arching, external power.  In one way big business was one such distorting power, because inter-personal relations were couched in terms of managerial competence.  In another way the clinical leadership model which began to hold sway in the T-Group was an intrusive external power - the professional power of the leader to explain and interpret events is highlighted by Benne as the difference between the Lewinian and Clinical models.

"In the Lewinian tradition the trainer conceived the group operation as a process of co-operative enquiry after the model of action research.  His role was to aid the group in getting as much relevant and well-validated data as possible into their discussions.  The Trainer was 'member-like' in the amount and timing of his interventions and in the openness with which he expressed the feelings and values of his underlying actions." [4]

"In the Clinical and particularly the Psychoanalytic tradition, the Trainer focused on exploring sources of distortion in data presented.  He viewed himself as a 'projection screen' in the group and established himself as an ambiguous authority figure avoiding revealing his real character and feelings." [4]

The clinical model was precisely the one used in the British version of the T-Group, the Tavistock Study Group, and put them in the ludicrous position of putting learning about authority and leadership issues as the primary objective for the group, whilst pre-empting any open exploration of such issues by tying the whole package up with their own one-dimensional restrictive theory of personality and power.  Other forms and types of intrusion and distortion of the anarchic tendency in the T-Group are the academic vested interest of staff or participants; their academic career interest leads them to stand aside the anarchic dynamics whilst appearing to take part.  Similarly, a professional or career interest in group work can distance the person from the experience and turn him into an observer.  What interests me above all is the stance the formal leader takes in relation to external power, and the potential anarchic group dynamics which he 'should' be protecting or helping.   I do not have an answer except to reiterate an open study of the social and political aspects of the T-Group leaders' actions as a way of reforming the T-Group method.

The anarchic tendency in the T-Group reveals the subtle authoritarian nature of modern society and its simultaneous reproduction in our social character.  It reveals it so long as the formal leaders of the T-Group are following the Action Research approach of the Lewinian tradition.

When writing of anarchy I am thinking of Kropotkin (Mutual Aid) and particularly his naturalistic justification for anarchy.  If you do away with the instrusive authority of State, Church, Capital, etc., he argues, people will naturally find forms of social cooperation.  It is social cooperation as much as the survival of the fittest (Darwin) which is the basis for survival and growth in the animal world; the T-Group offers confirmation of that, when anarchy is permitted and leads to social cooperation.

I am not about to fall into the trap of upholding the ideal of an anarchic society.  My horizon is limited to the educational value of exploring the anarchic tendency in small groups.  Particularly in the context of the bureaucratism and managerialism which now dominate education.

There is a contradiction in the very act of formally chanelling an anarchic tendency in groups.

Two quotes from Lewin: 

Behaviour is a function of the person and the situation  

There is nothing quite so practical as a good theory

REFERENCES:

[1]   Steve Potter, one of the pioneers of the Group Relations Training Association in the United Kingdom, wrote the original article for publication in that organisation's Bulletin in 1978.  It was repeated  in the Spring 1993 issue of Groupvine magazine, edited by Joe Sinclair, who believes that enough time has passed to justify making it accessible to a new generation of readers.  (And perhaps some of the old lags, too.)

[2]   What is Property? (1840)   Pierre Joseph Proudhon.

[3]   Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, Dell Publishing.

[4]   Kenneth D. Benne (Ed), History of the T-Group in the Laboratory Setting, Chapter 4 of T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method by Bradford L, Gibb J.R., and Benne K.D.  (1964) 

[5]   From the website of the NTL Institute in Bethel, Maine.  http://www.ntl.org/

[6]   David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower, 1978.

[7]   Antonio Gramsci - Born Sardinia 1891.  Died 1937, following imprisonment in Italy for his anti-fascist beliefs.

[8]   Maugham G and Pearson G, Working Class Youth Culture, 1976.

[9]  Sheldon A. Davis, An Organic Problem Solving Method of Organisational Change, Journal of Behavioural Science, Volume 3, No. 1, 1967.

[10] Webber A,  Harvard Business Review.  issue Jan-Feb 4 (1988)

[11] Chris Argyris (Ed), C.L. Cooper, Learning Environment for Increased Effectiveness in Theories of Group Processes (1975)

[12] Frank Parkin, Middle Class Radicalism, Tavistock, 1968

[13] Carl R. Rogers, Encounter Groups, Pelican Books, 1973

[14] Spotted on the Dublin City University Business School website.