SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE T-GROUP
At the core of the story of the T-Group
is something resembling the paradox of order which Proudhon
man seeks justice in equality so society seeks order in anarchy.
Anarchy:- the absence of a master, or a sovereign."
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."
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.
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
Lewin - 1890-1947
of his favourite sayings was:
"If you want truly to understand something, try
to change it"
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.
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.
language of interpretation used in clarifying events became
more psychoanalytical or Rogerian and less sociological and
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.
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
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."
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
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
or its near equivalent, was bound to throw up questions about
life style and personal liberation.
The Middle Classes wake up
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.
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.
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.
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.
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." 
The split aims of the early T-Group
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.
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
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
"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." 
"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
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.
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.
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
quotes from Lewin:
is a function of the person and the situation
is nothing quite so practical as a good theory
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.)
What is Property? (1840)
Pierre Joseph Proudhon.
 Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969).
Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, Dell Publishing.
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.
From the website of the NTL Institute in Bethel, Maine.
David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist
Purge under Truman and Eisenhower, 1978.
Antonio Gramsci - Born Sardinia 1891. Died 1937, following
imprisonment in Italy for his anti-fascist beliefs.
Maugham G and Pearson G, Working Class Youth Culture,
Sheldon A. Davis, An Organic Problem Solving Method
of Organisational Change, Journal of Behavioural Science,
Volume 3, No. 1, 1967.
Webber A, Harvard Business Review.
issue Jan-Feb 4 (1988)
Chris Argyris (Ed), C.L. Cooper, Learning Environment for
Increased Effectiveness in Theories of Group Processes
Frank Parkin, Middle Class Radicalism, Tavistock, 1968
Carl R. Rogers, Encounter Groups, Pelican Books, 1973
Spotted on the Dublin City University Business School website.