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What We Learned From T-Groups

By Nancy Zentis, Ph.D.

 

Kurt Lewin (1890 -1947) was a visionary psychologist and social scientist who used rigorous research methods to establish an approach to planned change that is both practical and reliable. He mentored and inspired most of the early professionals who came to identify themselves as practitioners of organization development (OD). He also fostered the emergence of the experiential learning method known as the T-group, which uniquely structures group dynamics into a laboratory for dramatic individual and team development.

In the early days, most OD professionals learned about themselves and about group dynamics through T-group experiences.  Lewin’s methods, though little known, were proven to yield consistent business results in increased individual and team performance and morale. His methods not only helped change behavior, but also individual underlying beliefs that drive one’s behavior.  For many years, early pioneers in the field OD visited Bethel, Maine each summer to attend training, share their research findings and OD techniques, and to gain professional development in social interaction skills in T-Group settings.

T-Groups

The first T-Group was held at the Connecticut Workshop in 1953, conducted by Kurt Lewin, Leland Bradford, and Ken Benne.  They were asked to conduct a workshop for fifty community employees working in the field of intergroup relations for the State of Connecticut.  After meeting with the client to determine the need and discussing various possibilities, a change-experiment was designed.  Several variables were introduced including selecting delegates who would keep up their relationship after the workshop and provide support after they returned to the community.  This included recording essential events of the workshop at the end of every day.  Observers attending the various subgroup sessions each day would record the leadership patterns they observed and the level of progress in group development.

Several elements of what was to become the T-group, the T standing for Training, were woven into the Connecticut Experiment.

  • A two-week training program took place prior to the meeting away from the workplace.
  • There were three working groups each led by a skilled facilitator.
  • Participants were taught communication, conflict management, and other skills on social science theory, interacting with others, and democratic principles of working in groups.
  • Behavioral observation was an integral part of the process.
  • Teams were involved to leverage group dynamics to sustain the learning after the workshop to increase learning retention.

Some of the key lessons learned from the first T-Group:

  • The process of taking people out of their work environment to attend workshops become a valuable OD process.
  • Participants reflected on their significant learning experiences at the end of each day, with the focus on actual behavioral events with active dialogue about differences of interpretation and observations of the events by those who had participated in them.
  • Receiving feedback had the effect of making participants more sensitive to their own conduct and brought criticism into the open in a healthy and constructive way to help them make changes to their own behavior and ways of interacting with others.
  • Participants observed and learned how to reflect on the processes and interactions that had taken place between them and the other people in the conversation as well as the content when asked, “What happened in the moment?”
  • The following year, the facilitators decided they would interrupt the group during their discussions if they felt the group was having difficulties and ask participants to reflect on what is happening now that is preventing us from working together as a group.  This intervention helped them become more aware of the behaviors and processes taking place within the group.
  • Clarity began to emerge about the value of the Action Research Model as Lewin realized the value of the role of training in action-research and the increased individual and group learning and retention during and after the training was completed.

For T-Groups to be successful, the following conditions exist:

  • The leader acts as a learning coach while fulfilling their role and demonstrating their humanness by being open and seeking feedback, thus increasing trust and decreasing fear in the leader-follower relationship.
  • Participants are involved in several roles including participation, dialoguing, observing, describing, and responding to the group’s dynamics, and sharing their own experience and giving feedback.
  • Participants agree to experiment with and practice new concepts, behaviors, skills, and beliefs.
  • Participants are willing to explore interpersonal and organizational issues and conduct research to find viable solutions.
  • The ability to influence one another is critical to learning.
  • Participants will learn how to implement change if they are involved in action with the learning process and can think for themselves.
  • Groups and individuals benefit when psychological safety is co-created (coming more from within than without).

The same principles formed the basis for Organization Development and continue to be powerful today! The work of Kurt Lewin became the foundation of what we know today as group dynamics, action learning, action research, facilitation, team development, ground rules, observation and feedback, evaluation, observation, and many other core concepts related to the field of OD.

Debrief:

What are the lessons you’ve learned from this article?  How did the work of Kurt Lewin impact OD today?  What core concepts have been developed out of the T-Group Experiment?  What is your take-away from this information?

References:  Gilmore Crosby, Chris Crosby and their father, Robert Crosby, have practiced Kurt Lewin’s T-Group theories for many years and are experts in the field.   Gilmore Crosby wrote a book, Planned Change, Why Kurt Lewin’s Social Science is Still the Best Practice for Business Results, Change Management and Human Progress.  I highly recommend reading this book to gain a foundation in the work of Kurt Lewin.

Author:  Nancy L. Zentis, Ph.D.

Dr. Nancy Zentis is the Chief Strategist and CEO of Institute of Organization Development (IOD), offering online certification programs for those interested in Organization Development, Talent Management, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching, and Professional Development Skills for ongoing learning.  As a consultant in the field of OD for many years, she has developed Talent Management and Leadership Development Strategies for many leading organizations.  She can be reached at info@instituteod.com.  For more information about our certification programs and workshops, visit our website www.instituteod.com.

Institute of OD

IOD offers online Organization Development Certification Programs and professional development workshops to help participants gain skills to advance in their career in the field of OD.  If you are new to OD, you will benefit from the OD Process Consulting Certification Program (ODPC).  If you have been in the field for several years but lack formal OD training, the Organization Development Certification Program (ODCP) will provide you with the tools and skills needed to advance in the field of OD.  For more information, contact us at info@instituteod.com.  We offer free monthly webinars to learn more about each program.  Visit our website: www.instituteod.com