T-Groups – “…the most significant social invention of the (20th) century.”

T-Groups are a unique learning methodology invented in 1946 by Kurt Lewin, who many consider the founder of organizational development. Carl Rogers, a renowned psychotherapist, reportedly described the T-Group as “…the most significant social invention of the century.” We strongly agree. If effectively led, T-Groups are one of the most powerful tools to increase one’s Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which is directly related to work effectiveness. Indeed, a 1975 article co-authored by Daniel Goleman, the man who has popularized EQ, concludes that “Students who had participated in a T-Group showed significantly more change toward their selected goal than those who had not.”

In 1953, Robert P. Crosby, our father and founder, attended his first T-Group at Boston University. Soon after, at NTL, he met one of Kurt Lewin’s protégés, Ron Lippitt, who mentored him for the next 30 years. Lippitt’s guidance and father’s own vision resulted in a clarity about T-Groups that has served him well ever since.

The essential purpose of our T-Group process is to help people interact as effectively as possible in order to get work done. A nice side-benefit is direct transfer of learning to personal life. The need for effective communication is universal, and by the end of the session makes sense to the vast majority of participants no matter what their role is in their organization. It’s the same goal we bring to working with intact work teams, to “whole systems” interventions with a cross-section of an organization, to individual coaching, etc. That is, how to do the best job of being understood, and of understanding others, especially in moments of emotional intensity. With that focus, it is not “touchy-feely.” It is immensely practical.

Participants agree. At the end of each workshop, dating back to the 1950’s, we have had the participants rate the learning. During the past few decades we have used the same 1 to 10 scale, rating “application to work” and “application to life (outside of work).” Literally thousands (mostly from industrial settings) have given a consistent average rating around 9.0. Testimonials amassed during father’s 60 plus years of experience confirm the numbers. Stories, such as the following quote from a nuclear power VP, are not unusual. “I went through this almost 20 years ago at PECO Nuclear and it is the only training that has ever stuck with me. I use the skills and concepts every day.”

We point out all of this because T-Groups are a foundation of our business culture change methodology, which leads to consistent performance improvement as measured by business metrics. With that in mind, let us go into more detail, including distinctive features of our T-Group methodology (not all T-Group methods are the same).

The vast majority of our workshops are done within an organization, hence our T-Group based “Tough Stuffs” are carefully designed to increase EQ as applied to work. The leader sponsoring the workshop kicks things off by articulating, as best they can, how the skills learned will help reach their business goals, including any specific needs they see, such as better management of conflicts.

Once under way we conduct our initial “theory session” (mini-lectures which are interwoven throughout the workshop). We begin with a simple example of one of the many things the participants could be more aware of, the reptilian brain reactions (fight, flight, freeze), so as not to be stuck in reactive behavior. We also explore the concept of experiential learning – learning by doing and then carefully reflecting on one’s experience – through a simple activity where they quickly have an experience and then reflect on it in specific ways. With this framework, we shift from theory to the first T-Group of the workshop.

Whereas some begin T-Groups with intentional ambiguity (where, for example, the facilitator doesn’t say anything), we offer as much clarity and transparency about the T-Group task as possible. The essential T-Group task is to verbalize what you want, think and feel (by “feel” we mean to name your immediate emotion…”mad, sad, glad, afraid, etc”) in the immediate moment in relation to the other participants. We are fairly active about intervening around this task, and living it ourselves. It’s a tight focus that we maintain around immediate reactions, experience and behavior. Although a task that most participants are not accustomed to (to say the least), it’s not ambiguous, even though it takes some getting used to. What is ambiguous is changes/reactions in self and in others from moment to moment. That is not unique to T-Groups though. That is life, which is why T-Group learning is so practical.

A critical distinction of our T-Group method is the type of “openness” we are encouraging. The participants are working on being effectively open about their immediate interactions. They are NOT working on being “open” about their personal lives. Some people think of openness only in terms of telling troubling stories about one’s past. This distinction is the difference between T-Groups and individual therapy. Such confessions are a big reason the “T-Group movement” virtually died out. T-Groups became so popular in the 60s and 70s that the demand outgrew the availability of skilled facilitators, and many T-Groups essentially became pseudo-therapy sessions. Our focus on immediate interactions and not on personal story telling is a big reason why we have been able to continue using T-Groups in business settings over the past 6 decades.

Another distinction of our approach is to have an inner circle and an outer circle. Participants in the outer circle are each assigned to a participant in the inner circle. Both spend equal time in the inside and outside positions. The inner circle is doing the T-Group task, as described above. The outer circle silently observes and takes detailed notes on their “partner,” which they then debrief privately with their partner prior to the next round of T-Group. These notes are very specific: observable behavior only…body language, tone of voice, quotes…plus the observer’s hunch about their partner’s emotions (“mad, sad, glad, afraid, etc.”). The discipline of documenting these behavioral observations is an important means for us to teach and reinforce the distinction between the judgments participants are forming, and the behavior that led them to their judgments.

Increased objectivity about one’s judgments of others is one of the many gems to be mined from John Wallen’s Interpersonal Gap theory, which we view as a cornerstone of EQ and present early in each workshop. Wallen’s model also highlights how our judgments trigger our own emotional responses, how misunderstanding is likely in tense moments, and how behavioral skills such as paraphrasing what you think the other meant (not parroting their words) can help decrease misunderstanding. The behavior description in the observer’s task is also from Wallen, and is directly transferable to coaching and mentoring employees. One cannot drive behavioral changes unless they can be specific about behavior.

Those are the kinds of skills we are working on in the T-Groups, skills best learned by trying them on in live unscripted interactions, reflecting on the experience, making adjustments and trying again. There’s more, but that should provide a feel for the method a la Crosby. It is safe to say we are very active in our facilitation, and indeed an important moment in most workshops is when a participant is honest with a facilitator about being irritated with the facilitator’s interventions. We think how people manage their differences with authority figures is a vital factor in organizational performance, so we welcome such moments while responding to them as genuinely as we can. We are far from perfect, don’t have to be (thank heavens), and don’t claim to be. We simply apply the same standards to ourselves that we are asking of the participants. That first confrontation with the facilitator tends to be a breakthrough for the group, in that they then begin to be more honest with each other about differences, whereas initially they tend to avoid their differences out of fear of what might happen.

And that is the beauty of T-Groups…what is real in work relationships (such as fear, blame, etc.) shows up in T-Groups, but with a chance to learn how to better manage oneself during difficult moments. Increased honesty about differences of opinion…skill at really listening to understand even during tension…these are the practical outcomes.

Anyone who is interdependent on anyone else in order to get their work done (and that is most people) must communicate about work issues. That is where increased effectiveness pays off. It’s not a choice. It’s either done well or done in such a way (including complete avoidance of necessary conversations) that it is harder to get the work done.

The same is true of emotions. They are already a constant in the workplace. We want people to be more aware of emotion so that they can make more thoughtful choices about their own behavior and not let emotion prevent them from understanding others.

In other words, the goal of this type of learning as we deliver it is that work information flows between layers, departments, and functions, and is not being needlessly bogged down by conflict, avoidance, blame, fear, etc. It’s not “soft skills” for the sake of soft skills…its behavior change for the sake of performance. Hence the name “Tough Stuff,” coined by a participant.

As mentioned, T-Groups are only part of the puzzle of culture change. All teams, for example, need to self-assess…are they getting what they need from each other in order to get the work done? Are they getting what they need from other groups? Cross-sections of the organization need to come together to overcome barriers to crossfunctional work…and so on. T-Group learning is just one possible intervention…an intervention that reinforces the behavioral maturity needed in any challenging work situation.

Finally, while the leader is looking for certain work culture outcomes (such as people handling difficult conversations in a manner that leads to the most productive results), each individual is reflecting on their own behavior and on their own work/national/ethnic culture regarding what is working and what is not working, and how they want it to be. They are truly in charge of their own learning. That is one reason our T-Group process has been effective wherever we have had the privilege of taking it thus far, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Egypt, Australia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and Costa Rico.

In sum, T-Groups, when facilitated properly, are a great tool for building high performance culture!

Read more or sign up for our next T-Group based workshop at www.crosbyod.com.

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About crosbyod

Our founder, Robert P. Crosby, began his organizational development career in the 1950s. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com.
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2 Responses to T-Groups – “…the most significant social invention of the (20th) century.”

  1. Fitz Carty says:

    I highly recommend the Crosby “tough stuff” sessions. They were very important as milestones in my most important journey.”the one within”

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