Group Relations Conference

decor18The term Group Relations describes the theoretical paradigm and the methodological approach on which the training proposed by the Tavistock Method is based. It is a research and training method about how people perform their role in informal social groups, in their work teams and in the organisational systems they belong to, because they share a common task. Group Relations are based on the assumption that groups swing constantly between a task-oriented stance and a number of defensive behaviours supported by unconscious group fantasies.
The implicit learning in Group Relations – in training and consultancy activities – is not primarily rational and cognitive but “experiential”, that is, based mainly on experiencing directly the group and organisational processes lived in the “here and now” by the participants or the clients. The conceptual grid structuring this experience is systemic-psychodynamic, as it puts together a psychoanalytic understanding of interpersonal and group processes and an understanding of the organisation as group system.
The training based on Group Relations gives an opportunity to understand and deepen the knowledge of:

•    group, institutional and social dynamics, in relation to roles, tasks, boundaries and the connections of an organisational system
•    the exercice of authority and power for oneself and on behalf of others, paying close attention to delegation and representatiion
•     the interactions between innovation, tradition and change
•    the impact of different leadership and followership styles on the life and the culture of an organisation
•    the role played by emotions, expectations, beliefs, fantasies and fears in affecting efficiency, effectiveness and lower costs of business policies and the organisational wellbeing
•    the relations between the organisations and its social, political and economic environment, particularly in situations of uncertainty, stress and conflict

The best known example of this experiential training methodology is the residential seminars on group relations or Group Relations Conferences – such as the “Leicester Conferences” in the UK or the ALI Conference – Authority, Leadership and Innovation –known also as “Seminari di Arona” in Italy.

What is a Group Relations Conference ?

The Group Relations Conferences (GRC) are “temporary training organisations created to explorare or study the tensions concerning the group life by using an experiential learning method” (Armstrong 2002).  Like many other workshops, the GRCs have a programme, a staff group, plenary sessions and small groups, but in other respects they are very different:

•    The GRC is a training workshop “in real time”, where the membership together with the staff group can examine critically different models of group and organisational functioning, different experiences and working behaviours, and one’s own way to assume and play the leader or the follower’s roles within the Conference.
•    The Conference is to be considered as a real “temporary organisation”, its staff group act also as management and the different sessions are planned to mirror real orgnisational contexts and to promote awareness and learning from experience in the “here-and-now”. Therefore, there are no lectures or theoretical presentations and the staff members offer to the membership some working hypotheses, starting from their experiencing and understanding what is going on in the course of the different events.
•    Like any other organisation, it has a primary task: to give the membership an opportunity to understand the nature of organisations by participating in different sessions and through an interaction with the other members and staff in a sequence of work groups and reflection groups. The general assumption is that, through an examination and interpretation of their experience within the Conference, the membership can expand and enhance the understanding of their own organisations and of the formal and informal roles they play there.

•    Most GRCs focus on the themes of authority, leadership and organisational processes, but some address the most important contemporary social problems, such as development sustainability, diversity, social uncertainty, international tensions, the crisis of wellbeing.
•    The GRC is an intercultural context: both the membership and the staff members come from a wide range of professional and organisational backgrounds (enterprises, social and health services, school and university, civil service, consultancy agencies, volunteer work and the third sector, political and religious institutions) and from different countries.
•    Some short Conferences are non-residential, but the residential dimension is a characteristic and a critical element of the GRC: to live and work together for a certain period of time gives a valuable opportunity to explore personal and collective issues as well as group, institutional and cultural processes as they emerge and develop, therefore allowing the emergence of new ideas and the possibility to test them in the frame of the Conference and later, in one’s own work and life environment. 
•    The focus in a GRC is not on the individual personality but on the connections between the individual behaviour and the psycho-social and systemic processes in which the individual is involved. However, in part the learning will be personal and will concern some aspects of the individual functioning, for example how early experiences with the authority (the parents, the teachers) might have affected the behaviour of a person in the leader or follower’s role within an organisation or the society.

The Group Relations Conferences give an opportunity to explore interpersonal, group and organisational processes in a setting that has been specifically designed to facilitate their exploration and study. The processes that manifest themselves in the course of a Conference can mirror similar ongoing processes in the wider social context and in the global political-economic scenario. In this respect, the Conference can represent some kind of social laboratory where new ideas – on authority and leadership, on organisational and cultural changes, on human relations in the typical instability and interdependence of the contemporary world – can emerge and be verified in a reflective microcosm to be later applied on a larger scale.

Learning from experience in GRC has become a training model in the context of consultancy and action-research. Since its early editions, GRC primary task has been to give its membership an opportunity to study the nature of authority and leadership, the relations between roles and interpersonal, intergroup and institutional dynamics that are encountered during the events of the conference. Learning is not of a didactical kind and occurs in the here and now on an experiential basis: the process activated in the GRC system enables both learning and thinking capacity to develop intensively and quickly.  The effectiveness of the GRC experience often appears in the changes that the members put in place, not necessarily immediately after the Conference, in the context of their professional and personal life.

The reference theoretical model integrates systemic thinking and psychoanalytic thinking and facilitates an understanding of conscious and unconscious processes that occur within and among groups. In the design of a GRC programme events of different size alternate usually including small study groups, review and application groups, plenary sessions, large groups, Social Dreaming matrices, institutional events, intergroup events, each one with its own configuration and specific primary task.
New instruments have been added in the course of the years as the GRC are mainly promoting an alive and evolving experience: the choice of the events and the programme’s design – a responsiblity of the Conference Director – adjust to the socio-political circumstances and to the primary task that is identified in every single edition.

In our country the Group Relations Conferences are mostly unknown, both in the business world and in the civil service, and are scarcely known even in the academic context and among psychologists and psychotherapists, although it is a formula that has been conceived for managers and business consultants’ training and for officials and technicians in government institutions, the local authorities, the socio-health services and in the volunteer work sector. On the contrary, in the UK and many other countries in the world the “Tavistock method” is known and appreciated both business companies  and organisations in charge of services. The Leicester Conferences, despite their duration, cost and the intense commitment, keep on drawing participants from every country and a variety of professional backgrounds. In this sense, the Tavistock Institute acts as a “parent company” for a wide international network of centres informed by the same model: the “Group relations” network includes the A.K.Rice Institute in the USA, the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust and the Grubb Institute in London, OFEK in Israel and several other organisations in the European countries, South Africa, South America, India, Australia.
In Italy IL NODO group and the CESMA, being part of this network since 1998, organise yearly a residential Group Relations Conference according to the Leicester conference model but lasting 4 days, known as ALI (Authority, Leadership and Innovation).