The term Group Relations refers to the theoretical paradigm and methodological approach on which Tavistock-style training is based. It is a method of inquiry and training focused on how people take up their role in the informal social groups, work teams, and organizational systems to which they belong by virtue of the responsibilities they share with other members. Underpinning Group Relations is the assumption that groups constantly fluctuate between focusing on the task and a set of defensive attitudes sustained by unconscious collective phantasies.
Implicit learning in Group Relations – whether in consultancy or professional development settings – is not primarily rational and cognitive, but rather “experiential”, implying that it is based above all on the direct experiencing of group and organizational processes in the “here-and-now” by participants or clients. Group Relations work is underpinned by a systemic-psychodynamic conceptual framework, in the sense that it combines a psychoanalytic reading of interpersonal and group processes with a view of organizations as systems of groups.
From a professional development perspective, Group Relations-based training offers participants the opportunity to deepen their understanding and knowledge of:
- group dynamics, both institutional and social, in relation to the roles, tasks, boundaries, and connections within an organizational system
- authority and power, both individual and exercised on behalf of others, with particular regard to delegation and representation
- the interactions between innovation, tradition, and change
- the impact of different leadership and followership styles on the life and culture of an organization
- the influence of emotions, expectations, beliefs, phantasies, and fears on the efficiency, effectiveness, and cost of corporate policies and on organizational well-being
- relations between the organization and its social, political, and economic environment, especially in situations of uncertainty, stress, and conflict
The best-known examples of this experiential training methodology are the Group Relations Conferences, or residential seminars on group relations – such as the “Leicester Conferences” (see box) in England or the ALI Conferences in Italy.
What is a Group Relations Conference?
Group Relations Conferences (GRCs) are temporary training organizations created to explore or study the tensions inherent in group life, via an experiential learning method (Armstrong 2003, 2005). Like many other events with a seminar format, GRCs feature a programme, staff, plenary sessions, and small group sessions, but in other respects they differ significantly from conventional seminars:
The GRC is a “real-time” training laboratory, where participants and staff can critically examine different models of group and organizational functioning, different work experiences and behaviours, and their own personal way of taking on and interpreting leadership or followership roles at the Conference.
The Conferences should be regarded as genuine “temporary organizations”: conference staff act as the management of the temporary structure, and sessions are designed to simulate real-life organizational contexts and to promote mindfulness and learning based on experience. Therefore, there are no lectures or theoretical presentations; rather, staff members offer participants working hypotheses based on their experience and understanding of what is happening at the various sessions.
Just as every organization has a primary task, that of a GRC is to provide participants with the opportunity to understand the nature of organizations through their participation in the various sessions and their interaction with other participants and staff members, via a sequence of working group activities and time for reflection. The basic assumption is that by examining and interpreting their experience at the conference, participants can broaden and deepen their understanding of their own organizations and the formal and informal roles they play within them.
Most GRCs focus on governance, leadership, and organizational processes, but others address contemporary social problems, such as sustainability of development, diversity, social insecurity, international tensions, and the welfare crisis.
The focus of a GRC is not on individual personality, but on the connections between individual behaviour and the psychosocial and systemic processes in which it is implicated. However, part of the learning will be personal and may concern aspects of individual functioning, such as how early experiences with authority (parents, teachers) may have influenced a person’s behaviour as a leader or follower within an organization or society in general.
The GRC is a deliberately intercultural setting: participants and staff come from a wide range of professional and organizational backgrounds (companies, social and health services, schools and universities, public administrations, consulting companies, volunteering and third sector, political and religious institutions) and usually also from different countries.
Some shorter conferences are non-residential, but the residential format is a characteristic and crucial element of the GRC: living and working together for a certain length of time provides a unique opportunity to explore personal and collective issues, as well as group, institutional, and cultural processes, in real time, as they arise and unfold. This facilitates the emergence of new ideas and the possibility of putting them to the test, first in the context of the Conference and subsequently in participants’ own work and life contexts.
Group Relations Conferences provide an opportunity to explore interpersonal, group, and organizational processes in a setting specifically designed to facilitate exploration and study. The processes that occur during a Conference may reflect similar processes in the wider social context, as well as in the global political and economic framework. In this sense, the Conference can function as a sort of social laboratory, where new ideas – concerning authority and leadership, organizational and cultural change, and human relations in our instable and interdependent contemporary era – can emerge and be examined in a reflective microcosm, with a view to later applying them on a larger scale.
Learning through the experience of GRCs has become a training model for organizational consultancy and action research. The effectiveness of the GRC experience often manifests itself in the changes that participants make, not necessarily immediately after the Conference, in the context of their professional and personal lives.
The design of a GRC programme alternates events of different formats and usually includes small study groups, review and application groups, plenary sessions, large groups, social dreaming matrices, institutional events, and inter-group events, each with its own configuration and a specific primary task.
New instruments have been added over the years, because the GRCs are intended, above all, to represent a living, evolving experience: the choice of events and the design of the program, which are the responsibility of the director of the Conference, are adapted to the political-social circumstances and primary task identified as most salient for each individual edition.
In Italy, Group Relations Conferences are virtually unknown in the corporate world and public sector, and relatively little known in academic circles and among psychologists and psychotherapists, despite their status as a professional development format targeted at private enterprise, government institutions/local authorities, and social, healthcare, and volunteer services.
On the contrary, in Britain and many other countries around the world, the “Tavistock method” is known and appreciated and the Leicester Conferences, although they demand a considerable investment in terms of time, money, and energy, continue to attract participants from all over the world.
In this sense, the Tavistock Institute functions as a sort of “general headquarters” for a dense international network of centres whose work is inspired by the same model: The “Group Relations” network (see www.grouprelations.com) encompasses the A.K. Rice Institute in the USA, the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust and Grubb Institute in London, OfEK in Israel and various other organizations in Europe, South Africa, South America, India, and Australia.
The Nodo Group belongs to this network. Since 1998, it has organized an annual residential Group Relations Conference, modelled on that of Leicester, but with a duration limited to four days, known by the acronym ALI (Authority, Leadership, Innovation).
The first Group Relations Conference was held in 1957 in Leicester, sponsored by Leicester University and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (London). Since then, GRCs have been held annually in Leicester and other countries around the world.
The “Leicester Conferences” are residential Group Relations Conferences lasting two weeks. Since these Conferences are the oldest, longest, and most prestigious, they represent the core project of the Group Relations network and the main hub for the training of consultants and the dissemination of the method.
The report of the first Conference was published by Eric Trist and Cyril Sofer (Trist and Sofer 1959). A few years later, A.K. Rice published a detailed discussion of the structure, organizational culture and evolution of the first Leicester Conferences under the title “Leadership experiences” (Rice, 1965). Over two decades later, in 1989, Eric Miller wrote a short essay analysing the “Leicester model”, from its original design to its subsequent development, dissemination, and various applications.
Trist, E. and Sofer, C. 1959, Exploration in group relations. A residential conference held in September 1957 by the University of Leicester and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
A.K., Rice, 1965, Learning for leadership. London: Tavistock, uscito in Italia nella traduzione a cura di Rice, A. K., Galli, G., & Zuczkowski, A. (1974). Esperienze di leadership: rapporti interpersonali e intergruppo. Milano: Giunti-Barbèra.