Learning for Leadership: Interpersonal and Intergroup Relations

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This study is designed to teach readers of the human problems of leadership, and to show new conceptions of leadership and new methods of training relevant to our modern industrial society.This volume is one of a series being reissued by Karnac books representing the theory and practice of organizational development used over many years at the Tavistock Institute of Human relations.

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1. INTRODUCTION

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An account of the first full-scale experiment in the laboratory method of training in group relations in the United Kingdom was given by my colleagues E. L. Trist and C. Sofer (1959). They described the conference, organized by the University of Leicester and the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, held in September 1957. Since that first conference, seven more have been organized joindy by the Institute and the University of Leicester, other conferences and courses have been run by the Institute alone, and still others by the Institute in collaboration with other bodies. I was a member of the staff of the first conference and of three out of four of those held between 1959 and 1961.1 have been the director of the last three run jointly with the University of Leicester, of one conference run by the Institute, and of two shorter experimental conferences run in collaboration with Christian Teamwork.

The conferences have all been residential. In addition, I have directed two non-residential courses at the Institute. These have consisted of weekly events spread over six months. The programmes of the conferences and courses have been similar, but to avoid awkwardness in writing and confusion between them, I shall describe only the residential conferences in the early chapters of this book and reserve until a later chapter discussion about the differences between them and the non-residential courses.

 

2. THE BASIS OF CONFERENCE DESIGN

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One event in these conferences is a lecture series, in which we try, among other things, to make explicit the main theories on which the design of the conference is based. My object in this chapter is to summarize the concepts and assumptions that are particularly relevant to the more detailed descriptions of the conference and its events in the subsequent chapters.

They fall into five categories. First, there are the concepts to describe human behaviour, and here I concentrate on those aspects of individual, small-group, and large-group behaviour that are usually latent in: everyday working life. Events in the conference are designed, we hope, to allow members to become more aware of, and learn how to deal with, these latent aspects. In the second category are the theories of organization that are relevant to the design of the conference as an educational institution. Third, since it is in their various roles as leaders that members will apply what they may learn, it is necessary to say something about our concept of leadership. Fourth, I touch briefly on learning theory, with special emphasis on the problems of learning direcdy from experience -’knowledge-of-acquaintance’ - in contrast to more intellectual kinds of learning. Finally, and also briefly, I discuss the basic staff role in helping members to learn from the experience provided in the conferences.

 

3. CONFERENCE STRUCTURE

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The conference institution is made up of two major sub-systems: pre-conference recruitment - the import system which produces the members; and the conference programme - the conversion-export system through which those members who arrive pass on their way to becoming ex-members. Where the conversion process ends and the export process starts varies for different members. There is no clearly defined boundary between them and they cannot therefore be differentiated organizationally into discrete sub-systems.

PRB-CONFERENCE RECRUITMBNT: THE IMPORT SYSTEM

The primary task of the import system is the production of conference members. In the framework of any one conference it is a discrete operating system in that, by the time the conference starts, its task has been accomplished. In the framework of successive conferences it is a continuing system, since inquiries are often carried over from conference to conference, and what happens at any one conference has effects on recruitment for subsequent ones. But with recruitment for a single conference as a frame of reference, imports are inquirers; conversion is the turning of inquirers either into members or into those who decide not to attend; and exports are therefore the members and non-members that result.

 

4. CONFERENCE CULTURE

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If learning about the real feelings underlying one’s behaviour towards others and their behaviour to oneself can be painful and even distressing, then a conference that provides opportunities for such learning must provide some measure of security both for its members and for its staff. The basis of this protection is the way the conference is institutionalized. The structure of the conference institution - its design, formal organization, and management - has been described in the previous chapter. I shall now attempt to describe the kind of culture that we try to build up. The culture, together with the structure, forms the texture of the institution, gives it its ‘life’ within which individuals can exist and know something about where they are; can move and know something about whence they come and where they go. The culture of the conference is its customary and traditional ways of thinking and doing things, which, eventually, is shared to a greater or lesser degree by staff and members alike. It covers a wide range of behaviour - methods of work, skills and knowledge, attitudes towards authority and discipline, and the less conscious conventions and taboos. In any institution ‘cultural congruence’, the extent to which the culture ‘fits’ the task of the institution, is as important for effective task performance as structural fit.

 

5. STUDY GROUPS

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In this and the succeeding chapters of Part II, I propose to discuss the major events of the conference. I am concerned more with content than with theory; not because I consider theory unimportant, but because each event would require a book on its own. Nevertheless, I hope to show that the different events do fit into a coherent whole that is consistent with a unified concept of human behaviour, however inadequately formulated.

I hope I have already shown in earlier chapters that any staff member responsible for an event has, by the nature of his task, only his own knowledge, experience, and feelings as his evidence for what is happening, and that these will arise from the relationships established within the group with which he is working. In my account of events, therefore, I can use as examples only my own experiences in them. Except in an emergency, and in one conference to be described later, I have not acted as consultant to a study group and as conference director at the same time. For this reason, to describe the study-group event I have to draw on material from other conferences than those that I have directed. I hope that my description will not be so atypical as to invalidate it for others.

 

6. THE LARGE-GROUP EVENT

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Many devices have been used to increase the participation of members in the events of conferences and training programmes. They have been developed in the hope and belief that participation, by reducing passive attendance, makes communication more effective. Small groups have always been used for training and learning. Since the Second World War many institutional conferences have adopted a pattern whereby speakers address the whole conference, and then discussion of the lectures takes place in small groups, which subsequendy reassemble in plenary session to report back to the total membership. In 1947, at a conference run jointly by the Tavistock Institute and the Industrial Welfare Society, this technique was modified in that there were few speakers, and they only set themes, leaving the members to decide the content of the conference. Many variations are now common: in some, the small groups are given a specific question to discuss, either all the same question, or different ones for different groups; in others, usually the larger conferences, sections have their own speakers. ‘Buzz’ sessions (in which members form small units of from two to six persons without moving out of the conference room), role-playing, sociodrama, brains trusts, panel discussions, and debates are among techniques that have been used with success. Other conferences that have been concerned with understanding problems of human relationship and leadership have introduced forms of joint consultation’ - committees composed of members and staff- in an attempt to reproduce, in the conference, the kind of relationship and leadership the conference has been advocating. All are attempts to establish organizational mechanisms that will allow an individual member to make his views heard without exposing him to the difficulty of addressing a large group.

 

7. THE INTERGROUP EXERCISE

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In the first intergroup exercise in the 1959 conference, the members were asked to split into groups in any way they wished and, by negotiations between the groups, to decide on the content of four sessions in the conference programme. They were provided with a summary of information gathered from registration forms that they had filled in before coming to die conference. These forms included a section on ‘special interests’ not covered by the formal conference programme. Members were also given information about the staff’s competence to deal with some of the topics listed. The members succeeded in filling the sessions allocated to them, albeit with some difficulty. The staff tasks were seen as responding to requests for expert help widi particular topics and, at the same time, helping members to learn about intergroup processes.

In subsequent conferences the same task, that of filling sessions, was given to the members, but the task of the staff was seen as concentrating on the relations between the groups that were formed for this purpose. At the 1959 conference, members were invited to choose their own method of dividing into groups; in later conferences they were allocated by die staff, as for study and application groups.

 

8. APPLICATION GROUPS

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The purpose of application groups is to explore the potential relevance of conference learning to normal working situations. Members choose the material to be studied. A consultant attached to each application group tries to help members to look at the case material produced in the light of conference experience. Application groups are therefore composed of those doing the same or similar jobs in their ordinary work. In contrast to study groups, application groups are as homogeneous as possible.

We have found the application group to be among the more difficult events to conduct. Technically, it should be the easiest. Members of staff who have a clinical background are familiar with the case-conference method of teaching, and those with an educational background are accustomed to tutorial groups and to seminar-type events. Some of the difficulty arises from the problem of articulating conference learning, and hence of finding ways in which it can be applied. Some arises from the conference institution in which the application group occurs. Even when members of the staff have attempted to use more than conference learning by adding special knowledge or experience of their own about the problems being discussed, there has seldom been the spontaneity that would be expected in more traditional educational institutions.

 

9. THE PLENARY SESSIONS

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The plenary sessions consist of the conference opening, the lectures, and what we have so far called the conference reviews, though we now doubt if that is the correct title for them.

The first conference in 1957 recognized the principle that conferences designed to provide members with opportunities to learn about the interpersonal and intergroup problems of leadership must provide for their full participation in the conference process. Even so, in retrospect, I now feel that the traditional expectation of regular plenaries, for work or social activities, led us to include more plenaries in the programme than were required for conference task performance. One consequence was mat in planning subsequent conferences there was confusion about both the task and the timing of plenary sessions and indeed about the need for members to meet at regular intervals. At times it has seemed that the primary task of some plenaries has been to allow members to meet for the sake of meeting, and that it has therefore been the staff’s job to find them something to meet about.

 

10. THE LIFE OF THE CONFERENCE

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Explorations in Group Relations (Trist and Sofer, 1959) described how members came to accept the different roles taken by staff and developed their own ‘member’ culture. The institution of the ‘night shift’ dealt with many of the stresses and strains felt by various members, and provided a mechanism by which members could help each other. Today, after many more conferences have been held, diere appears to be less improvisation by the members and hence less building of a member culture that is different from the general culture of the conference.

Members still sit up late at night to discuss what is going on in the conference; they still spend much of their spare time criticizing conference methods and comparing staff performances; also, they still have to deal with stress and strain, which for some members often become acute. But diey sit up late to discuss other things as well. So far as I am aware, diere has never again been a ‘permanent night shift’, which was such a remarkable feature of the first conference. Nor have members developed since that conference such a special semi-derisory jargon of their ovm-Gruppen-fuhrer for group consultants, for example - as a means of testing out ideas while limiting their investment in them. The jargon diat becomes common currency tends to be the jargon of the conference, the concepts used are those promulgated in the lectures and other events.

 

11. THE STAFF GROUP

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In the 1957 conference, conference management was, as now, in the hands of the staff group. The ‘officers’ were a chairman of an executive committee, representing the two sponsoring organizations; a programme director; and two joint secretaries, one drawn from each of the organizing bodies. At the conference the chairman of the executive committee acted as chairman of all plenary sessions and as chairman of the staff group at staff meetings. The programme director’s task was to coordinate conference plans, and to take technical leadership in staff meetings about the programme, both before it started and while it was being implemented. Neither took part in any of the small-group events.

In practice, the chairman took the lead in administrative affairs, with responsibility for conference arrangements, and the programme director took the lead in technical and professional matters. The joint conference secretaries had much the same task as the secretary has now: to supervise administration, to implement policy so far as it affects the domestic arrangements, to run die conference office, and to help members as far as she can. Through her is manifested much of the staff group’s concern for individuals and their welfare. The chairman acted, and was treated, as a chairman, and die programme director as an adviser. Neither was vested with executive authority, which remained with the staff group collectively.

 

12. TRAINING OR THERAPY

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The conferences I have been trying to describe represent one application of an understanding of human relationships that has developed in the Tavistock Clinic and Institute and elsewhere over many years. The group of psychiatrists and psychologists who formed the original staff of die Institute had been brought together in the British Army during the Second World War. Many psychiatrists and psychologists in the army found themselves dealing more with social than with individual problems, and of necessity recruited other social scientists to extend their understanding of institutions and their organizations. They became concerned with the health of groups, both small and large, as well as with that of individuals. They found themselves increasingly focusing attention on the relationships within and between groups, that were the accompaniment, if not the cause, of individual breakdown.

In the immediate postwar period the use of groups for psychotherapy was stimulated by the need to make psychiatric and psychological help available to more and more individuals. Individual treatment would have required an impractical and impossible increase in cost, even if there had been enough psychotherapists to give it. But the use of groups for the treatment of individual disorders in turn stimulated thinking and research about the disorders themselves. In this new thinking the individual was looked upon not only as a person suffering from some particular disease but also as the focus of a disturbed relationship network, as a role carrier on behalf of others. His disorder was seen, in part at least, as the result of a complex interaction process. The study of patient groups has led to more understanding of individual as well as of group psychology.

 

13. INSTITUTIONAL REPRODUCTION

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The difficulty of differentiating between training and therapy led us, in our early conference, to insist that:

‘Study Groups should be conducted only by those who have themselves had experience of psycho-analysis…. Experience shows that it takes clinical experience and clinical sensitivity to conduct a group in such a way that it steers clear of becoming member- rather than group-centred’ (Trist and Sofer, 1959).

Because the only way a consultant could find out what was happening in a group was by examining how he himself felt and why he felt it, he had to know sufficient about himself and about his own feelings to be able to use them for the benefit of the group. At the time, the study group was the focus of conference life; neither the large group nor theintergroup exercise had been added to the programme. Moreover, this was the first conference of its kind, and it is a long-established practice in the Institute that the staff for a first attempt are always the most highly qualified we have. Not only does this ensure that the maximum technical skill available is brought to bear in the event as it happens, but in the design of subsequent events we have the best experience we can find to draw on.

 

14. SUMMARY AND FUTURE PROSPECTS

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Some reasons for the changes in conference design have already been described in earlier chapters: the modification of the intergroup exercise, the introduction of the large-group event and of the advanced training group, the reinforcement of the conference as an institution and the consequent reorganization of programme and management. These changes have resulted in the dropping of external projects for conferences that last only two weeks, the suspension of any follow-up event other than the introduction of an advanced training group, and the omission of special interest sessions. In the first section of this chapter I propose to summarize the concepts on which these developments have been based as a preface to discussions about the differences between residential conferences and non-residential courses; the introduction of this kind of learning opportunity into other kinds of training institution; and the problems of research into conference and course effectiveness.

summary of concepts used in developing conference design

 

APPENDIX: Conference and Course Staff 1962-1964

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