The Evidence: Learning from a Leicester conference
In these uncertain and chaotic times, being able to ‘keep your head when all around are losing theirs’ is a valuable skill. Feeling more at ease and able to cope in complex, ambiguous and emotionally charged situations was seen as a key benefit of participating in a Leicester conference, according to a piece of research by Principal Researcher, Dione Hills recently published in Organisational and Social Learning.
There is not a great deal of research into what people learn from Group Relations conferences, and none has so far been attempted over the 60-year history of the Tavistock Institute’s annual Leicester Conference. In 2012, two researcher/evaluators from the Tavistock Institute set out to address this gap.
“I was surprised how physically affected by other members’ emotions and physical states I was, but (I) developed skills in managing the physical impact the group energies were having. Also, I learned to differentiate more clearly between my own and others emotional and physical states.”
In a small research study, the researchers asked participants and staff describe – and rate – their learning, and explored how the conference contributed to this learning, using a combination of questionnaires, interviews and observation. The study also explored some of the challenges that have contributed to the lack of research of this kind.
“The conference is absolutely a life-enriching, weird, and challenging experience I will never forget. It is hard to say what lessons I exactly have integrated into my behaviour and thoughts. It definitely has deepened my understanding of how individuals behave in (sub)groups and of groups as hierarchical social systems.”
As well as increasing their ease in dealing with complex and emotionally charged situations, participants felt that the conference gave them insights into group and organisational life, and the roles they take up in these. The length of the residential conference (14 days) was seen as adding to the intensity of the learning experience, while the mix of activities gave rise to different kinds of learning. Small groups provided personal feedback to participants on how they were personally affected by, or affected, group dynamics while large groups and inter-group events brought attention to different kinds of group behaviour and dynamics.
“Every aspect of the conference was linking well with the others to construct a whole environment in which learning can take place.”
The learning style of the conference, somewhat different to the style of more conventional leadership training, was sometimes experienced as challenging and even shocking, particularly for those new to this kind of work. However, this was also seen as a powerful and valuable way to bring underlying dynamics, not usually visible, to the surface.
“Every contribution can lead on to something else. Authority, responsibility of doing something and also doing nothing that has an impact on the group.”
Learning from activities of this kind can be varied, personal and subjective, often taking months or even years to integrate into day to day work (and life). This makes researching the learning outcomes challenging. However, this study showed that with relatively limited resources, a wealth of useful information can be gathered on how people experience the learning process. It also gave some indication of how they were beginning to use this learning in their organisations back at home.
I do know that it is the most valuable professional experience and a most deeply significant life experience, and I feel certain that many things will change for me as a consequence. I just don’t know how yet.”
Some people have also expressed concern that having researchers present at an event of this kind can disrupt its dynamics and interfere with learning. Feedback from participants suggested that, while it was true that the researchers’ presence did have some impact. this was often seen to have been positive, in giving participants a further chance to reflect on their experiences. Although a few people felt that the presence of researchers created a sense of being observed, and consequent anxiety, this is probably no greater than is true in any research, or evaluation activity. However, doing research in the context of a group relations conference meant that such dynamics were clearly visible and articulated, and contributed to the overall learning from both the conference and the research.
“The conference gave me the freedom to explore aspects of both myself and the groups I was in. I have come to realise the destructiveness of aggression but also the freedom to play.”
Dione Hills (2018) Research into Learning at the Leicester Conference. Organisational and social learning, Volume 18, No 2, pp 167-190 (24). Download
To experience the challenges and joys of a Group Relations conference, come to the next Leicester conference: Task Authority Role: Love @ Work. Held at the University of Leicester from 3-16 August 2019. For more information and/or a no-obligation conversation about what the conference can offer you contact Anabel: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about the Tavistock Institute’s evaluation and research activities.
Quotes in italics from participants talking to the researchers and in the questionnaires.