The value of the ‘experiential learning’ gained in a Group Relations Conference

By Nick Papadopoulos

Leadership requires emotional literacy and the ability to read the situations you are in. This is best learnt experientially. A powerful form of experiential learning for leadership – the Group Relations Model will be discussed.

Everyone in business has learnt something about leadership. Yet how is leadership actually learnt and how effective are traditional learning methods in the teaching and development of leadership?

Leadership is much more than the bestowal of formal authority by role or institution. It involves the ‘taking up’ of leadership in yourself, your life and the various roles and situations you are in. It applies to designated leaders, direct reports and everybody alike.

It is about finding and developing your authority and capacity to question, to make hypotheses, to speak your mind and to take action. It involves knowing when to innovate and when to rely on tradition. Above all, it requires taking ownership and responsibility for the results of your actions.

To do this well requires emotional literacy, that is, the capacity to use all of yourself: feelings, hunches, gut reactions, intuitions as well as thoughts and logic to make sense of situations and to drive decisions. Emotional literacy is also about the ability to collaborate, to work with others and to learn from experience.

Knowledge of human nature is very helpful, but alone it is limiting without some understanding of how groups and organisations influence and affect people. To take leadership you must learn about your actual behaviour and capabilities in interpersonal, group and organisational situations. A particularly powerful type of “experiential learning” for leadership – the Group Relations Conference Model will be discussed and compared to more traditional types of learning.

Experiential Learning and Conceptual Learning
In traditional forms of learning, learning that is ‘conceptual’ or cognitive and intellectually based, there is a discrepancy between the ‘knowing about’ and the ‘knowing to do.’ We often do not differentiate between them. We assume they are one and the same, even though we can experience that they are not. For example, reading a book about leadership doesn’t mean that we can now apply what it says.

People can often lucidly articulate what they ‘know’ and go about practicing something very different. Similarly, there is often a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. The difference being how we see ourselves is based on what we think and feel, whereas others judge us on what we actually do.

Traditional learning techniques, as crucial as they are, can neither monitor how someone actually “uses” what they are taught nor how their interpretations or “take” can intermingle, often unconsciously, with past learning, life experience, personal world-view and psychological blocks. These can all remain as blind spots influencing what one actually does.

Learning about leadership and one’s capabilities in the workplace more often relies on conceptual learning even when there are performance-based feedback components. This is illustrated in the following examples.

  • Studying for an MBA, while working or other training courses, often involves the learning of a set of behavioural skills that are generic and don’t necessarily take into account each individual’s needs, difficulties and situation.
  • Performance Reviews are usually business driven and results-based. They focus on helping individuals achieve their key performance indicators (KPI’s) rather than their own development as people and professionals.
  • Performance and Behaviour Feedback Instruments, particularly if they contain a 360-degree component, will highlight strengths, weaknesses and discrepancies that are a very useful starting point. However, they tend to be descriptive rather than analytical and are often followed up with feedback, advice, conceptual training and generic behavioural techniques. They do not provide people with opportunities to see for themselves what they are doing as they are doing it and to learn from this. As a result they can be experienced as labelling and punitive.
  • Coaching, mentoring and reflective activities that incorporate feedback get much closer to experiential learning but because they rely on people talking about what they do, such sessions may not uncover blind spots and instead focus on what is reported or known. A skilled mentor may get to what is really going on underneath, but will the person being coached actually see for themselves the how and why of what they do, as they are doing it and with immediate opportunities to try to do something new?
  • Other forms of learning such as ‘on the job’ training, ‘shadowing’ and all manner of apprenticeships rely on learning by osmosis, a learning by watching and copying. These can be very practical, efficient and quick methods, but they may stifle innovation and creativity by encouraging copying without questioning, and as a form of learning depend greatly on the skills of the role model.

Experiential learning, on the other hand, is learning that provides people with opportunities to learn from what they do as they are actually doing it and with immediate opportunities to try something new. It is learning that happens in the here-and-now involving all of our intellectual, emotional and behavioural resources.

It can come in many different forms ranging from role-playing and role-training, designed simulations such as survival games, to events that create typical group and workplace dynamics that become the raw material for learning. It is particularly the latter that address peoples’ actual workplace practices.

More often it is done in workshops or programs that are off-site and in residential retreats. It can be done with members of the same team or organisation or with strangers. It complements and can greatly add to other forms of learning. It can be done concurrently, or as a follow-up to other training, or something people do after they have been trained and on the job for some time.

A particularly potent form of experiential learning that I wish to focus on is the Group Relations Conference model.

What is a Group Relations Conference?
A Group Relations Conference is a powerful learning event that can change lives and offer profound personal insights. The design and the learning are entirely experiential. It is learning from participation and involvement. The actual experiences generated within the conference itself, are the raw material for learning.

It is a misnomer, however, to call these structured gatherings conferences as there are no keynote speakers, no papers presented and no formal teaching. Rather, they are intensive residential learning events held world wide, lasting from between four days and two weeks. They are called Group Relations Conferences and not workshops or programs in keeping with the history, rich tradition and design of these unique learning events.

The focus is on learning for leadership, the forms authority can take, and the management of yourself in various roles and situations. It is about developing your capacity to think, using your emotional resources and acting in real, immediate and practical ways in a variety of interpersonal, group and organisational contexts.

The theoretical underpinnings are drawn from psychoanalysis, group behaviour and dynamics, systems thinking, action research, organisational behaviour and management theories.

Conference Design
The typical six-day residential conference is designed to maximise participants’ full involvement; emotional, intellectual and behavioural. It is made up of four major group-based events as well as Review & Application Processes to allow members to apply their learning to their back home situations.

The major conference events are designed to allow participants to fully experience and work within small and large group dynamics, as well as what emerges when groups need to work with and communicate with other groups and within the organisation as a whole.

What emerges in situ is what people actually do as they struggle to make sense of the proceedings, find meaningful roles and take up their own authority and leadership within the conference itself and its dynamics as they unfold. It encourages people to reflect upon their participation and contribution and to experiment with new behaviour and insights. Members of staff are always at hand to offer consultancy.

The conference as a whole is designed as a temporary learning organisation that can be studied experientially as it forms, evolves and comes to an end. It attempts to recreate the types of dynamics that people working within any modern organisation or enterprise typically experience.

Modern work involves membership of and collaboration with a variety of groups of different sizes and levels of authority as well as interaction with the purpose and structure of the organisation as a whole. Dynamics in smaller groups vary significantly from larger ones, and they change again when groups have to work together and within the organisation.

Finding your authority and capacity within the maze of roles, group memberships and the need for collaboration can be daunting and is the task of each individual. It is these kinds of real learning that the conference attempts to foster.

Possible Learning Outcomes
The Conference’s value and essence is in the powerful forms of experiential learning that can take place as members work through their own experiences of the different events. It is learning that is unique and relevant to each individual. Typical outcomes include:

  • a more developed awareness of the dynamics and the pitfalls of taking up a leadership role
  • managing yourself better in multiple roles
  • understanding and working towards overcoming resistance to change in yourself and others
  • understanding and working with the dynamics of complex organisational politics and inter-group dynamics
  • learning to use your emotional literacy, that is, your emotional resources as well as rational processes to better inform understanding
  • finding a greater capacity for tolerating uncertainty and unpredictability in producing better actions
  • understanding better the dynamics of small and large groups and your contribution to these dynamics
  • a greater ability to work with the hidden processes of group and organisational behaviour

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