This page provides an introduction to group relations theory, arranged as answers to some common questions. It outlines some of the major ideas and work in the field, but it is not intended to be comprehensive - the publications section is a good place to start if you want to read more deeply. The people section provides biographies about some of the people who have worked in the field of group relations - from its foundation in the 1940s to today.

What is group relations?
How did the study of group relations develop?
What is a group relations conference?
An example - the Leicester Conference (Authority, Leadership & Organisation)
The Tavistock Institute and group relations conferences
What do you recommend I read to learn more about group relations?
People and organisations working in group relations

What is group relations?

Group relations is a method of study and training in the way people perform their roles in the groups and systems to which they belong. These can be work groups, teams or organisations, or less formal social groups. A group may be said to be two or more people interacting to achieve a common task. The basis of group relations theory is that groups move in and out of focusing on their task and a number of different defensive positions based on unarticulated group phantasy. This is explained in more detail below.

How did the study of group relations develop?

Group relations was the phrase coined in the late 1950s by staff working at the Tavistock Institute to refer to the laboratory method of studying relationships in and between groups.

This laboratory method had been developed at Bethel, Maine, from 1947 onwards by the National Training Laboratory (NTL). It was based on the model of intensive experiential learning that had sprung from the work of Kurt Lewin, whose group theories had strongly influenced the early Tavistock staff.

This early group of Tavistock pioneers were social scientists and psychodynamically-oriented psychiatrists who had been using group approaches to tackle practical war-time problems, like officer selection. They later applied their group-based experiences and approaches to post-war social reconstruction. They drew on many sources - work by sociologists such as Gustave le Bon and William McDougall; psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein; and social scientists such as Mary Parker Follett, Elton Mayo and Kurt Lewin.

Gustave le Bon and William McDougall provided key observations about group behaviour by studying the group-as-a-whole in its wider social system and the relatedness of individuals to that system. Le Bon was a French sociologist who developed theories about the behaviour of large unorganised groups in his book The Crowd. Le Bon noticed how individuals lose some of their individuality when joining a group, especially a large group, and could be more easily influenced as a result. Le Bon's ideas were criticised as overly negative. In the 1920s McDougall, a British-born American social theorist, developed Le Bon's work and developed important insights about the behaviour of organised groups, which he saw as being different from unorganised groups. This distinction was important and was later used in leaderless groups and the selection of army officers in the second world war.

Freud's contribution to group relations theory is widely debated, but his work does help to illuminate some of the issues that are not discussed by Le Bon and McDougall - for instance Freud's view that the family provides the basic pattern for all groups. Certainly Freud's contribution to psychoanalytic theory, with its emphasis on the unconscious, was important to the development of group relations.

Mary Parker Follett was among the first theorists to apply psychology to the workplace. In her 1925 essay The Giving of Orders she observed that workers are more committed to work where they are involved in the development of a solution to a problem at work, which was a revolutionary idea at the time. Elton Mayo's Hawthorne studies, conducted from 1927-1932, showed that the productivity of people at work is related to motivation, feedback and encouragement provided by managers, and the workers' control over their own tasks and environment. These developments in the way people thought about work and organisations helped to shift the focus towards the human elements of work and organisational life.

Kurt Lewin's field theory provided a way in which the tension between the individual and the group could be studied. Lewin felt that "the group to which an individual belongs is the ground for his perceptions, his feelings and his actions" (Lewin, 1947). Lewin felt that groups have properties that are different from their subgroups or their individual members. This finding, and the experiential workshop method of training which Lewin developed, influenced staff at the Tavistock and their development of group relations conferences.

Melanie Klein's object relations theory was another important influence, which built upon and departed from Freud's theories. Klein felt that people learn from early childhood to cope with unpleasant emotions and the confusion and anxiety they create by using the psychological defences of splitting and projective identification.

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion made a major contribution by developing models of group work and new theories of group behaviour. In his work at the Tavistock Clinic and later at the Tavistock Institute, Bion found that groups operate on two levels - the work level where concern is for completing the task, and the unconscious level where group members act as if they had made assumptions about the purpose of the group which may be different from its conscious level - the basic assumption group's primary task is to ease members' anxieties and avoid the painful emotions that further work or the end of the group situation might bring. Bion identifies three types of basic assumption: dependency, pairing, and fight-flight. Bion reported his work in a series of articles for the Tavistock Institute's journal Human Relations, that later appeared as the book Experiences in Groups (Bion, 1961).

In 1974 Pierre Turquet, who also worked at the Tavistock Institute, added a fourth basic assumption to Bion's three. He called this basic assumption oneness - where members of the group seek a feeling of unity from their inclusion in the group, and/or the group commits itself to a cause outside the group as a way of survival. Turquet was an expert on large group behaviour and added the large group event to the Tavistock Institute's Leicester Conference in 1964.

A.K. Rice (Ken Rice) directed the Tavistock Institute's Leicester Conferences in the 1960s and ran the first group relations conference in the United States at Holyoke in 1965. Rice used group relations theory in his consultancy work with managers and organisations in the UK and elsewhere.

W.Gordon Lawrence, Alistair Bain and Lawrence Gould developed a fifth basic assumption called me-ness, the opposite of one-ness, where individual group members try to remain separate from the group. Where members of a group are united in unconscious basic assumption me-ness, they become calm, polite and withdrawn in group sessions but express their thoughts elsewhere.

Eric Miller developed Ken Rice's work with managers and organisations and directed the Tavistock Institute's group relations programme for many years.

What is a group relations conference?

At first glance, a group relations conference may look like any other conference. It has a programme, staff, and large group and breakout sessions. But in other ways it is very different from all other types of conference.

Group relations conferences are designed to provide opportunities for learning by taking part in all the sessions and interacting with other participants and staff members of the conference in a variety of groups and settings. The conference is seen as an institution in its own right and the sessions are designed to mirror real organisational settings.

Most group relations conferences focus on issues of authority, leadership and organisational life. For example, the aim of the Tavistock Institute's Leicester Conference is to bring together understanding of the conscious and unconscious processes of work groups in human systems, in order to be more effective in working with the underlying dynamics within and between organisations and between these and the wider, indeed global, society. Some other group relations conferences have themes of contemporary social issues.

Group relations conferences are designed to provide opportunities for learning by taking part in a series of group work events in separate systems and in the conference as a whole. Participants are able to study their own and others' behaviour as it happens in the different events. There is always consultancy available in the events, but each member uses their authority to accept what proves useful learning and reject what is not. Through this process members can reconsider the way that they gain or lose power and exercise their authority in various systems in everyday life.

The conference does not focus on the individual's personality. Yet, of course, some of the learning will be personal to each individual. Each member may consider, for example, how early experiences of authority, say with parents or teachers, are carried forward and influence their own behaviour, whether as leader or follower.

Some short group relations conferences are non-residential, but longer conferences (of five or more days) are normally residential. The Leicester Conference, which lasts two weeks, is the longest group relations conference offered anywhere in the world. Longer conferences offer greater opportunities for in-depth experiential learning.

An example - the Leicester Conference (Authority, Leadership & Organisation)

The Leicester Conference aims to draw members from diverse work settings and roles: leaders, entrepreneurs, managers, consultants, educators, researchers, administrators, professional and technical workers

There are three categories of membership:

'A' Membership. This is for participants who have not attended a residential conference of this kind before, or who have, and may wish to have further experience of 'A' sub-conference membership. The only requirement is a willingness to learn from the experience of membership of, and participation in, the events of the conference. Participants may have ideas about how this conference may be useful in current or future work or in their professional development, though it is possible find that the learning will have applications that had not been anticipated.

'B' Membership. This is for participants who have already experienced learning from group relations events, including at least one residential conference of this kind. They may therefore have more developed ideas about ways in which they are thinking of applying their learning in this conference to different aspects of their working engagements.

There are places for up to 65 'A' and 'B' members at this conference on a first come, first-served basis.

The Training Group is an advanced learning group with the task of applying system psychodynamic thinking to the processes of consultation in various contexts. There may be opportunities for taking up staff consulting roles to the Review and Application Groups within the 'A' and 'B' sub-conferences. Applicants for the Training Group must have had considerable experience of learning from group relations conferences, as members and also perhaps as staff of other conferences, and they must have already attended a Leicester Conference within the last ten years. Up to eighteen places are available depending on the size of the 'A' and 'B' sub-conferences. Acceptance to the Training Group is not automatic.

To find out more about the Leicester Conference and other group relations conferences, please see the events section.

The Tavistock Institute and group relations conferences

The Tavistock Institute's first group relations conference took place in 1957 with the support of the University of Leicester, which is why it is known as the Leicester Conference, (although its proper name is Authority, Leadership & Organisation). It is held once a year and is famous throughout the world - you can find out about the next one in the events section.

The essentials of the Leicester conference were largely established by the mid-1960s and since then the 'Leicester model' has provided the basis for numerous other group relations conferences run by other institutions in countries around the world. In most cases these were developed with the active support of the Tavistock Institute. For example, the first group relations conference in the United States (held at Holyoke in 1965) was directed by A.K. Rice, a member of Tavistock staff.

Find out more about the Tavistock Institute in the Organisations section, or see the Institute's website

What do you recommend I read to learn more about group relations?

References from this page are below. The publications section gives an extensive list of references - journal articles, books, chapters in books, and websites. We have highlighted new publications and those which might be better as an introduction if you have not studied group relations before.


Bion, W.R. (1961) Experiences in Groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

Cano, D. (1998) Oneness and me-ness in the baG? In Talamo, P., Borgogno, F. & Mercai, S. (eds) Bion's Legacy to Groups. London: Karnac.

Follett, M.P. (1925) The giving of orders. In J.M.Shafritz and J.S.Ott (eds) Classics of Organization Theory (4th ed) New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Freud, S. (1922) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Liveright Publishing.

Klein, M. (1959) Our adult world and its roots in infancy. Human Relations 12 (4) 291-304. Reprinted in Colman, A. & Geller, M (1985) Group Relations Reader 2. Jupiter, FL: A.K.Rice Institute.

Le Bon, G. (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

Lewin, K. (1947) Frontiers in group dynamics 1. Human Relations 1, 5-41.

Lewin, K. (1948) Resolving Social Conflicts: Selected Papers on Group Dynamics. New York: Harper & Row.

Mayo, E. (1933) The Human Problems of an Industrialised Civilisation. New York: Viking Press.

McDougall, W. (1920) The Group Mind. New York: G.P.Putnam.

Miller, E. (1989) The Leicester Model: Experiential study of group and organizational processes. (Tavistock Institute Occasional Paper No.10). London: Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.

Turquet, P.M. (1974) Leadership: The individual and the group. In G.S. Gibbard, J.J. Hartman and R.D. Mann (Eds.) Analysis of Groups, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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