The intergroup and institutional events:

An overview of designs, foci, structures, and functions

Stan De Loach, Ph.D.

Intergroup and institutional event foci:

Framing the study of collective interactions and relations

Organizations sponsoring group-relations conferences develop distinctive approaches to the intergroup and institutional events.  Conference directors also bring their own ideas about the events’ purpose to their design and implementation.  The resulting focus guides the thoughts and actions of staff and members as they jointly pursue learning about isolation and engagement, usually addressed during intergroup events as indications of chaos and community.

Two general foci for intergroup events can be discriminated, although they are far from clearly separate or mutually exclusive.  In some particulars, these foci may accurately describe staff’s perspectives during the institutional event.

Focus A

Some directors regard the intergroup event as a forum for staff’s teaching and for learning, by both members and staff, about the complex structures and protocols employed by social systems to mediate intergroup relations.  Staff directs attention to the history of group and sector identities; boundary formation and management; intergroup irrationality, in the forms of myth, fantasy, and projection; the intricacies of effectively delegating authority; the systemic and symbolic obstacles to translating authorization into action; and, the tone and mechanics of representation across group boundaries.

Staff members may individually or collectively formulate brief or cursory hypotheses about the significance and role of the groups and sectors formed during the event, but the generation and promulgation of hypotheses is held subordinate to direct participation in and analysis of intergroup interactions initiated by the members.  Staff’s hypotheses are not utilized publicly in the pursuit of teaching or learning.  During the interactions with the members, when and if these interactions occur, the staff seeks to educate, through inquiry and interpretation.  Member representatives may be asked about their group’s genesis, history, topical concerns or themes, and internal structures and functioning.  The staff may inquire about the task, tone, and outcomes of meetings between or among member groups.

The mood and style of discourse used by the staff are consistent with the conference’s focus on systems and subsystems.  Individuals and the intrapsychic determination of their behaviors are not directly addressed.  Instead of addressing members by their names, staff may refer to member representatives simply as observers, delegates, or plenipotentiaries from a specific group.  Outside of intra-staff conversations, public acknowledgment of members’ names is anomalous.  Although staff members, owing to pre-conference contacts with members or as a result of conference work, may know and use the names of some members, others members may remain anonymous to staff throughout the event.

These practices conform to the letter of the staff’s decision to focus on systems larger than the individual.  Of course, the translation of staff’s intentions to the study of direct interaction with a human collective may require increased deference to social custom.

Groups are studied, while individuals learn.  During the intergroup event, groups are interdependent for the performance of their tasks.  At a deeper level, participants in the entire conference system form a network interdependent for physical presence, task commitment, support, and tension reduction.  Absent these, the participants disband and the system ceases to be available for study.  Thus, practices in regard to the use of names vary.  Staff’s circumspect employment of members’ names at appropriate times can render the social system more disposed to task engagement and may contribute more immediacy and specificity to members’ and staff’s joint learning.

As a basis for verbal access to staff members, staff’s boundary managers stress the need for precision, clarity, and relevance in members’ expression of intention and task.  Members’ representatives are routinely asked to detail their level of authorization, their objective, the number of men and women in the group that they represent, as well as other data deemed pertinent.

The questions eliciting these details are not presented pro forma.  Rather, the staff’s boundary managers, through their questions, diligently, even provocatively, attempt to stimulate members’ thinking and conceptualization of the mechanisms and meanings involved in representation across group boundaries.  When, in the opinion of the staff boundary managers or of the supervising boundary consultant, the level of members’ conceptualization or task precision is unacceptable, entry to the staff room to pursue further verbal interaction is usually denied, with a suggestion that the members return to their source of authorization for further amplification of their group’s motives, intentions, or understanding.  The reasons for the denial of access to the staff room are given, with minimal discussion, by the staff’s boundary agents.  The rejected members are usually not offered the services of a staff consultant to assist in the elaboration of their request nor are the staff consultant’s services suggested.

Under Focus A, the global dynamics of the conference institution and the contribution of each member group to those dynamics may be discussed by the staff, but they are not of foremost concern and are rarely shared with the members during the intergroup event.  They are not discussed directly with members, who, as emissaries present in the staff room, may nonetheless witness such discussions.  Some staff members may address the global institutional dynamics in the closing plenary session, if one is offered.  Focus A diverts material consistent with analysis of the dynamics of the entire conference system to a separate institutional event.  A director may or may not offer both an intergroup event and an institutional event.

Staff may never or infrequently circulate the hypotheses that it generates.  Its stance is one of willing, even anxious union with members in intergroup work, as long as the staff’s procedural and functional imperatives are respected.  Although this stance actively promotes education about these imperatives, which are regarded as related derivatives or reasonable didactic facsimiles of intergroup protocols in use outside the conference setting, staff’s posture is generally passive and pensive or reflective.

Early in the intergroup event, members’ efforts at contact are often vigorous, impulsive, and swayed by irrationality.  Under Focus A, members’ attempts to engage the staff in intergroup activity sometimes diminish as the event continues.  In these cases, the reasons for the decreased contact may not be known.  Members may learn or incorporate in their interactions with other member groups the principles that staff stresses and models or members may consider the learning offered at the staff boundary to be useless, irrelevant, or excessively foreign and stressful.

Under Focus A, staff is asked to make tedious discriminations regarding what is and what is not an intergroup matter.  The management of this content boundary is critical to members’ functional understanding of what it is that they are being offered the opportunity to study.

At a conference in México, a competent, sophisticated female was sent as a plenipotentiary to the staff room at a time when the female conference administrator was behaving and feeling as an incompetent, naïve novice, which she was not.  The member asked to negotiate a more healthful type of refreshments for the members during their breaks, a matter generally administrative in nature.  Her request to negotiate was accepted with the consent of the administrator, who was not functioning as a boundary agent.  After three minutes of discussion with the staff, however, four male observers were admitted to the staff room.

The director, remarking that these men were from the same group as the plenipotentiary present, announced that he was calling a halt to the negotiations because they no longer constituted an interaction between duly authorized representatives with different bases of authority.  He added that, because the observers’ appearance could be seen as a check-up on their plenipotentiary female representative, full authorization of the woman had now been rescinded or substantially modified.  In essence, she no longer represented her entire group in an intergroup negotiation.

The director added that he sensed further that the premises offered by the plenipotentiary and accepted by the staff had probably been altered without the consent and awareness of the parties involved.  The woman verbally confirmed the validity of the director’s conjectures, adding that ambivalence about fully authorizing her had existed prior to her assignment to the current task.

At this point, a female consulting staff member expressed the belief that the member group might learn a great deal from a re-negotiation of its emissary’s authorization.  She assured the representative that if such re-authorization were forthcoming and apparent, the staff would welcome a resumption of negotiations.

Approximately 30 minutes later, the woman returned as a plenipotentiary, and the talks resumed.  After eight minutes, two male members of her group sought and were granted admission as observers to the staff room.  The director at once pointed out that her authorization evidenced a 50% greater degree of support and that she had been given a lengthier but still short-term type of plenipotentiary authorization.  Under such circumstances, the talks were again halted.  The woman acknowledged the patent implications of her colleagues’ behavior.  She was encouraged to evaluate together with them her valence for the situation and their ability to serve their own unconscious purposes through this tableau.

In this case, the woman and her colleagues who came to observe were asked to function as emissaries of the consulting staff, discreetly sent back to work interpretively with their own group.   Such indirect intergroup consultation does not require the staff’s physical departure from its workspace.

Attempts by one part of an institution (in this instance, the members) to respond to, mirror, or repair perceived deficiencies and distress in another part of the system (here, the administrative subsystem) through a strategic challenge or an invitation to collaboration around the latter’s field of competence and authority could have been hypothesized.  Dynamic repetition (a plenipotentiary female member who, like the plenipotentiary female administrator, seemed able only to successfully approximate an appropriate negotiating stance) could have been explored.

The incident could as easily have been interpreted and managed with reference to institutional and staff dynamics.  Parallels between the staff group’s and the member group’s behavior could have been drawn: the staff employed a supervising boundary consultant, whose function the cadre of male colleagues in some manner imitated.  In both cases, a woman was burdened with closer and more frequent supervision than was justified by her competence and level of authorization.  The staff might have suggested that the members utilize the data public and already known to various of the member groups to investigate dynamic similarities or connections with the staff’s functioning.

The topic of the negotiations suggests that the administrator’s nutritional expertise fell short of the members’.  Political elements, latent in the content proposed for the encounter, might have been fruitfully pursued through hypotheses that the members rushed to seek concessions from the administrator while she was distracted or debilitated by emotional factors originating in her own intragroup relations.  The male observers, on their second visit, could have been denied admittance until the meeting with their plenipotentiary representative had terminated.  But such interventions are more proper in an intergroup event guided by Focus B.

In summary, under Focus A staff regularly remains in the staff room, responds to member initiatives but rarely initiates interaction with members outside the staff room, and retains hypotheses that it may generate for its internal use.  To generalize further, one may say that under Focus A, the individual intergroup dynamics are primary, and larger system phenomena are secondary or disregarded.

Focus B

Other directors approach both intergroup and institutional dynamics in a single conference event, variously referred to as an intergroup event, an institutional event, or an intergroup/institutional event.  The aim of a straightforward institutional event is the exploration of the relationship between the two principal subsystems of participants, the members and the staff, in an effort to understand the psychic, political, and spiritual aspects of the internal life and behavior of the conference system.  Groups’ relations to each other receive more attention during the intergroup event than members’ conspicuously political relations with staff, which are more likely to be examined during the institutional event.

Under Focus B, comprehending the conference system does not depend so integrally upon direct participation in intergroup interactions as it does in a straightforward intergroup event.  By attending intellectually to system-wide dynamics and occasionally initiating interaction and regularly accepting proffered opportunities for interaction with member-formed groups, the staff facilitates a shared experience, whose nature is both intergroup and institutional.  However, since staff may not be met as a group and members may have contact only with the consultant assigned to the space they are using, Focus B does not permit in-depth exploration of institutional dynamics.

Intergroup no less than institutional relations exist within one or more overarching and influential systems or set of boundaries.  The frequent combination of the intergroup tasks and those appropriate to the institutional event in a single exercise is assumed to be a compromise response to the challenge of studying intergroup relations while consistently preserving a focus on the total system.

The sponsoring institution’s grandiosity or fantasies of omnipotence, the director’s inexperience in the definition and management of conceptual boundaries, wishes to provide for extensive learning within the conference design selected, and desire to obviate the constraints placed on learning by time and schedule limitations may motivate decisions to combine the intergroup and institutional events.  Over-ambitious or exhibitionistic impulses to export staff’s own wide experience and understanding are misguided since conference events exist a priori for the benefit of the members.  They are designed to further member learning, even when pursuit of this intention does not provide gratifying alleviation of staff discomfort or ambition.

Logically, one comprehends intergroup dynamics before being able to profit fully from opportunities for higher-order learning about the rational and irrational functioning of an entire social system.  A sequential exposure may illuminate members’ understanding of interacting groups more readily than a single condensed and hybridized presentation.  Since learning is in any case not finite, the provision of an intergroup event utilizing Focus A may be adequate for other than extended or residential programs.

The combination of intergroup and institutional perspectives under Focus B can lead to an ambiguity of intentions that aggravates the phenomena deemed worthy of attention or resolution.  Although intergroup and institutional systems are certainly and always interrelated, concerns for the usefulness of the learning opportunities extended to members may preclude a combination of intergroup and institutional frames of reference in a single event.  It is unclear whether the experiential bases required for learning in the two arenas can be acquired concurrently.  The members’ level of psychological and managerial sophistication or degree of previous conference experience may decide the relative wisdom of a single or combined focus for the intergroup event.

Some directors treat the intergroup event as preparation for the institutional event.  A recent European residential conference, of one week’s duration, offered four intergroup sessions, including the opening plenary; not all participants took part in the intergroup event, which was open only to those members with no prior conference experience.  Subsequently, all participants engaged in eleven institutional event sessions, including an opening and a closing plenary (Forum International de l’Innovation Sociale, 1994).

Under Focus B, whether or not member groups are interacting among themselves is noted and may be of central concern; yet those interactions are not especially promoted or encouraged.

As in a pure institutional event, major learnings can take place through face-to-face interaction and  intellectual efforts with the staff collective in exploring the relations among the groups participating, including the staff collective.  Staff may utilize the combined intergroup/institutional focus to study and even endeavor to resolve institutional neuroses, conflicts arising from the management and administration of the conference, and emotional distress within the membership and staff.  The circulation of staff’s hypotheses is undertaken more to stimulate collaborative task-oriented communication than to effect change in the system, but circulation of hypotheses is neither essential nor standard in Focus B.

In every manner of carrying out the intergroup (and institutional) events, when member representatives verbally engage with the staff group, the director often, even routinely, speaks first and alone.  She or he may use the exchange to inform or teach the members about intergroup protocols and the boundaries set by them or to present staff’s hypotheses about individual groups or the system as a whole.

The freedom with which staff undertakes contact with member groups varies from country to country and often depends entirely upon the director’s preferences.  In France and England, transmission of staff’s hypotheses to member groups tends to be ongoing.  In the intergroup events held in México, staff’s energies are directed toward encouraging both intergroup activity and subsequent analysis of the activity.  This approach stresses action as well as thought and attempts to avoid members’ and staff ’s remaining in their respective spaces, emotionally or intellectually engaged largely in the private generation of hypotheses or fantasies about the existence and character of other groups.  In the United States, staff members seem reluctant to initiate contact with member groups, while remaining passively disposed to such contact whenever members initiate it and whenever the staff’s political prerequisites for collaboration have been met.

Actions taken to institute or clarify essential or helpful distinctions in the individual participants’ or subgroup’s relationship to each other and to the conference management and institution are best termed political.  All intergroup praxis derives from politics.  Staff’s political actions place a non-egalitarian matrix on members’ encounters with the polis or conference collective.  Politics pertains to the control of individuals’ or groups’ access to the vectors of collective affectivity, which are usually synonymous with the vectors used for shaping the system as a whole.  The conference director and management team officiate as vectors of the collective’s affectivity.

Political action ordains and regulates participants’ relation to the conference collective; but this relation is neither static nor unilaterally determined by conference management.  Its character and boundaries are repeatedly experienced, tested, teased, and negotiated.  Compared to members, conference management has greater power and responsibility for setting essential or helpful boundaries.  But staff does not hold all political power.  Legitimate political influence accrues to every group that undertakes the system’s tasks.  This fact explains why an absence of contact with member groups is troubling during Type 1/2 events; hypotheses based on less than generally complete information are rarely useful to intergroups’ learning tasks.

Boundaries affecting participants’ relation to the conference polis are defined, publicized, and ratified in advance.  Conference management’s solicitation of a contract with members and staff is a political act that establishes disparate levels of institutional authority while affirming parity in personal responsibility.

Political superintendence of the multiple internal and external boundaries of groups is expedient for the vitality of the intergroup event’s purpose and functioning.  The institution of role and task distinctions aims to render them available for reflective commentary.  The conference arena encourages examination of the political realities bearing on the existence, identity, and security of related but unequally powerful groups.  To the degree that the boundaries of time, territory, task, and technique imported by staff are instrumental, the use of political power is essentially rational.  Conversely, the exercise of political control is irrational whenever it dictates boundaries that are not functional and instrumental from the point of view of the system’s tasks.

The foremost psychodynamic function of rational boundaries is to enhance the collective’s ability to tolerate systemic anxieties and thereby to assure the individual’s ability to do work.  But boundary management can itself be subject to irrational emotional factors, tied to concerns about identity, security, and competence.  Political action to define group boundaries and tasks is defensive and counterproductive when it aims to fashion distinctiveness on other than rational, functional criteria.

Staff’s alteration of previously endorsed boundary parameters or liberal initiation of intergroup transactions may express irrational, self-serving political motives.  Overmuch activity by staff attenuates members’ reflective study of intergroup relations.  The danger of an active stance vis-à-vis encounters with member-group representatives is that staff strive or happen to manipulate or dominate the intergroup event.

The drawback to a passive or passively receptive stance is that the event’s objectives may not be attained.  Without competent consultation and staff leadership, participants may automatically reproduce the conventions governing human interaction and discourse in the society at large.  They may so soundly, faithfully, and unwittingly do so that no objective, reasoned approach to their study is possible.

Unless the staff can make the intergroup and institutional dynamics operating in the conference as a microcosm of society stand in contrast to an array of alternatives, ideally more or equally rational and just, members may find the study of these dynamics too convoluted.  While including the kinds of social contract prevalent in the wider society, the spectrum of alternatives considered must invite and contribute to rational transformation of ordinary social habit and accommodation.  Staff must create, through interpretation of behavior, social disequilibrium sufficient to encourage an inquisitive comparison of common social practice with the innovative possibilities imagined by members and staff and generated only through direct social contact.

Without stable avenues for interaction and generous room for innovation in behavior and conceptualization, learning may be circumscribed.  If the mentality of the social microcosm is identical to that of the society at large and if this replicate mentality goes unchallenged by interpretation, learning will be further limited.

The locale of the conference, as well as the national and cultural identities of the staff collective, exercise important influence in the staff’s approach to institutional dynamics.  For example, to invade, exert major internal political pressure, or otherwise take possession of another group is often perceived abroad to be a North American behavioral preference or impulse with regard to alien or internally disordered groups.  North American staffs may manage such impulses in the intergroup event by reaction formation.  The Mexican tendency in intergroup situations is to discuss in isolated sectors the inner politics of other groups.

A predisposition to dealing with intergroup anxieties by splitting or avoidance of physical contact may propel Mexican staffs.  The French and British approaches rely on the use of verbal diplomacy.  As a result, intergroup dealings may have an intellectualized flavor.  The antidote to culture-based shortsightedness is the staff’s unrelenting scrutiny of its motivations and politics.

Under Focus B, staff encourages members to examine their group functioning as an imitation of or a reaction or response to the staff’s comportment.  Analysis of factors affecting equally both members’ and staff’s behaviors is attempted.  For example, the consequences of members’ and staff’s mutual envy of the other’s role during the conference may serve as bases for hypothesis formation.

Staff’s views of itself as the governors or managers of the conference institution may color interactions with members and distort hypotheses about member groups or about members’ and staff’s interconnected operations.  Under Focus A, the staff, while effecting its role as conference management, is likely to conceive of itself as simply a highly significant group in studied interaction with other groups.  Thus, except for the consultants located permanently or temporarily in member groups, the remainder of staff may in no direct way participate actively or physically in the event.

Staff using Focus B may scrutinize member groups’ internal management and boundary regulation less than their internal structures, demographics, and sentiments that appear to be related to similar entities in the staff group.  Standard intergroup issues, such as representation and delegation of authority, may be accorded concurrent treatment.  Staff may inquire about member groups’ numerical or gender composition as avenues to exploring regnant dynamics that can be understood with reference to conference management.

Under Focus B, conference management and consulting staff ordinarily work together in one space.  While awaiting the arrival of representatives from member groups, they may review the composition and emotional atmosphere of the member groups about which such information is known.  The information itself may be hearsay; it may have been obtained by observation or from member representatives upon their entry into the staff room.  Staff consultants’ interactions with member groups supply additional data.

In the absence of member delegates or plenipotentiaries in the staff room, staff members may turn to consideration of crippling intra-team stress, inter-team conflict, or general systemic aboulia.  Staff may evidence or debate restraints placed on staff members’ functioning and participating by the structures or style of direction in place.  These agenda items are then scrutinized as potential causes or effects of derivative phenomena in other subsystems of the conference institution.

In summary, Focus B is frequently employed in three-day nonresidential programs, which comprise the majority of group-relations conferences offered.  It intends to combine both intergroup and institutional perspectives.  Staff and members may or may not be adequate to such a formidable challenge.  Staff may be more aware of and feel more responsible for the status of the total system in intergroup events convened under Focus B; they may therefore be more actively engaged in the event.

In North America, Focus B is more frequent than Focus A.  In Europe and Latin America, the opposite is true.  Confusion is probably an inherent feature of Focus B.  In truth, the two foci are often exceedingly difficult to distinguish, because their differences lie largely in the unpublicized internal perspectives and attitudes of the staff members.

Since Focus A ordinarily precludes face-to-face contact between members and the staff collective, Focus B provides the context for the discussion offered in the remainder of this article.  Moreover, much of the following discussion has equal relevance to the implementation of the institutional event.

History and parameters of the intergroup event
Types of intergroup event
Intergroup and institutional event foci
The director's tasks
Structures: Paradigms for learning
Boundary functionaries
The staff room's boundaries
Recent innovation
The member-staff boundary consultant's entry into members' groups
The learning tasks of intergroup representation and negotiation

Related topic:  Study group consultancy: Elements of the task


© 1998, 1999, 2006, 2016  by Dr. Stan De Loach   All rights reserved.

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