The intergroup and institutional events:

An overview of designs, foci, structures, and functions

Stan De Loach, Ph.D.

Structures: Paradigms for learning

Staff’s public work together is as a rule affected by fears of being alternately overwhelmed and abandoned by the larger and surrounding collective, fears also familiar to study group participants.  Rational direction relies on an awareness of the influence of the evaluative, competitive, and survival concerns attributable to the public nature of staff’s task performance.  Conference members rarely study the behavior of a single staff person.  Rather, their interest centers on the staff as a whole, whence the educational potential of staff’s public demonstration of genuinely intergroup perspectives in its collective work.

The genesis and vitality of staff’s interpretations and hypotheses issue from its immersion in the latent, irrational aspects of intergroup chaos and collaboration.  Members, by noting this connection, may be encouraged to increase the breadth of their social understanding through attention to its less obvious premises.

Members’ courage in learning to honestly confront their own experience, in its rational and irrational components, depends greatly on staff’s courageous and honest confrontations of its own experiences in both private and public milieux.  A frequent and indefensible outcome of members’ participation in the intergroup event is a pedantic education in its rules.  Learning the requirements for being admitted to the staff room, acquiring the keys to success in obtaining a staff consultant, and learning how to spout the rubrics of representation and delegation are inane, though probably necessary, achievements.  They resemble training and indoctrination, forms of adjustment generating little self-exploration and insight.

At the same time, a degree of expertise in the rubrics of intergroup protocol and mechanics is worthwhile and even essential to insight at the level of the entire system.  Separate but sequential presentation of intergroup and institutional events may best permit members to consolidate a sophisticated employ of intergroup specifics as a sound basis for eventual examination of phenomena at the level of the entire institution.

During the intergroup event, the director must not collude with members’ or staff’s wishes to flee from an intergroup focus by sanctioning or engaging in the examination of settings or behaviors, including dyadic or systemic behaviors, not proper to the intergroup event.  The widespread habit of reviewing study group and large group sessions during the initial hours of the intergroup event can stymie members’ and staff’s comprehension of their task.  They may interpret the director’s tolerance or carelessness in the definition and observation of task and content boundaries as a public abdication of his or her role.

Airing study group and large group reports during the intergroup event may represent means of publicly but surreptitiously reassuring members of staff’s concern for them.  Allowing the study group or large group consultants to report on their work may also be a response to staff members’ competitive strivings toward the director and may reflect or entrench staff’s hesitance to operate as a group during the intergroup event.

The consultants, in reviewing earlier, non-intergroup activities for the remainder of the staff, provide vicarious satisfaction for staff members’ individual and collective competitive and exhibitionistic impulses.  Exhibitionistic tendencies can also pervade later reports of member-staff exchanges during the intergroup event, imbuing them with condescension, laughter, and barely disguised sadistic pleasure in mockery of members.  In contrast, true humor can accelerate the work.

Some overlapping discussion of prior events and immediate engagements is inevitable.  But, staff’s public report of prior events can persuade members that their wishes to continue study group or large group formats and perspectives are justified.  Three assumptions may underlie staff’s reliance on reports of earlier events: that small-group dynamics are undifferentiated, irrespective of the group’s task; that ordinary small-group dynamics and those specific to small groups in the intergroup event are of equal relevance to the intergroup event’s task; and, that no current pertinent intergroup data are at hand for discussion.

While these suppositions signal fuzzy or inexplicit conceptual boundaries on staff’s part, they contain some truth.  Some small-group dynamics are common to all small groups, regardless of their task or orientation.  Previous member-staff interactions in the study groups have some, usually undefined relevance for the intergroup event.  But, during the intergroup event, the relevance is different in degree or in focus.  On one level, study group meetings are by design also intergroup meetings, inasmuch as the members and the staff consultant(s) interact while maintaining distinct reference group identities.

The supposed absence of relevant intergroup data at the beginning of the intergroup event is related to the belief that the intergroup focus is untenable without the existence of member-formed groups.  In fact, intergroup contacts such as administrative team interactions with the membership and the director’s presentations to the members in the plenary sessions occur throughout the conference.  While the information encapsulated in such encounters is not easily understood, retrieved, or applied, it is serviceable for both members and staff during the initial segments of the intergroup event.  The significance of the information may be clarified during later intergroup event transactions.

The director’s comments in introducing the intergroup event imply a task-driven reformulation of the relationship between the members and the staff.  The task truly requires an altered conceptualization of this relationship.  The director’s tone and approach, as well has her or his sensitive responses to members’ questions, contribute initial substance and confirmation of an intergroup focus and context.  From a global standpoint, of course, an intergroup perspective is only a relative or symbolic achievement.  A monolingual or mononational conference portrays a complex, varied, but undoubtedly still intragroup reality.  After the opening plenary of intergroup events, the director ceases to be the principal responsible for promoting intergroup collaboration.  The boundary managers and the staff group as a whole assume that function.  The director’s task shifts to management of staff behaviors that diminish or relegate to incidental status the inherent preeminence of intergroup interactions and perspectives.

Appropriate direction always denies accession to flight from the task, which occurs more easily from a focus on the intergroup aspects of member-staff interactions than from the exchanges themselves.  Because the exchanges usually inquire into, test, or affirm individuals’ relationship to a group and groups’ connection to the system or larger community of groups, they are prototypical political events.  Because raw political encounters are engrossing, as well as stimulating and enjoyable (or offensive), scrutiny of the intergroup dynamics expressed in them may be overlooked or considered gratuitous.

Adroit management of the agenda by the director requires close attention to here-and-now psychodynamic and political processes and their meanings.  Especial care must be utilized in managing staff’s agenda when member representatives are present or attendant.  The reasons for asking members to defer verbal interaction with the staff while the latter pursues non-intergroup considerations must be transparent and overriding.  Delaying the presentation of reports of staff’s consultations to member groups can indicate a resistance to engaging in intergroup interaction.

At a conference in the United States, organized under Focus B, the female intergroup consultant returned to the staff room after consultation to a meeting among three member groups, which had lasted for 15 minutes.  In the staff’s space, for more than ten minutes, with a noticeable lack of emotional anticipation for hearing the consultant’s report of her intergroup work, the staff members continued to address the ongoing theme of their competition for staff positions for a local upcoming conference.

The consultant began to feel as if she were an inexperienced member in staff’s midst, without an awareness of how to address the staff group’s flight from its here-and-now task.  She reported feeling that she, by having spent a quarter of an hour with the member group, had become contaminated and was clearly out of the running for a position on the staff of even the present, in-progress conference.

She interpreted that the staff was treating her with the same distrust, disdain, and disinterest that it manifested toward the intergroup character of the event and toward work with the admittedly inexperienced members.  She said that she felt as if her colleagues regarded her report of intergroup behaviors as less appealing and challenging than their own intragroup plans and ambitions.

The intergroup focus is more threatening than the enterprise-as-a-whole viewpoint, because it draws closer to an examination of individual behaviors.  With time, members and staff grow in their awareness that they do not act solely as individuals during the conference.  But a focus on their employment and function as deliberate or unwitting spokespersons for groups or sectors, defined or undefined, formal and informal, is novel and uneasy.

Staff’s inadequate modeling and expression of the event’s intergroup aspect can initiate basic assumption flight and pairing behaviors in the membership.  These behaviors, in the guise of marked intragroup cohesion and activity, are antagonistic to experiential learning in the intergroup context.

In spite of the director’s and staff’s best efforts, no conference or intergroup event achieves perfection.  The quest for perfection may itself stifle members’ and staff’s freedom to learn.  It is the generation of opportunities for focused educative experience rather than the perfection of the structures or results that is to be supported.

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    Dr. Stan De Loach    All rights reserved.

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