and institutional events:
An overview of
designs, foci, structures, and functions
Stan De Loach, Ph.D.
The employ of boundary functionaries:
Mediating access to community
Staff’s interaction with member groups,
through their respective representatives, is essential to task completion
in the institutional event and the intergroup event utilizing Focus B.
Staff routinely and members usually employ boundary managers to mediate
intergroup contacts. To insure efficient and timely response to the
members’ visits, one or two persons from the administrative team are commonly
assigned to negotiate with the member representatives. The term negotiate,
describing the activity of these boundary managers, means to confer and
to discuss a matter with a view to reaching agreement about its content
and the structures through which it will be presented across group boundaries.
Three general rules or outcomes
pertain to intergroup negotiations:
Boundary functionaries, whether
members or staff, experience anxiety and impediment at the intergroup interface
to the extent that they are not genuinely authorized by those whom they
are expected to represent.
Staff’s boundary managers
act on staff’s behalf and with staff’s authorization. Ambivalence,
carelessness, or aggressive impulses may be expressed in the imposition
of the sensitive role of boundary manager on persons unfamiliar with the
attendant duties and responsibilities. Disagreements between staff
and its boundary managers may reflect the nominal nature of the authorization
or staff’s unwillingness to respect the autonomous exercise of the authority
that it has delegated. When disagreements or inefficiencies arise
in boundary management, the staff may subtly reduce its authorization of
the boundary managers by withdrawing its emotional support for their authorization
Boundary functionaries, whether member
or staff, experience anxiety and impediment at the intergroup interface
to the extent that they do not understand the scope of their authorization
and the mechanics of their task and role.
This individually performed, usually
silent withdrawal of authorization is irrational. The director earlier
determined that the boundary persons were trained and competent to perform
the task. Of course, "impeachment" may be appropriate. But
every challenge to conference structures and staff deployment may also
call into question the director’s authority. The staff’s withdrawal
of its full authorization from its boundary managers is immediately prejudicial
to the latter’s ability to be effective in task-directed negotiations with
member group representatives.
The conference system is a temporary
educational institution. The stresses inherent in representation
and collaboration across roles and other boundaries can be experienced
and studied in intergroup events. Unlike the surreptitious withdrawal
of authorization, public, explicit revision and re-negotiation of authorization
and its parameters remain remedies congruent with the spirit of the institution
and of the events.
These matters must be
detailed in the director’s instructions to the boundary persons, and staff
members must be privy to the content of the instructions. Failure
by the staff to authorize the director to delegate authority and to enumerate
guidelines on its behalf can hamper the boundary managers’ understanding
and response to the director’s instructions.
Boundary functionaries, whether members
or staff, experience anxiety and impediment at the intergroup interface
to the extent that they do not know how or are not permitted to adequately
exercise their personal authority.
An experienced staff person’s
presence on the boundary between members and staff can advance members’
learning more rapidly than the presence of a staff person unfamiliar with
the spirit and letter of the rules supported by the director. Assigning
a senior staff person to accompany an inexperienced boundary manager or
to arbitrate specific types of member requests provides the novice boundary
manager with genuine supervision and understanding of her or his role,
task, and the degree of freedom to act discriminately supplied with the
To the same degree, the provision
of supervision can express staff’s determination to attempt perfection
and to control for all weaknesses within the system. On-the-job supervision
may also metacommunicate the staff’s mistrust or ambivalent delegation
of authority to its own representatives.
Authorization is ephemeral.
Because the granting of authorization rarely details the kinds or degrees
of action contemplated, the translation of authorization into action is
difficult and largely a matter of the responsible implementation and management
of internal and internalized conceptual boundaries. Thus, the exercise
of personal authority in decisions about the utilization of authorization
is unavoidable. The issues involved in understanding and translating
personal authority into specific behaviors are also globally descriptive
of the subject matter of a Tavistock group-relations conference.
Boundary persons must complement
their instructions and authorization with compatible decisions born extemporaneously
of their understanding of their own personal authority. Basic assumption
dependence behavior, favored by inadequate instruction, task or role ambiguity,
intra-staff contention, a domineering director, or the boundary persons’
inexperience in the subtleties of conference work, restricts appeal to
During the pre-conference period,
the administrators’ substantial exercise of personal authority in boundary
negotiations with potential and actual members is usually subject to minimal
guidelines and supervision. Staff members may fail to recognize the
administrators’ earlier entitlement to and discharge of delegated authority
to represent the staff in negotiations with potential and actual members.
They may overlook the sophistication of already concluded negotiations
entered into by the administrators on staff’s behalf.
During intergroup events, staff
may regard the boundary persons as negotiating merely the members’ entry
into the staff room. Staff may expect all sophisticated negotiation
to occur between the director and the members admitted. This assumption
and any associated reduction in authorization to act on staff’s behalf
generate confusion for the boundary managers about the legitimacy of their
exercise of personal authority in performing their role.
Staff members experience anxiety
arising from their obligation to respect contracts with conference management
in the simultaneous exercise of role and individual authority. The
boundary persons may become incapacitated if their inexperience and vulnerability
in task performance tempt the remainder of staff to manage this shared
anxiety and obligation by splitting or projective identification.
Assigning the responsibilities
for boundary exchanges and negotiations to persons with little experience
in conference roles may be ill-advised because of the particularly inhibiting
impact of shame in the pursuit of learning. Unsatisfactory boundary
management exposes the staff’s boundary representatives to the possibility
of condemnation, ridicule, acute stress, attributions of incompetence,
and potentially humiliating public reduction of their level or scope of
authorization. At the same time, the routine exchanges required in
the boundary manager role, as well as the conflict and disorientation routinely
found on significant intergroup boundaries, ensure opportunities for diverse
and applicable learning.
Conference learning depends on
the exercise of individual authority and on a safeguarded freedom to experiment
with responsible interpersonal behaviors, in the context of intergroup
representation. The conference structures and the staff’s intentions
constitute the major safeguards for this freedom to experiment and to learn
The threat or dread of shame may
inhibit initiative, humor, and responsible spontaneity at the intergroup
interface. Any suggestion that experimentation or its issue is shameful
works to the detriment of members’ and staff’s freedom to learn.
Similarly, if staff colludes to portray the exercise of individual authority
as dangerous, rebellious, submissive, or traitorous, intergroup learning
1999, 2006, 2016 Dr. Stan De Loach All rights reserved.