The intergroup 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 and employ.

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.

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.
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.

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 authorization.

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.

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.
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 personal authority.

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 through experimentation.

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 is inhibited.

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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