The intergroup and institutional events:

An overview of designs, foci, structures, and functions

Stan De Loach, Ph.D.

The staff room's physical boundaries:

Crucial venues for the community's commerce of learning

The staff’s boundaries allow it to substantiate and repeatedly assert its availability for member learning.  Members’ initiation of contact with the staff must be facilitated by a formal, efficient procedure and not forestalled by a hostile or intimidating reception.  The encounters between members and staff modify the former’s wish and ability to collaborate.

The boundaries between the member groups and between the membership and the staff form an appropriate subject matter for staff’s intellectual work.  The interactions at these boundaries stimulate and furnish evidence for staff’s formulations of the intergroup and institutional or systemic dynamics.  Typical of such formulations are the following:

Do "members’ subgroups…reflect some aspect of the members’ perception of the staff"?  (Guereca, 1979, p. 104)

The "problems of leadership cannot be safely separated from problems of membership."  (Cartwright & Zander, 1953, p. 550)

Perhaps conflict is displaced onto or "among member groups in order to avoid any conflict with the staff."  (Astrachan & Flynn, 1976, p. 55)

The reception that members receive from the staff expresses, in one way or another, staff’s sentiments toward the members and toward the intergroup event or institutional event task.  If intergroup relations are an intention rather than a distraction of staff’s energies, members’ contacts with the staff’s boundary managers will extend, not curtail, learning opportunities.  The boundary persons’ behavior need be neither supercilious nor ingratiating; it must only generate anxiety sufficient to fuel authentic learning.

Staff’s treatment of the first member emissaries to arrive at its doorway can influence members’ decisions to include or exclude the staff in their activities during the intergroup and institutional events.  The first encounters in the member-staff intergroup working alliance often take place when the relationship between the parties involved is fragile and poorly understood.  The situation calls for diplomacy and tact.

The first set of member representatives may be primed for holistic engagement in the learning opportunities supplied by the event.  However, because they may have come impulsively, without much reflection, their primary motivations may be emotional energy, pain, curiosity, or confusion.  They may depict behaviorally the membership’s attempts to understand irrationality or to physically export it into the staff group to avoid verbal exploration.

If these persons are turned away because of the irrationality of their unpolished approach, then the staff may be interpreted as saying, "we will not participate in intergroup encounters tinged with the crude or primitive."  Such a real or perceived message damages the integrity of the event and its purposes.

Staff, because of its greater familiarity with the event, clearly has a superior responsibility for ensuring that the tentative working alliance between the members and the staff is established and strengthened rather than eroded during the events’ initial sessions.

If the members are rejected, handicapped by the letter of the rules governing entrance to the staff room and not aided by their spirit, or turned away on picayune points of protocol, members’ enthusiasm for exchanges with the staff will generally be dampened.  Diminished interest will be observed not only in the group whose representatives are confronted with discouraging obstacles and attitudes emanating from the staff or its boundary managers.  Indeed, a disinclination to engage the staff may subsequently invade the entire system, so that neither staff nor members feel authorized or inclined to participate fully.

In Europe and México, during the institutional event, only representatives with a plenipotentiary status are permitted to interact verbally directly with staff.  In the U. S., representatives with either a delegate or plenipotentiary status are more likely to be permitted to interact verbally directly with staff during the institutional event.  In any case, if the members’ plenipotentiary representatives are required to divulge to the staff’s boundary person the complete content and form of their tasks and charges, they are obliged to enact a role inferior to their legitimate authorization.  Such a staff posture undercuts members’ ability to responsibly represent a group before the staff collective.  The plenipotentiary status appears derided or compromised.  Members may subsequently grow reluctant to send highly authorized representatives, thereby significantly reducing learning opportunities for all participants.

During a Type 1/2 conference in the United States, organized under Focus B, the female staff boundary manager interviewed two members with authorization at the delegate level, who were the first emissaries to arrive during the institutional event.  Both delegates and plenipotentiary emissaries were allowed to interact verbally directly with the director and other staff persons during this event.  The members revealed that they were sent to pose two questions to the director.  At the boundary, the content of the questions was solicited and supplied.  The staff’s boundary manager in turn read aloud the content of the questions to the staff collective, after she had allowed the two delegates, one male and one female, to be seated in two chairs reserved for members granted access to verbal interaction with the director and other staff members.

After they were seated and the woman had placed her pocketbook on the floor beside her, the female supervising boundary consultant asked to know why these two persons had been seated without her approval.  The boundary manager replied that in her understanding, the supervising boundary consultant was expected to evaluate requests only from plenipotentiary emissaries, not from those sent as delegates.

After it was determined that the boundary manager was in error, she hurriedly asked the two member representatives to remove themselves to the neutral space outside the staff room.  In that space, she explained to the members that they would have to repeat yet again their purpose and questions to the supervising boundary consultant, who ultimately denied them access because "they were not clear as to the questions that they were to pose."  Staff members brought up no questions or comments as to whose lack of clarity was highlighted by this event.

After the reversal of the staff’s boundary manager’s earlier decision, the female member sheepishly returned to the staff room to retrieve her purse.  She kept her head down and made no eye contact with staff members.  During the remainder of the event, no plenipotentiaries, from any of the member groups, ever sought to interact verbally with the staff.

A connection between staff’s insensitive and procrustean tack and members’ subsequent avoidance of interactions at the plenipotentiary level with the staff’s boundary manager and supervising boundary consultant seems plausible.

Staff must be sensitive to the risks of shame when members come to staff’s space.  The host-guest paradigm offers a framework for maintaining this sensitivity.  Away from often shaky and evolving bases of authorization, members are susceptible to trauma if they cannot or do not at once understand or meet staff’s sophisticated expectations.  While the degree of divergence from staff’s expectations can spark appropriate learning, at least in the early stages of intergroup events, staff cannot afford to disregard the social requirements commonly accepted in human systems.

Members may avoid sending plenipotentiaries to the staff room whenever they seek to circumvent the potential for rejection and humiliation or the responsibilities for verbal interaction.  Staff must model the sensibly firm boundaries imperative in effective intergroup communications, while meeting the legitimate social needs of the individual and of the total sociotechnical system that serves as the framework for the event.

Simply instructing the staff’s boundary manager to steer clear of a focus on "permission" to enter the staff room and to develop instead a focus on "crossing the boundary" clarifies both the social and the technical nature of the intergroup exchange.  The director and consultants facilitate more member learning by shifting emphasis from how members’ and staff’s group boundaries are managed to an examination of whether and how the style of boundary management in place contributes to learning.  It may be instructive, for example, to explore how congruent the qualities of the boundaries established are with the fundamental objectives of the event or whether and how the boundaries encourage (or discourage) the social system’s pursuit of these fundamental and stated objectives.

In concrete terms, a staff boundary manager might attempt to convey the spirit of the following message to arriving member representatives:

"We feel that our security and ability to work as staff without undue interruption from fantasies and other irrational distractions are increased by soliciting some information about those with whom we work.  So, in deciding whether to invite you to cross into the space in which we are currently working on intergroup and institutional issues, we will ask you some questions, principally about your provenance and purpose.

"Of course, when the nature and task of your visit are in line with the nature and task of our work and of the event’s stated task, authorization for our collaboration is logical and desirable.  But, as you probably know from your own group’s work, insuring adequate levels of collective and individual clarity helps to create an secure environment in which rational tasks can be done efficiently."

Staff must avoid having a "nothing is or can be unforeseen" approach to the members’ strategies.  Each crossing of a boundary into a foreign culture entails a risk, which may yield precious learning.  Every boundary, beyond corporal limits, presents a threshold to another culture, which because of its unfamiliarity and strangeness may represent a danger to rigid or even vivid imaginations of the possible and correct order for a human system.

It is to permit some of these encounters with another culture to lead to transformation, rather than merely affirmation of previous experience, current expectations, or even cherished perspectives on the intergroup and institutional world that group-relations conferences are offered.

A staff flexible in its dealings with member groups will in general itself learn and promote member learning.  For example, in most conference structures, staff members other than the director infrequently address member emissaries.  Perhaps they worry about challenging the director’s control and authority or fear saying something "wrong" at the "wrong" time.  Perhaps they are uncertain of the task or proper procedure.  Perhaps they worry about the adequacy of temporal resources.

Whatever the reasons, their reticence reduces the spontaneity of the event and deprives members of the chance to observe as staff deals in functional ways with the same intragroup adversity and dynamics that affect their own groups.  Members’ observations of staff’s treatment of its differences of opinion and in understanding, its competitive strivings, its accommodation to heterogeneous styles of managing personal authority, its struggles with role implementation, and its primitive urges is appropriate and salutary.

Each conference event prepares the members for the subsequent exercises or event.  If the residual from the study group and large group experiences is an adversarial posture or if the consultants have neglected the group-as-a-whole perspective, members may encounter difficulty in comprehending intergroup events’ focus on systems more dispersed and interactive than a study group.  From the members’ handling of the conceptual and procedural shifts required by intergroup events, the director is able to assess the accuracy of the consultants’ earlier descriptions of the members’ learning and state of mind.

Member-staff boundary transactions highlight the political elements of intergroup relations.  Engaging in boundary negotiations across the physical boundary between members and staff is distinct from interacting in the adjacent neutral space, which is where a majority (temporally speaking) of the member-staff negotiations occur.  The former underscores the intergroup character of the negotiation; the latter emphasizes the exclusivity of group space and issues of representation beyond a group’s recognized borders.

The conference director usually decides whether the boundary agent sits or stands on the physical boundary or remains seated or standing within the confines of the staff room.  Posting the boundary person in the staff room may be a move to insure close or continual supervision by the remainder of the staff.  A posting outside the staff room may depict staff’s wary or defiant sentiments towards the members.  The relationship of any positioning of the boundary persons to their task and authorization must be explicit and considered.  At one conference, in Mississippi, the director asked the boundary manager to maintain one foot inside and the other foot outside the staff room physical boundary (

If meeting arriving members at the boundary of the staff room appears to create for the boundary manager(s) an interruption of other work ongoing with the remainder of the staff, rather than to be the focus of task energies, the members may deduce that the staff is uninterested in or unprepared for active involvement in intergroup or institutional relations.

When seated within the staff configuration, the boundary manager’s rising to greet member representatives must be deliberate and, depending on the type of chair, can be an uncomfortable or noisy maneuver.  Intermittent internal commotion can retard development of a propitious environment for the staff’s work.  While presence in the staff configuration offers the boundary mangers a modicum of security, it can moderate desirable anxiety and thereby reduce the potential for learning at the intergroup and institutional borders.

Boundary dealings during the intergroup event and during the delivery of materials at the conference registration table are similar in their being public demonstrations of intergroup negotiation and representation.  In both situations, negotiations can be carried out openly and audibly, so that addressed and attendant member representatives may witness their style and content.  Both situations provide members with opportunities for active and passive learning about rational and purposeful intergroup and institutional protocol.

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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