Presenting the intergroup and institutional events of a Tavistock group relations conference as laboratories for the experiential study of chaos and community in organizational settings, this article explores the rationale behind the events' design and implementation. Various conference events are standard components of the group relations conferences created in the 1950’s, in England. But intermittent or gradual transformation of models of education and learning, including experiential self- and system-centered models, is inevitable and expedient. The adaptation and continual “modernization” of the Tavistock methodology is influenced by experiential learning, independent practice-based learning, collective and individual thought, and, often, international collaboration or hybridization. Description and analysis of this global, progressive updating can be informative, educational, provocative, and stimulating.
As the world grows increasingly intermingled and global in respect to commerce, ethnicity, travel, religion, diet, communication, information sharing, and terror, the relevance of the institutional system event (ISE) increases, for it suggests and permits experiential learning about routes to understanding the primitive stresses and difficulties latent and overt in constructive interactions among multiple, different social systems, large and small. In the presence of adequate consultation and interpretation, the ISE offers possibilities for leadership development, clarification of vision and strategy, and engagement in issues related to cross-cultural management.
Staff 's approach to its roles and attitudes determines whether conference members are in fact presented with learning opportunities focused on intergroup and institutional behaviors and processes. Staff 's approach to the nature of these events is manifest in the protocols and procedures instituted by the director and in the staff 's collective management of its roles and its own intragroup, intergroup, and institutional dynamics.
This presentation broadens previously published description of the ISE and underscores the event's power and potential for experiential learning about sociotechnical skills applicable in postmodern institutional management. It describes innovations in the design and application of consultations to multinational conference participants. The content and methods of delivery of the consultations encourage transformation of frequently international group and organizational relationships. It reviews the application of a conference-wide focus on working hypotheses about system behaviors and psychodynamics during the ISE and provides examples of real system-level working hypotheses formulated and conveyed during international group relations conferences in France, Jamaica, and the United States.
With frequency, even small working systems have a multilingual, multinational composition; this characteristic influences the realization of the ISE and the nature of system-wide working hypotheses. While the concept of system-level working hypotheses may be familiar to conference staff members, their formulation, articulation, documentation, and communication within group relations conferences, as well as their usefulness for a wider public, are still infrequently applied and incompletely described.
Several staffing innovations recently introduced are examined. Case examples are used to illustrate key points. A lexicon defining key words with meanings specific to the setting of the intergroup and institutional events is included.
A Tavistock group relations conference is a temporary educational system structured to facilitate the study of relations and relatedness between and among groups through experience in an assortment of group sizes and settings. The utility of the intergroup and institutional events in understanding the particular microcosm of society met in the conference, as well as the events' applicability to the extra-conference work and social activities of the participants, underlies their high value and central position in conference design.
Because each Tavistock group relations conference is composed of different individuals, no two conferences ever develop identical cultures or structures. Each conference totality, through its collective life, defines a distinct culture, which embodies the ensemble's vision of community. This vision of community develops in accord with the conscious and unconscious wishes, histories, preferences, and morals of the participants. During the events, this vision becomes visible and palpable.
The culture fashioned by the collective is eventually imposed, accepted, or enacted throughout the conference system. In theory, staff ’s interpretations do not shape or condone the externalization of the collective's vision of community. Rather, staff 's interventions aim to acknowledge and describe this unitary creation, particularly in regard to the unconscious creative processes that contribute to its character. The conference culture is an accommodation to the social and political stresses animating the member and staff subsystems, as well as to larger extra-conference social forces.
Maintaining self-awareness and acting responsibly in the midst of the collective's operationalization and extension of its vision of community demand skill. The intergroup and institutional events permit learning about the influence of systemic forces on individual valences and decision-making in multi-group settings. They also permit examination of the substantial influence that an individual or a group is able to exert in intergroup situations. The intergroup and institutional events underscore the fact that collective life and community are not interchangeable or synonymous concepts.
In order to survive as members of society, individual human beings must learn about the role of rational external and internalized relationships to authority figures in the exercise of personal authority in social contexts. Such learning is a lifelong process and requires reflection, hence the relevance of the intergroup and institutional events.
Both the intergroup event and the institutional events are de facto intergroup exercises. The events refine inner structures and paradigms. The intergroup exercises are fruitless without an active, interior focus. Ultimately, no theory, technique, or external authority figure can substitute for individual thought and action in mediating the requirements for collaboration and conflict reduction among groups.
Because of the inevitability of conflict between the collective's morals and the individual's strivings and urges, intergroup experience leads the individual to regard community as not an entirely benign phenomenon. As a social system, community can be undemocratic and can infringe upon the individual's rights. This state of affairs often generates ambivalence toward differences in general and towards neighboring and co-existing groups in particular.
The Tavistock method stimulates a focus on the subjective experience of inclusion in, exclusion from, and participation through systems whose boundaries are concentric. Conference learning about intergroup relations derives from this subjective experience or from a subjective point of view about the experience of the interplay of the individual and the collective (De Loach, 1988).
The intergroup event was first incorporated into a group relations conference in 1959 (Higgins & Bridger, 1964). Originally, three member-formed groups were assigned the task of negotiating among themselves an agreement about the content of three plenary sessions scheduled near the end of the event. In subsequent years, the task was re-defined as learning about the development of organizational structure in complex social systems through the formation of self-selected groups and the study of the delegation and exercise of individual authority and leadership in a multi-group context.
Currently, the intergroup and institutional events are conceptualized and implemented variously in order to respond to differing purposes and cultural contexts. Frequent experimentation, albeit extemporaneous and unexamined, and innovation in regards to the structures, philosophy, and realization of the events mark the intergroup and institutional events as dynamic components of group relations’ sociotechnical methodology.
Intergroup events allow conference members to form groups, using their own criteria as to membership, size, and manner of functioning. During a plenary opening, the director describes the aim of the intergroup event as the study of the covert and overt processes occurring within, between, and among the participating groups. Alternatively, a written outline of the event's purpose and structure is placed on each of the seats intended for the assembly of participating members.
The number and identity of work spaces set apart and authorized for the groups' tasks are made public, as is the location during the event of the staff and management of the conference. To dissuade members from reconstituting their pre-existing small study groups or systems, the number of spaces allocated for member groups during the intergroup event is usually one more than the number of small study groups offered in the conference.
After opening remarks and response to members' requests for clarification, the director usually departs the plenary room, in order to address tasks of direction within the staff subsystem. A staff consultant, alone or together with a consultant to the member-staff boundary, may remain in the plenary room space in order to be available to assist members in rational subdivision into groups. The staff consultant's task is finished when all members acknowledge, by word or deed, their alignment with one of the subdivisions effected. At this point, the staff consultant and boundary consultant exit the space used for the plenary opening of the intergroup event.
Rarely, members may be assigned to groups constituted on the basis of race or nationality (Instituto Mexicano de Relaciones Grupales y Organizacionales, 1993; Walker, 1993). In conferences with multiple categories of members, such as those with and without previous conference experience, some members may not be scheduled to engage in the intergroup event. Likewise, staff 's participation may vary. The entire staff, a subset of the staff group, or just the consulting staff members may publicly participate in the activities of the intergroup event.
All the spaces designated for member-group activity, all the spaces but one, or none of the spaces may have a staff consultant present during the time periods set aside for the intergroup event. Staff consultants are not usually assigned to members' spaces during the institutional event. In all cases, consultants’ verbal work with member groups is task-focused, brief, and occasionally time-limited. The presence or absence of staff consultants in the member spaces determines the type of intergroup event presented.
In a Type 1 format, the staff consultant remains in the space throughout the event; in a Type 2 format, staff consultants are dispatched to members’ spaces only when members appropriately request task-related consultation (Astrachan & Flynn, 1976). In a modified Type 1/2 format, consultants are present in members’ spaces only during the first session of the intergroup event; thereafter, they are available, usually in alphabetical order, upon appropriate request.
If consultants are not assigned to all spaces, members exercising the option of asking for a staff consultant's services channel their requests to the entire staff met together or, in the Type 2 format, directly to the staff consultants, met apart from the management or directorate [i.e., the director, associate director(s), and administrator(s)] of the conference.
A senior consultant may be designated by the director to work in a space set aside for meetings between two or more groups or their authorized representatives. This intergroup consultant may remain in the space designated for such intergroup meetings and consult to all such meetings. More often, however, the intergroup consultant is present at meetings between two or more groups only when the groups have made an appropriate request for staff consultation to task-pertinent work. Except for Type 1 intergroup events, member groups are free to meet without staff consultation, if they so desire.
A staff member may be assigned by the director to act as supervising boundary consultant. When member emissaries approach the staff room's physical boundary, seeking face-to-face verbal interaction with the director or staff collective, the supervising boundary consultant's task is either to oversee the staff boundary manager's negotiations with them or to be solely responsible for decisions regarding their admission to staff's space. The individual staff consultant's expertise is utilized in his or her decision about whether the members’ request, objective, and motivation are appropriate and legitimate.
During the intergroup event, members may or may not have access to observation or face-to-face verbal negotiations with the staff group. During the institutional event, such access is routine. If the staff performs its managerial functions publicly, member-group interactions with the staff, through the employment of authorized representatives, are customarily encouraged. The four or more time periods usually set aside for the event may be scheduled consecutively or may be spread over one or more days. The event may conclude with or without a plenary review.
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.
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.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.
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, the human being 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 straightforward institutional event, major learnings can take place through face-to-face interaction and intellectual efforts with the staff collective in exploring the relations and relatedness 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.
During intergroup events, the term "direction" refers to the director's molding the conference institution’s approach to the study of intergroup processes in such a way that subsystems' physical and intellectual interrelating promote learning. Such direction requires not only active and proactive leadership but also an explicit formulation of educational purpose. Success in directing also requires leading staff members, who must reciprocate with responsible followership in the venture.
Overvaluation of the didactic role may admit behaviors strictly foreign to group relations methodology; nevertheless, staff is a natural and legitimate provider of learning opportunities. Although providing opportunities for learning implies educational intent and effort, staff members are often reluctant to view themselves as educators. Directors may therefore face considerable challenge in attempts to establish appropriate educational texts and paradigms during the brief course of a conference.
The director's leadership of the staff during intergroup events consists largely in formulating, conveying repeatedly, modeling, and furthering staff 's acceptance and understanding of its educational mandate. The staff may be physically or mentally tired by the time the intergroup event begins. Attention to earlier tasks and roles occasions fatigue and stress. Flight from the taxing complexity of intergroup involvement may appeal to a staff disposed by such stress to relaxing or fraternizing with colleagues or engaging in competitive intellectual jousting with members. Flight from the staff's tasks is common.
The opportunity for staff members to demonstrate in their work together high levels of abstraction through a thoughtful formulation of intergroup dynamics may cause a resurgence of envy and jealousy. Having accommodated, in the pre-conference period, to the director's staffing decisions, staff members may subsequently utilize the industrious performance of tasks and duties as a way to keep at bay their feelings about the psychodynamic meanings to them, as individuals, of the various staff assignments.
The public array of the full staff and the associated clear differentiation of roles and abilities may upset the earlier reconciliation to the differing levels of competence in evidence, as well as to the degree of active involvement with members permitted by the different staff roles. Competitive sentiments among the staff members, and with the director, may be elevated.
Intergroup aspects of the events, as well as the permissible and probable presence of members in the staff's workspace, may pique competition between the members and the staff for the director's attention and view.
During an international conference in México, 50% of the staff and 15% of the members were North American. The conference utilized a Type 2, Focus A design. The director was a male born in the United States, who had lived in México for most of his adult life (14 years in the United States and 37 years in México). Staff viewed the director as being on the border between the Mexican and the North American sectors and as personifying the distrust and ill-ease often found on the border between those sectors, both inside the conference and in the "real" world outside.This incident dramatizes the pressures exerted upon the director by intergroup jealousies and perceptions of scarce resources. The staff as a whole may vie with the members for the director's and staff's attention. Rivalry may arise over the distribution of subtle resources, such as the collective's interest or analytic work.
In managing these pressures, which may take the form of the steering dilemmas described by Gustafson et al. (1981), the director must not inordinately favor staff members nor obstruct members' access to the attention of the director and that of the staff collective.
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 intergroup events, 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 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.
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:
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.
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.Staff must be sensitive to the risks of shame, deriving largely from internal phenomena, and embarrassment, originating largely in external phenomena, 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.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 (www.continents.com/brochure.htm).
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.
Recently, staff members have functioned in a number of novel roles. Some of these roles (e.g., consultant to the administrative team, consultant to the conference directorate) involve intra-staff activities (Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and Organizations, 1994).
To work with members, a staff person may be deployed in the innovative role of consultant to the member-staff boundary, with consultative responsibility for all conference participants during the intergroup and/or institutional event (Texas Center of the A. K. Rice Institute, 1990). In the opening of the event, the director outlines the member-staff boundary consultant's task of interpreting the political nature and psychodynamics of member-staff interactions as they are revealed in task execution. The director specifies that the consultant to the member-staff boundary has authorization to enter and to act in all conference workspaces on behalf of the director and the primary task.
The conference director authorizes the member-staff boundary consultant, but accountability for the role is to the institution as a whole and not strictly to the director. The boundary consultant's personal style and adherence to the task determine the conference system's ability to manage the strong anxieties awakened or intensified by the position. The member-staff boundary consultant's scope of employ can exaggerate feelings of power and omnipotence in the person filling the role, while producing commensurate uneasiness in the rest of the system.
Staff members, including the director, may be unable to envision points of entry for collaboration with the member-staff boundary consultant. A clear understanding, at all levels of the institution, of the different staff roles smoothes collaborative interaction. Staff persons may fearfully expect the boundary consultant's grandiosity or unbounded intervention in their activities.
Concerns about competition and loss of control, exacerbated by the member-staff boundary consultant's broad authorization, may thwart the director's unaccustomed collaboration with a staff member in a role capable of provoking unfamiliar primitive, personal, and telling projections. The nature and stability of the authorization between the director and the member-staff boundary consultant may be a source of conflict.
The presence of a member-staff boundary consultant may lead the members to operate with concerns parallel to those of the staff: fears of partiality, of irrational intervention, of violation of group integrity, dread of personal incompetence in the presence of a staff figure with imagined highly sophisticated competence and experience.
For members and staff, these anxieties can distort the transmission, reception, and preservation of accurate information about the role of the consultant to the member-staff boundary, who may therefore usefully reiterate the nature of his or her task at multiple points in the course of the collaborative work.
Non-conference institutions manage similar organizational anxieties by assigning spatial boundaries to functionaries, thus reducing the likelihood and intensity of system-wide influence. Spatial separation, whether of Federal and State governments, of a firm's headquarters and its satellite offices, or of discrete cubicles in a large workspace, serves to slow or deflect influence by a central agency. It makes close and immediate supervision impracticable, and it retards the spread through the system of contagious anxieties. But such strategy is unavailable as a means of containing anxieties about the member-staff boundary consultant, whose designated purview embraces all authorized workspaces.
The importation of the role of consultant to the member-staff boundary into the conference design may cover or provoke fears that the conference director is inexperienced or incompetent. Alternatively, it may represent management's striving for perfection through the imposition of a system of checks and balances to prevent the management's and institution’s awareness and study of its limitations and their consequences.
The European perspective may understand the role of consultant to the member-staff boundary as a compensation for imagined inferiority of non-British conferences to the Leicester program (B. Dean, personal communication, March, 1993). Through a concrete representation, the role may enact the superego function played by staff members’ awareness and idealization of the Leicester program and tradition.
When the member-staff boundary consultant visits member groups, the purpose and manner of entry must respect the director's public comments about the event's methodology and structure. On entering a member group and being queried, the member-staff boundary consultant might declare:
"I am here as a plenipotentiary member of the staff. I am in this room for purposes of my work, which is different from your work. Learning will be promoted if we continue with our respective tasks."If members are unhappy with the presence of the member-staff boundary consultant, the latter might explain further:
"As far as I am aware, there exists no exclusive possession or ownership of the spaces designated for conference work during this event. The nature of our tasks defines the spaces appropriate to our work. My range of concern extends to all conference spaces. Spaces are available for work, without the inevitability or need for all workers to practice identical protocol or to conceive of the event and their role in it in identical fashion."The conference system's intergroup tensions are at times very near the surface.
At a Type 1/2 conference in the United States, employing Focus B, a male staff consultant was present in a member group, at its request but unbeknownst to the member-staff boundary consultant, who opened the door, entered the group's space, and seated himself approximately four feet outside the group's circle of chairs, in one of several vacant seats scattered randomly throughout the space. The members, angered by the boundary consultant's entry, abandoned their task collaboration with the staff consultant. They directed much verbal hostility to the member-staff boundary consultant and ceased to work with the staff consultant, who did not verbally address the members’ desertion of their task.Even within a single conference, the member-staff boundary consultant is perceived and responded to variously, as the following description illustrates.
During the conference referenced above, a female staff consultant was present at the request of another member group. The door to this group's space was open. The same consultant to the member-staff boundary entered and seated himself approximately two feet outside the group's circle of chairs, in a seat marked with the legend, "For observers."Basic assumption behavior is more frequently interpreted in the small group setting than in intergroup or institutional exchanges. But it is equally prominent in both contexts. In these vignettes, the parallelism in the sentiments and behavior of the staff consultants and of their client groups is noteworthy.
Perhaps group members mirrored the emotional response of the staff consultant assigned to their group; perhaps each staff consultant employed acting out instead of interpretation to mirror the feelings of the client group. The degree of synergism present was augmented by failure to understand and observe role and task boundaries.
In the first account, the staff consultant did not anticipate or interpret the group's fight-flight response. His own powerful feelings unquestionably contributed force, justification, and even leadership for the group's aggressively defensive posture.
In the second example, the female staff consultant's lack of clarity about her role relative to that of the consultant to the member-staff boundary brought on de-skilling and paralysis. The comments of the member-staff boundary consultant actually required no response, but her faulty understanding of staff members’ differing roles (and the ensuing projections, perhaps) permitted her to mischaracterize and depreciate her appropriate and helpful behavior.
Staff members’ reluctance to authorize the member-staff boundary consultant reduced their own authorization and ability to function as consultants to the members. Staff members’ inadequate authorization of the director results in a similar outcome. The integrity and security of staff members’ authorization are diminished when their comprehension and acceptance of distinct staff roles, functions, and levels of responsibility are incomplete.
The director must lead the staff to an understanding of and investment in the tasks and roles described for the intergroup and institutional events, especially when innovations are introduced. Otherwise, the challenges that surface in consultants’ extra-territorial representation of the staff collective may incapacitate them in their work with member groups. The clarity, maintenance, and repair of boundaries based on distinctiveness of task, responsibility, and accountability are critical.
A Tavistock or group relations conference is a temporary educational institution, designed to facilitate the experience and study of the exercise of leadership and authority. These two important factors in organizational life are examined in their individual, group, and institutional aspects.
The intergroup events offer an avenue for the study and analysis of the requirements for success in intergroup representation and negotiation.
The members of a group relations conference explore these two intergroup activities (representation and negotiation) in the context of the experience of being authorized to represent a collective of other conference members in intergroup dealings. The experience is not one of role-playing or simulated roles. The representatives selected experience the burden of responsibility and risk inevitable in real-world intergroup negotiations. Likewise, those members represented by their authorized delegates experience fully all the anxiety and marginal mistrust familiar to those who delegate their authority to others.
The survival and progress of any group or enterprise depends on its constant participation in intergroup interactions. Such interactions may be between local and mutually dependent groups (for example, between a factory and the wholesalers who supply its needs) or between international and mutually distrustful entities (for example, between México and the United States).
In the entire industrialized world, intergroup representation and negotiation form integral parts of most organizations’ and institutions’ daily activities. External organizational consultants, who often serve as staff members during group relations conferences, not only must engage in such negotiations for their livelihood, but are also asked to prepare organizations for the stresses inevitably involved in intersystemic negotiations.
A group relations conference usually explicitly offers the opportunities for education in intergroup representation and negotiation. For this reason, it may be useful to review the structure and psychological conditions that favor achievement of the desired results.
In the context of intergroup events, the word “group” denotes any organization or human system whose primary task and hierarchy of authority permit it to interact rationally and irrationally with another organization or human system. The process of arriving at an agreement, a collaboration, or a political or business relationship with another group is regarded as negotiation. “Authorization” is defined as the subjective and objective reality of having the necessary and legitimately delegated (by one or more individuals or institutions) authority to be able to carry out a specified task. “Role” is regarded as the character, function, charge, office, or responsibility that one assumes or is assigned and in which one intervenes in intergroup interactions.
Management of structural boundaries and covert processes
The effectiveness of representatives in intergroup negotiation depends upon their comprehension of the task and upon their complete authorization to carry out the task. The leaders or directors of the delegating group have the responsibility for elaborating a definition of the primary task to be accomplished. Elaborating a public declaration of purposes and intentions that is sufficiently clear and detailed to serve usefully outside of the defining group is frequently extremely complicated.
The clarity of the instructions given to the representative reveals the clarity of the definition of the primary task. Each representative serves a collective of persons with various goals. The representative can reflect and represent these persons and goals only if the collectivity can offer him or her a rational definition of the primary task of the representation and negotiation. Through the instructions, the group defines the ways in which its diverse desires, points of view, and directives circumscribe the role and task of the representative.
The representative may or may not participate in the process of task definition, although engaging in the process permits greater understanding and commitment to the task. The representative has her or his own goals, tasks, preferences, and limitations, which are best verbalized and submitted to management before undertaking intergroup representation activities.
The representative should be able to verbally communicate, to the satisfaction of the persons represented, the vision of the task and the role that he or she carries to the negotiations. Unless both the representatives and those represented possess a real understanding of the primary task, as well as of the multiple factors that define and delimit it, intersystemic interactions will be stressful and the representation will be defective.
The group must specify the degree of freedom that the representatives enjoy. Any limits imposed ought to be enumerated exhaustively. Not only should it be clear what the group wishes to import, export, or establish, but the attitude that the group expects its representative to utilize should also be made patent. The maximal degree of specification assures that the representative's conduct does not deviate from the spirit and letter of the instructions from the represented group. Obviously, each representative requires some amount of time to be able to internalize these parameters.
Providing the representative with a set of written instructions is preferable because these instructions permit the representative(s) to clarify doubts and to establish, broaden, or restrict the range of duties accepted before the negotiations begin. Written instructions function as a frame of reference for any later modification of the instructions. In addition, they provide public confirmation of the authorization supplied by the groups represented.
In order to negotiate fruitfully, the representatives must rely on an exceptional degree of mental and emotional clarity of thought. The presence of ambivalence, uncertainty, insecurity, and distrust on the part of the leaders and the group members is always evident in the ambiguity of the instructions and limitation that they place on their representatives. Ambiguous instructions prejudice the professional and personal competence of the representatives.
When the representatives demonstrate that they do not satisfactorily understand the instructions, the reasons are often to be found in the presence of internal conflicts in the group represented. These conflicts or disagreements may center either on the plan for the negotiations or on the selection of representatives.
The person selected to act in or manage intergroup negotiations must be mature and capable of enduring a number of simultaneous obligations and concerns. The role of representative requires that the person be competent, informed, and responsible. Moreover, the group must be able to feel that the person will faithfully represent the group's interests and values.
The representatives of a group or institution work on the boundary between their own reference group and another collectivity. This position on the boundary exposes them to irrational and problematic forces, many of which are covert and sophisticated. Consequently the role of representative demands an understanding and ability to manage not only the rational topic and protocol of the negotiation, but also the underlying and sometimes stultifying complexity of intergroup and institutional relations.
The process that terminates in the naming of a representative plays a decisive role in the success of the negotiations. Since there is rarely consensus in regard to the individuals chosen as representatives, the selection is often more political than rational. As a consequence, the representatives themselves may realize that on the emotional level of the organization they are neither elected nor authorized by the entire collectivity. Under these circumstances, the representatives are unlikely to be able to further the interests of the total organization. Other parties to the negotiations may be able to easily take advantage of this strategic weakness.
The well-being and therefore the competence of the representatives is increased and the authorization by the general collectivity is underscored by including in the selection process the judgment and feedback not only of the candidates' supervisors or managers but also of their colleagues.
After deciding upon their representatives, the group or institution must give them an unequivocal authorization. The level and period of authorization granted must be adequate and explicit. A level of authorization equal to the task requirements enables the representatives to effect their duties optimally, employing the rapid decision making necessary and helpful in intergroup negotiation.
Authorization that is too restricted makes genuine representation impossible and forces the representatives to constantly ask for clarification and approval from the represented group. In such cases, the role is more accurately one of messenger or delegate than one of plenipotentiary representative.
If the authorization is minimal, insufficient, or disparate with respect to the level of authorization enjoyed by the representatives of other groups participating in the same negotiations, the interactions lack the character of deeds or accomplishments. The agreements or compromises finalized under these conditions remain uncertain and subject to modifications by the group's more authorized functionaries.
For the purpose of pragmatics, clarity, and convenience, the Tavistock or group relations model recognizes three degrees of authorization in intergroup dealings:
Observer: This person is a silent observer of other groups or institutions, without the authorization from her or his reference group to have verbal interaction with the observed group.Cultural customs and differences influence the rational selection and authorization of a group's or institution’s representatives. The Japanese prefer to negotiate with persons possessing a degree and level of authorization identical to those of their own representatives. Americans and Canadians are more flexible and tolerate a greater divergence in range and degree of authorization, but they expect the decisions taken and the agreements forged to be respected after the negotiations have concluded.
Usually, the degree of authorization granted to the representatives is clear even before direct negotiations have begun. Such information can be gathered from the preparations. At what level of the bureaucracy is the plan for the negotiations initiated? What locale will be used? From whom do the procedural structures emanate? At what level of the hierarchy are the arrangements confirmed? What are the political motives behind the negotiations? Who are the negotiators and what is their position in the hierarchy?
The answers to these questions suggest the representatives' range and level of authorization, as well as characteristics of the organizational culture of the parties participating in the negotiations.
Risks and unconscious or irrational elements in intersystem negotiation
The best preparatory and precautionary measures cannot eliminate the risks that exist for those who are sent to represent their group in intersystemic dealings. In group relations conferences, while the representative is away from her or his authorizing colleagues, it is possible that the nature or composition of the authorizing collective changes. It is possible that the collective's desires or goals are transformed.
In the course of long negotiations, there may be significant changes in the negotiating strategies preferred by those being represented. Those being represented may withdraw their authorization from the representative. These changes may not be communicated to the representative(s).
The group represented must develop methods of timely communication with its representatives, so that the latter may have opportune news of pertinent changes. Such information strengthens the ability of the representatives to function effectively.
The prompt transmission of up-to-date information and instructions ensures that the purposes and intentions of the group represented are carried into the negotiating process. Thus, the representative makes possible a vicarious or alternative participation for those whom he or she represents. This indirect participation is proper and satisfying to those being represented and required for the construction of honest negotiation.
The fluidity and punctual transmission of information, both to and from the representatives, are essential. The availability of up-to-date information furthers the capacity of representatives and represented to carry out their respective tasks, without fear, suspicion, and paranoia.
Inevitably, whenever a group, subgroup, or representative is separated physically or is unaware of information pertinent to the whole system, powerful psychological processes ensue and tend to establish an environment of distrust and irrationality. The worst attributes of the group may be projected into "the others," those who belong to the other group or the other side.” These negative attributes can also be projected into a subgrouping within a single group. This process is usually mutual and the derivative myths, fantasies, and prejudices are harmful and often long-lasting.
Those affected by these irrational and unconscious processes can pertain to different groups (e.g., those of staff and those of the membership) or can comprise subgroups of the same organization (e.g., the representatives and the represented). Each entity begins to feel betrayed, poorly represented, or sabotaged by the other. This process of splitting, nourished by a lack of correct information, makes difficult any positive collaboration between the groups.
During the absence of its representative(s), the group or organization continues its primary task. But the representatives do not participate directly in this routine work of their organization. Therefore, on returning to the routine after the conclusion of the negotiations, the representatives may feel distanced or even rejected or abandoned by their colleagues. The reintegration of the representatives into the work group may be difficult.
Those represented often fear being betrayed by their representatives. This fear is not entirely irrational. Negotiation with an outside system implies working and collaborating with members of the outside group or organization. As negotiations begin to conclude, the representative may discover that he or she feels more loyalty, sense of belonging, or affection toward the members of the other group than towards the original source of his or her authorization. The risk of romance always exists.
Intergroup negotiation requires the constant revision of goals and principles, organizational as well as personal. The process of scrutinizing goals and principles can forge elemental changes in a person's professional mentality and behavior. Having arrived at a more profound awareness of her or his own values and goals, through having come to know intimately the work style and points of view of another group, the representative may decide to join another organization. The risk of defection always exists.
The defection or desertion need not be either physical or absolute. All negotiation entails change and transformation. If the representative begins to move outside the practical or philosophical frame of reference established by his or her original group, this slight subversion of the goals or intentions of the represented may subtly manifest an incipient psychological defection.
Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, a team of representatives wishes to or attempts to win over, attract, seduce, or symbolically bribe a representative from another group. If they are successful, they are able to confirm the value of their own principles and strategies; at the same time, they can influence or manipulate the negotiations in their favor.
When, for reasons of economic necessity or of changes in the attitude or general plan, those managers or directors authorizing the representatives decide to alter the terms of the negotiation at the last minute, they ought to immediately deliver a new set of instructions to the same representative so that the latter can conclude the negotiations in accord with the new information. Replacing representatives because of internal group changes upsets negotiations already in progress.
Changes in the overall plan or approach to the negotiations are not opportune reasons for naming a new representative. The person originally selected should come to identify himself or herself with the process and labor of negotiating. Naming representatives because they reflect specific proposals or strategies is inefficient and forestalls the representatives’ engagement and success in the negotiating process. Likewise, the authorization granted to the representative should coincide with his or her being named and should be in effect until the conclusion of all the foreseen or designated negotiations.
If the leaders of a group decide unilaterally to cancel the negotiations, the representative may naturally interpret the decision as a negative reflection of her or his competence or as an indication of failure. The public and timely availability of information concerning the reasons for the cancellation serves to diminish the demoralizing repercussions of such reversals of organizational decisions or directions, which almost universally negatively affect the motivation of the remaining members of the organization as well as those whose authorization to negotiate on behalf of the organization is removed.
Another more personal risk for the representative is that the resulting agreements and commitments not be respected by the group that he or she represented. When this happens, the individual suffers a memorable humiliation and the organization precipitates a general crisis of distrust both within its ranks and in its relations with other systems.
The intergroup and institutional events’ task and method nurture an individual's capacity for self-doubt. The consultants’ interventions offer self-doubt as a practical guide to prudent behavior in intergroup and institutional affairs, where subjective reality is multiform, difficult to comprehend, and often contravened by objective considerations. The conscious processes of self-doubt and thoughtful examination of ambient dynamics can convert the elemental chaos of social life to a positive rational force extending human capacity for comprehension and survival.
As the individual's versions of her or his own public involvement in collective activity is re-shaped by others’ points of view about both the involvement and the individual's construction or recollection of events, the inevitability and acknowledgment of dissimilar versions of shared social experience in the intergroup and institutional fora further stimulate the cultivation of self-doubt. Its appropriateness as an antidote to or transformation of ambivalence and as a requisite for accidental or deliberate participation in community life is total.
Collective exegesis of conference behavior and history is ultimately the best path to an approximate understanding of conference experience. The imperfect objectivity of an individual's elaboration of social reality is usually improved by being subjected to interpretation that is negotiated collectively.
In intergroup events, collective negotiation of the interpretation of individual experience, necessary because of supervening group and systemic processes, temporarily exacerbates self-doubt, while conference structures and staff's consultations aim to forestall overmuch self-doubt by providing a concrete framework in which to jointly negotiate constructions of actuality.
The constructions of actuality proposed in staff's interpretations attempt to combine the individual and the collective points of reference, without suggesting staff's absolute certainty in understanding conference behavior. Instead of advocating the unsound fabrication of certainty, staff's work in intergroup events aims to encourage jointly negotiated, socially functional conceptualization and employment of the dynamics of human systems.
Intergroup events illustrate the interconnection of the individual, the group, and the community. They set out to address segregate, group behaviors but end up by illuminating the aggregate qualities of the total system. They highlight issues of independence and interdependence. They are apt avenues to exploring the nature of the collective's struggles with the phenomena of chaos and civilization, usually presenting as isolation and engagement.
By increasing familiarity with the conscious and unconscious motivations of any human collective, intergroup events thereby promote competence in social and political engagements. The events are ideal contexts in which to adumbrate the character and effects of systemic social processes, as well as to demonstrate the foundations and worth of self-doubt and social negotiation in the continual interpretation of experience that is the basis of civilization. Participation in intergroup events often refine awareness of the dynamic, provisional, sadly elusive nature of social reality.
Astrachan, B. M., & Flynn, H. (1976). The intergroup exercise: A paradigm for learning about the development of organizational structures. In E. Miller (Ed.), Task and organization (pp. 47-68). New York: Wiley.14. Lexicon
Boundary agent = general term for a Boundary manager, Consultant to the member-staff boundary, or Staff consultant who legitimately functions regularly or periodically on a group's intergroup boundary
Author's telephone numbers:+(1 504) 616 0643 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA