Intergroup representation and negotiation: Lessons from the Tavistock conference experience

Stan De Loach, Ph.D. *

A Tavistock or group relations conference is a temporary educational institution, which is designed to facilitate the experience and study of the exercise of leadership and authority, as well as of responsible followership.  These two important factors in organizational life are examined in their individual, group, and institutional dimensions.

One component of these conferences, which are held in most developed countries, is called the Intergroup Event.  This event is a distinct and less sophisticated educational event than the Institutional System Event, but it offers an excellent avenue for the study and analysis of the requirements for success in intergroup representation and negotiation.

The members of a Tavistock conference explore these two intergroup activities in the context of the experience of being authorized to represent a collective of other conference members in intergroup dealings.  Although such authorization of an individual by a collective may seem straightforward and even simple, such is not at all the case.  The experience is not one of role-playing or simulated roles.  The representatives selected experience the burden of responsibility and risk inevitable in 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 or intersystem 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’ daily activities.  External organizational consultants not only must engage in such negotiations for their livelihood, but are also asked to prepare organizations for the stresses certainly involved in their own intersystemic negotiations.  For this reason, it may be useful to review the structure and psychological conditions that favor achievement of the desired results.  The lessons learned from the Tavistock conference experience are useful to this review.

In the following discussion, the word group is applied to any organization or human system whose primary task and hierarchy of authority permit it to interact rationally 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 negotiationAuthorization is defined the subjective and objective reality of having the necessary and legitimately delegated authority to be able to carry out a specified task on behalf of one's group or subsystem.  Role is regarded as the character, function, charge, office, or responsibility that one assumes or is assigned and through 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 a specified task.  The leaders or directors of the group have the responsibility for elaborating a definition of the primary task.  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.  Occasionally, such a declaration can be a closely guarded secret, not available to all persons within the authorizing institution nor to all members of other groups or systems participating in the negotiations.

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 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, intergroup or intersystemic interactions will be stressful and the representation will be defective.  Successful negotiation may fail precisely for these reasons.

The authorizing 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.

A set of written instructions is preferable to oral explanation, because they permit the representatives to clarify doubts and to establish, broaden, or restrict the range of their duties 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 their 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 within 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 manage the intergroup negotiation 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.

A group's representatives work on the boundary between their own 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 relations, especially if these are international or intercultural in character.

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 can often be 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' superiors but also of their colleagues.

After deciding upon their representatives, the group must give them an unequivocal authorization. The level and period of authorization ceded must be adequate.  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 than one of plenipotentiary representative.  In Tavistock group relations work, the person in this limited role is termed a "delegate." 

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 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 model recognizes three degrees of authorization in intergroup and inter-subsystem dealings.  Greater detail in the definition of these three levels of group or system authorization is given in discussions of the Institutional System Event.  They are:

Observer: This person is a silent observer of other groups, without the authorization from his or her reference group to have substantial verbal interaction with the observed group.

Delegate: This person has received from his or her reference group authorization solely to deliver messages and receive responses from other groups, or to observe.

Plenipotentiary: This is a person with full authorization from his or her group to make agreements, commitments, and engagements with other groups, as well as to deliver and receive messages and replies, or simply to observe.

Cultural customs and differences influence the rational selection and authorization of a group'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 their respective hierarchies?

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 intergroup or intersystem negotiation

The best preparatory and precautionary measures cannot eliminate the risks that exist for those who are sent to represent their group or system in intersystemic dealings.

While the representative is away, 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.  It is possible that real authorization of the group's representative is canceled or ceases to exist or be relevant.  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, especially if they are unaware or uninformed in detail about the representative's activities.

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.  Two-way communications that include the prompt transmission of up-to-date information and instructions from both authorized and authorizing parties 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.

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 ongoing work 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 end up being projected into "the others," those who belong to the other group or the other "side."  These negative attributes can be projected into a subgroup of the authorizing group or system or into the totality or a subgroup of the "other" system engaged in the negotions.  This process is mutual and the derivative myths, fantasies, and prejudices are harmful and often long-lasting.  They may lead eventually to failure to negotiate properly mutually valid agreements and collaboration.

Those affected by these irrational and unconscious processes can pertain to different groups (e.g., those of Company A and those of Company B) or can comprise subgroups of the same organization (e.g., the representatives and the represented).  Each entity may begin to feel betrayed, poorly represented, or sabotaged by the other.  This process of splitting, nourished or fertilized by a lack of correct information, makes difficult any positive negotiation between the groups.

In the absence of its representatives, the organization continues its primary task.  But the representatives may not participate directly in the ongoing daily work of their organization.  Therefore, on returning to their routine after the conclusion of the negotiations, the representatives may feel distanced or even rejected or abandoned by colleagues.  Initially, 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.  This risk may be tied to ideas of falling and falling for.  "Falling in love" may easily provoke the fears and anxieties associated, from the very earliest days of an individual's existence, with most types of falling.

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.  After having arrived at a more profound awareness of one's own values and goals, and after 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 also always exists.

The defection or desertion need not be either physical or absolute.  All negotiation, successful or not, entails change.  If the representative begins to move outside the practical or philosophical frame of reference within which his or her original group expects him or her to act, this slight subversion of the goals or intentions of the represented subtly manifests an incipient psychological independence, which may easily be taken as an indication of defection.

Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, a team of representatives wishes 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 may influence 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 frequently or 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.

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 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, successful or not, of all the 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 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 organizations.  Its task and ability to authorize fall into question.

Author's e-mail:
Author's telephone numbers:
+(1 504) 897 9060 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
+(5255) 5510 9830 in México, Distrito Federal, México
Author's mailing address:
5208 Magazine Street, PMB 200, New Orleans, LA  70115

© 1992, 1998, 2011, 2016  by Dr. Stan De Loach    All rights reserved.

* A Spanish version of this article, titled "La representación en la negociación intergrupal: Lecciones de la experiencia Tavistock," was published in Management Today en español, 19(2), August, 1992, p. 26-29.


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