The Institutional System Event (ISE): Questions and inspiration

Stan De Loach, Ph.D.


Text:  Sher M.  2009.  Splits, extrusion and integration: The impact of "potential space" for group relations and sponsoring institutions.  Organizational & Social Dynamics, 9(1), 138 - 154.

"Group relations is an object and a source of ambivalence in the 'political spaces' of sponsoring institutions that leads group relations to be a source of both creativity and terrifying anxiety."  (SD: Conference setting institutional politics and dynamics always seem present in my choices about work, though I try and wish to be free of them and resist their imposition and influence.)

When the conference-sponsoring institution is an education/university: Learning is derived from deductive methods and situational learning, relying on dependency assumptions of "filling empty vessels." (SD: Specific and general student population; rarely nave or still empty participants)

Group relations "is the most potent of methodologies because it enables one to distinguish between phantasy and judge between truth and the lie...between projection and introjection, transference and countertransference, which are the basic 'stuff' of human relations."  (SD: In North American conferences, my impression is that staff generally omits reference to, disregards, or is unaware of countertransference issues, with negative consequence for our own and members' learning.)

Lewin: "The group to which an individual belongs is the ground for his perceptions, feelings, and actions." (SD: Interactive effects or influences of our staff-group membership and our perceptions, feelings, and actions?)

Group relations' "propensity for splitting, resulting from excessive reliance on charismatic leaders, resulting in a sense of inclusiveness and in a potentially destructive orthodoxy"  (Cytrynbaum, 1993).  (SD: How does this affect or "play out in" staff's functioning with each other [with the Associate Director?] and with members?  Is staff functioning representative of the "boarding home" model, where parts of the system operate separately and exist commensally, accepting and tolerating one another but not thinking much about each other?  To the extent that this hypothesis is correct, the situation parallels that in the Small Study System, where members are often so focused on the consultant [the Director?] that they fail to know each other and to collaborate.  Ambivalence toward other subsystems [large study system, small study system] because each part serves as a reminder of what the other part is failing at and cannot see?

As staff, could we become more capable of generating working hypotheses?  Do we become helpless to think through what is happening to us, in our work in the assigned subsystems (small study system, large study system) or in our work as members of the whole conference system?)

Bion: The basic assumption is that the group's primary task is to ease members' anxieties and avoid the painful emotions that might follow or that the end of the group situation might bring.  (SD: Enormous anxiety around altering, deviating from, or not adhering to the established, long-developed sponsoring institution model of doing the work; the response to such is not always one of enquiry, which could serve to pave the way for new or further learning; strong presence and influence of feelings about the "ending" of the conference, even as it begins; the nature of those feelings)

To clarify the role of authorization in group relations work.  (SD: Often seems to be desired and though implicitly given, rejected immediately, as if we staff members were only in the student/learner role, without also being adults authorized to do a job, and with responsibility for doing it; to think for oneself; to "do" the consulting job, for example)

Each staff role (consultant, administrator, director) is an extension of delegation from conference management.

Do the authority dynamics of conference focus and life stand in contradistinction to the "spirit of enquiry" stance that originally and still underlies conference work?

"Striking confusion between primary task and method."  (SD: Do I have an outcome in mind, as part of the primary task?  Isn't there a stated outcome ["You will be able to do X better."] in the brochures?)

Ginat (1999) showed that 50% of conference attendees had changed jobs within 6 months of the conference's ending. (SD: Presumably not a student population in this study, but not all conference members are students)

SD: How can I not be an obstacle (as a consultant) to members' taking up the protagonist role in their own learning?  Must I encourage it verbally, facilitate it by my interventions and interpretations, force it by my behaviors, or just hold it in my mind and expectations?

SD: How can I permit (that is, not interfere in) staff's and members' extending themselves intellectually and participating in developing new ideas and working hypotheses, and of course being stimulated by them?  Am I even authorized to try?  Should I care (about anyone but me)?

Text:  McRae MB, Green Z, Irvine B.  2009.  The world event: A new design for the study of intergroup behaviors in group relations conferences.  Organizational & Social Dynamics, 9(1), 43 - 65.

Not be confused with the focus of the Institutional System Event, which is not directly focused on studying intergroup behaviors but rather the institutional system-as-a-whole.

"The ability to embrace the complexity of the coexistence of multiple identities and differences and the ways in which they impact the functioning of the group/organization-as-a-whole is primary."

"Every transaction across boundaries of political identity has the potential for disaster."  (SD: Not a welcome thought, but in the ISE, there is no doubt that this is true...and it may be why cross-boundary transactions [the site of relevant learning] are avoided as a way to manage the strong anxiety inherent in the behavior.)

Another possible factor in the avoidance: "There is a fantasized boundary between how a person sees 'me' and 'not me' that may not stand the test of reality (in cross-boundary transactions)." (SD: This issue may have to do with the projections that we wish to receive from other and therefore we act in a way that will provoke such projections.  I remember a conference where an ISE subsystem of nurses [a projection of their identities, of 'me,' in other words] decided to help "cure" distressed ISE members of their ills, but were actually seen by other members' subsystems as Dr. Mengele's assistants [clearly not their own idea of 'me,' which was contradicted in the cross-boundary feelings and results in the experience of those outside the nurses' subsystem].  The nurses failed to receive the projections that they wished to receive.)

"Each...interface between 2 people from different (roles produces) a risk of being forced to re-introject the bad bits that have been projected to the others and to surrender the good parts that have been introjected."  (SD: Profound for me and scary; better to know the countertransference beforehand so as not to be surprised by who I am when others show it to me in cross-boundary transactions)

Miller EJ: Differences between individuals from various (subsystems) are not properties of the system, but are constantly being negotiated.

"At times a person may come without the intention of representing one (subsystem) but, by virtue of the perceptions of others, is unintentionally expected to represent another of their identity (subsystems)."  (SD: Working as consultant, but being seen as representative of gay, straight, female, black people and therefore assumed to be representatives of those particular subsystems, even though never having received authorization to represent the subsystem.)

Difference between identity (a personal role) and representation (a functional role).

SD: I interpret the powerful disagreements and emotions arising in the context of work on the Institutional System Event to indicate that here is where the vitality of the conference (particularly its resistances, conflicts, and anxieties) lies, inasmuch as these heated disagreements, theoretical differences, and shattering emotions seem to come up with far less intensity and frequency in the small study subsystem and large study subsystem work, where more tranquility, peace of mind, and harmony seem to me to prevail.

The politics of revelation. (SD: Does the pull toward the politics of reparation come from within me, because of sadism, guilt, religiosity, or from the system, because of exaggerated induced [by the sponsoring institution and/or by conference management] fear of "damaging" young students and producing casualties or because of memories of long-ago casualties?  At a particular university-based conference, I encounter repeatedly a fear of "damaging" and a need for "protecting" young adults.  But from what?  From whom?  Why?  Is this a reflection of university politics or of conference politics or of both together as an institutional system?)

Turquet: Leadership emerges out of the needs and aspirations of the system and is expressed through the action of single members or subsystems of members.

Task of ISE: To offer working hypotheses about the nature and meaning of the emerging conference institution, being collaboratively created.  (SD: For example, developing working hypotheses about what the overall system is saying through the manner of subsystem division in the opening plenary.  In the Opening Plenary of the ISE, there is risk in focusing more on what is created than on how the division was decided or led or implemented, and of course on what it might mean.)

Another variant of the task of the ISE: To promote a spirit of inquiry into the myths and realities of the experience of the system and subsystems organized in the ISE.

Integral theory "invites us to think that each voice and each subsystem is the whole."

Management's frustration about the absence or scarcity of interaction with the consultant subsystem (via reports about the new subsystems formed, for example) could be seen as a result of management's unexercised freedom to go to the members' subsystems' spaces to give or receive information.

The ISE "takes staff to the edge of their competence, as their familiar ways of working and interpreting the system's (and members') behaviors requires new language and a different quality of engagement."

Taking staff to the "edge of their competence."  (SD: The NY way of saying this seems benign, but being at the edge of staff's competence is in the moment terrifying and disorienting and therefore avoided in some university-based conferences.  This avoidance may have to do with the belief that universities and their programs exist to "teach" and not necessarily for students to "learn."  Dangerous, in my perspective, for conference staff to think that they are teaching rather than providing opportunities for learning by themselves and by members.)

Economics is defined as the optimum use of scarce resources for alternative uses.

Text:  Lawlor D, Webb L.  An interview with Isabel Menzies Lyth, with a conceptual commentary.  2009. Organizational & Social Dynamics, 9(1), 93 - 137.

Building design, physical boundary (exterior and interior) maintenance and control have impact and meaning for the system's ability to contain the conference, the members' anxieties, and the staff's anxieties.  (SD: And possibly on recruitment efforts, as well.  Example: Waiting in January in -20 F temperatures outside the conference site in the morning to be able to begin work as a conference staff member, having already worried over whether to arrive at a certain time in order to ensure being able to enter the building upon arriving [Would the Administrators already be present so that they could be begged to please open the door to "let me in"?], feeling urged to buy a cell phone to depend upon in order to be able to promptly "ask" for admission from the "overworked" administrators, already "setting up" the interior of the institution, to my place of temporary employ, hoping that there would be no employees of the conference building [unaffiliated with the conference itself] at the unavoidable reception desk, in order to avoid the dirty looks meant, I surmise, to increase my sense of exclusion, of being an intruder into a setting not really or only very temporarily "belonging" to me, and perhaps to produce guilt and some felt need in myself for reparation to the employees and the conference-site institution, which I have apparently damaged through my murderous projections, etc.  And I am on staff!  So I imagine members' affective experience of entering the conference site could be intensified by comparison to my own.  Unfamiliarity, not belonging, feeling unwelcome by the employees or representatives of the building in which the conference is held, may explain why few or no conference participants come from other parts of the university [Administration, Business, Politics, Economics, Physical Sciences].  Hypothetically, their relation and reason for being present in a university building that is home to psychology, psychotherapy, counseling, etc., students are, in the institution's system-in-the-mind, nil.)

"Most people are under challenged these days."  (SD: Consultants?  Members?)

"Organizational diagnosis is an ongoing, continuous process."

Members gain knowledge about how to approach conference learning and engagement via the consultants. (SD: Consultant as role model idea)

Intervision (among staff members). (SD: Can we?  Do we?  Dare we?  Are we allowed to?  Is it possible?  During team meetings?)

For Lyth: Being consultant (or manager?) is having the freedom to go around and visit places and talk to people. (SD: Conference consultants during the ISE?  Conference management during the ISE?)

Text:  Shapiro ER, Carr AW.  2012.  Organizational & Social Dynamics, 12(1), 70 - 80.

Essence of group relations is about learning (that is, engaging with) rather than teaching, about the unconscious mind in relation to the CS (the "private" vs the "public"), and about the group/system as the creature of the individual and the individual as the creature of the group/system.

Transference refers to ways our internalized images of others, derived from our childhood experiences, push us toward recreating familiar relationships in ways that can obscure the complexity of the people in our lives.  (SD: Other members of small study subsystem or of management, for example)

Countertransference refers to our unconsciously derived reactions to being seen as someone we do not feel/believe that we are.

Projective identification refers to the way we unconsciously attempt to coerce others through convert actions, to become the people we need them to be for our own unconscious and neurotic reasons.

Three levels of group/system learning:

1) Heightened recognition that individuals behave irrationally in the face of authority
2) Recognition of system functioning and seeing the ways in which CS efforts toward collaborative work can be hampered by irrational thinking on the part of the subsystem's members
3) Shift toward new ways of thinking: a capacity to doubt the validity of perceptions that seem unquestionably true (Palmer 1972).  This requires developing a capacity for both involvement and detachment ("participant observation").  This capacity to reflect on one's own involvement is crucial.
(SD: ISE (and conference-as-a-whole) = opportunity to join, engage in, and study system/institutional dynamics.  BUT these dynamics as foci for study and experiential learnare are NOT the same as group relations methods.)

ISE: how the institution, as we are carrying that notion in our minds, shapes work.

Holding and containment: to tolerate aggression makes containment possible

"In an effort to avoid facing your own uncertainty about noticing, sharing, and learning from your own experience, the subsystem is acting as if the consultant (or someone "not me") has all the answers."  (SD: A hopefully diminishing tendency as experience [and survival] in the ISE grows from continued participation in it as consultant or manager)

"The management (directors) will be constantly working on grasping the whole institutional system, regularly offering their developing working hypotheses to all members of the institution."

During the conference, the members (and staff?) are somewhat on a spectrum from using others to being used by them.  (SD: Not yet clear to me.)

An individual, whether member or staff, who remains psychically separate will find the consultants' comments unfocused.  (SD: Could well be the reason, but I suspect the reverse is required for the comments to make sense: if the consultant is psychically separate from her or his clients, the comments may in fact be unfocused or too general and be perceived as such.  Projective identification, projections.)

Text:  Cooper L, Mack Jr. C.  2012.  Notes on consulting to racism: Linking individual, group and organisational contexts.  Organizational & Social Dynamics, 12(1), 1 - 18.

The hatred of racial differences

"At the heart of what we call racism in America is an underlying hatred of difference."  (SD: My leadership talk in Chile about how all conflict derives from difference, which we do indeed hate; cf. diversity politics and programs)

"Any relationship across a racial boundary must continually account for this difference (of race)."  (SD: A heavy or burdensome requirement, which it is easy to hate.)

"If we are going to relate to the "other," we have to attend to his or her different experience."

Hatred of racial difference is hatred of this ongoing relationship work that must be done each time the boundary is approached or crossed.

Text:  Armstrong D.  2012.  Eric Miller Memorial Lecture 2012.  Organizational & Social Dynamics, 12(1), 106 - 121.

The risks of overinterpretation and the ways in which it might contribute to "stopping things in their tracks."

Stance of "freeing oneself from preconceptions," pushing to the backs of one's mind such conventionally useful things as memory, consciously set objectives, and theory.  They are not to be directly used for guidance in the field/work.  By not doing so, the (consultant's, staff's) behavior serves at the same time as a mirror of what one is hoping for or seeking to foster in the client system.

How can I not deprive members of opportunities to be responsible?  (SD: Relationship of this aim to the frequency and quality of interventions or interpretations?)

Tension between autonomy and dependence, both internally in the life of the individual within the subsystem, and externally in the patterning of authority and power in organizational life (Miller EJ).

ISE: The level of one's engagement can set limits to its scope.  (SD: Can this engagement be estimated from the passion present?  In consulting work, as a member of conference staff, this limitation is clear: I cannot really address extra-subsystem realities [the prohibition against alcohol within the conference spaces] or politics [other conference staff's involvement in the tensions present in the organization that sponsors or sites the conference, for example] that constrain the subsystem even in obvious ways.  So the scope of my engagement can be limited.)

The consultant role in the ISE: Eric Miller believed in formulating the consultant role as a relationship to the whole system (i.e., society), which is the client.  (SD: BUT, how can the consultant stand apart from her or his own system/society dynamic?  Maybe through collaborative conversation [J Krantz] or negotiated interpretation [D Gutmann & S De Loach]?)

The solution (to the previously stated way of conceptualizing the consultant role) proposed by Emery & Trist 1972 is to experience those with whom we as consultants work, as travelers on a common journey, rather than as clients who have requested our professional help.  (SD: This idea degrades the boundary between conference roles and the members' roles, so it takes me to the edge of familiarity and of my competence.)

Old Tavi principle: It takes a group to work with a group.  (SD: Are our teams enabling this work?  Seven heads are definitely better than one, but each small study system consultant must be concerned with survival, almost in a vacuum.  What would working as a group with a group (small study subsystem, for example) mean, be like?  What is such work's relationship to dependency, leadership, authority, survival?  Are the different small study subsystems in truth engaged along similar or parallel paths of advance?  Or, as is characteristic of all groups, might each one have a separate, even distinct, task and objective?)

Soros 1998: In the present world, transactions replace relationships in people's dealings with each other. (SD: How does this affect our work as consultants and staff of group relations conferences?  The effect cannot be null.  Am I living in the past, thinking relationships are important currency?  The fact that we do this conference once a year, on a contractual basis for a specified number of days, lends credence to the idea that we are in reality engaged in a transaction.  Yet, the familiar staff participants provoke phantasies [memories?] of relationships.)

Emery & Trist 1972: The results of these kinds of fundamental changes in human relations underlie "defensive or maladaptive responses to the organisational and societal challenges presented by turbulent environments."  These are: superficiality or lack of depth (denial of the deeper human roots that bind social systems together and, on the personal level, the denial of psychic realities); segmentation in which subgoals become goals pursued independently of any overriding purpose or task; dissociation, a reduction in willingness to coordinate one's behavior with others or to allow one's actions to be regulated by the behavior of others.  (SD: I certainly believe that a group relations conference system satisfies the requirements for a "turbulent" environment.  The different responses produced to the system remind me again of the question about how we consultants can work together within the small study subsystem team and in the ISE.  Don't we behave in superficial, segmented, dissociated ways?  Sometimes or often?  As staff members, are we superficial with each other, denying the interdependence and even dependence that are real?  Do we segment ourselves in the small study subsystems and ISE, addressing ourselves to our assigned tasks, without maintaining clarity and allegiance to the overall primary task of the conference or the event?  Does dissociation show up in small study subsystem team meetings and reports or in our focus within the small study subsystem work spaces?  The ISE is the ideal place to dissociate.  How many inter-subsystem meetings are usual?  How can we engage in communication and behavior with respect to the multiple subsystems involved in the ISE?)

Index of related articles

The intergroup event: An overview

Levers of institutional transformation: System-level working hypotheses

The intergroup and institutional events: An overview of designs, foci, structures, and functions

The Institutional System Event (ISE)

Group relations conferences in the Tavistock tradition: Comparison of consultants' interventions in the
Institutional System Event (ISE) and in the Intergroup (IG) or Institutional (IE) Events

The paths of authority: From the unconscious to the transcendental: Work at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem

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