Group relations conferences, also called Tavistock group relations conferences, were created in the 1950’s, in post-World War II England. Their original function was to develop effective leadership skills for military use. Today various events designed specifically for these conferences (the plenary meeting, the small study system, the large study system, the intersystem and the institutional system events, and the plenary conference review) are standard components. Their power and utility as models of experiential learning and social education are unique and internationally recognized and employed to provide opportunities for learning about human organizations and institutions and effective leadership and followership within them.
However, intermittent or gradual transformation of established models of education and learning, whether traditional (for example, the university process) or niche (the “learning from experience” model originating in the work of Wilfred Bion and others), is both inevitable and expedient. Descriptions of innovations and variations implemented over time are informative and educational; ultimately, they facilitate structural and technical improvement through processes of transformation.
Over the last half-century, conference innovations such as the very small study system, the median study system, the application group, and the role review group have gained reasonable acceptance. Other proposals, such as conference management’s recourse to a dedicated internal consultant (De Loach, 1999), the organization of group relations conferences focused on specified themes (diversity, for example) or methodology (the use of interconnected computers as channels for communication, for example), and a preference for the word “system” as a modernized replacement for the notion of a “group,” which is more specific but less dynamic and interactive in nature, are still percolating, along with more comprehensive transformation of group relations conferences’ underlying structures and intentions. The World Event (McRae et al., 2009) is a recent example.
As the world grows more and more intermingled and global with respect to commerce, ethnicity, economy, travel, religion, food, communication, information sharing, existential insecurity, and terror, the relevance of the institutional system event (ISE) for an understanding of the unavoidably primitive stresses and difficulties latent and covert in constructive and destructive interactions among multiple and different social systems, large and small, increases pari passu.
This article broadens published description (De Loach, 1999) of the ISE and underscores the event’s power and potential for initiating direct experiential learning about sociotechnical skills available to postmodern institutional managers (VrMeer, 1994) in carrying out their perennial mandate to render at least tolerable and at best comprehensible and thus subject to modification the unconscious dynamics and politics of institutional life. It provides verbatim examples of system-level working hypotheses used during group relations conferences and reviews the innovative application of a conference-wide focus to working hypotheses about system behaviors and psychodynamics during the ISE.
Collective examination of such working hypotheses can contribute to the experiential learning that the conferences promote. The hypotheses stimulate powerful engagement in the collective’s work of learning from experience and engage conference participants in constructing and exploring the architecture of an immediate, though circumscribed and temporary, social system. While system-level working hypotheses may already be familiar to conference staff members, their formulation, articulation, documentation, and communication to all conference participants during the ISE are still infrequent and incompletely described in the group relations’ literature.
The components of a group relations conference are typically distinguished by the size of their make-up or membership and by their associated primary task. Approximate usual sizes assigned for these components are: 3-6 members (very small study system), 8-12 members (small study system), 13-20 members (median study system), and 30-75 members (large study system). All but the large study system may have a number of parallel units or components coexisting in the same group relations conference (for example, three separate but concurrent small study systems). One, or less frequently, more consultants are available to facilitate each individual unit’s pursuit of the primary task and consciousness of a dynamic relationship to other conference subsystems and to significant overarching and interacting systems. Some of these intersecting systems are present; others are not.
In addition to a distinguishing size, the components or events of the group relations conference have stated and specific primary tasks. Specified primary tasks may be “here-and-now” in nature, involving the study of and learning from shared immediate personal and collective experience, or they may entail review and be retrospective in nature, sometimes described as a “there-and-then” work focus, because their performance calls for orientation, extrapolation, application, and a focus on an unknown future, as well as sophisticated integrative processes.
In the ISE structure, specifically, the term “management” refers principally to a subset of staff, charged with general administration and management of the event. Conference staff members in general function in three roles of discrete complexion: directive (director or associate director roles), consultative (consultant roles), and administrative (administrator or associate administrator roles). These roles are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, the composition of management during the ISE may not coincide perfectly with overall conference management.
Consultants perform their work during the ISE differently and separately from management, even if conference organization in the United States may specify their physical presence jointly in the same workspace. Subsystems of conference members may appeal to the consultants for appropriate “work” tasks, but this appeal is optional and usually must be made explicit by the members themselves, along guidelines announced publicly by management in the opening plenary session of the ISE.
All persons enrolled in the conference, whether as members and staff (i.e., the two categories of conference participants), engage in the ISE, at the beginning of which members are asked, allowed, and encouraged by management to separate into an unspecified number of self-selected subsystems or groups, of undefined size. The task-based justification for members’ self-directed dispersion is clarified. The subsystems formed usually vary in size from three to 15 persons, with an average size of five to eight individuals, though the total conference enrollment may influence the size and dynamics of these subsystems.
The defined number of ISE sessions may follow consecutively or extend intermittently over a two- to five-day period. Throughout the event, conference management works in public and, upon request, interacts in public with members and consultants to formulate working hypotheses, which are conveyed in the public forum to all participants. Conference members and consultants have easy access to management’s ongoing work in public. Limited administrative matters may enter into its public work performance.
Management’s working hypotheses about the global system’s behaviors and unconscious motives are continually elaborated, emended, or substituted during the event, even during its final closing plenary, which is also a here-and-now event and a continuation of the ISE. Throughout the ISE, consultants may be requested by member subsystems, in order to accompany the members in studying and understanding the hypotheses related to the total temporary institutional system of the conference and the dynamics upon which the hypotheses are founded.
The typical ISE begins with an opening plenary event, after ~ 35% of the duration of the conference has elapsed. Management introduces the event, its methodology, and its task. Management presides over the opening plenary event and mentions the ISE’s previously established and published time boundaries. One or two members of the consulting staff are present in a consultative (i.e., non-management) capacity during this plenary opening.
The primary task of the ISE may be put forth broadly as: to provide opportunities for members and staff together to have the experience of creating and being in an institution and to study together their interconnected exercise of authority, leadership, and management within the institution. This task allows the joint examination of the relationships between the conference member subsystems and the event’s management, as they develop within the temporary educational system known as the “conference institution.”
Implementation of this task is expected to facilitate exploration of such dynamics as how leadership is exercised within the conference institution and how political, psychic, and spiritual relations to authority may affect each and every interrelated subsystem within the total defined system.
The primary task may be defined specifically as:
To explore the nature of the relatedness between the members and the management of the ISE, in part by studying the mental representations or systems-in-the-mind that give rise to this institution in the course of its evolution.This primary task has properly been previously published in the conference brochure. It is after publicly repeating the primary task during the plenary opening of the ISE that management offers conference members the possibility of dividing themselves into an undefined number of subsystems and, in its administrative capacity, provides a limited number of designated workspaces or territories in which the member-formed subsystems may convene.
The number of available territories is often fixed at one or two more or less than the number of small study systems extant in the group relations conference. This arrangement aims to circumvent simple reconstitution or reproduction of the members’ already familiar small study systems during the ISE. Management also gives the location of two additional, separate territories to be used as dedicated workspaces, one for itself and one for consultants, who are not members of management. There may yet be additional space designated for inter- or multi-subsystem meetings or negotiations.
During most other group relations conference events, management’s functions are carried out only partially in the public arena; during the ISE, all such functions are logically and consistently performed exclusively in public, in order to increase opportunities for members’ learning about the institutional manager’s duties and behaviors.
Members’ access to public management is an accessory to their exercise of individual and representative authority. The genesis of such authority and its exercise in the role of manager are in themselves intended opportunities for conference learning. For the purposes of the ISE, it is possible to differentiate three levels of representative authority:
- Observer: The Observer is sent by an ISE subsystem to silently observe one or more similar subsystems, including the ISE management subsystem. The Observer is also charged with using visual and aural observation to gather information to be reported back to the authorizing subsystem.
- Delegate: This representative of an ISE subsystem is charged with delivering and receiving messages involving previously specified matters in face-to-face interaction with other subsystems, including the ISE management subsystem. That is the Delegate’s legitimate task; that is the mandate from the authorizing collective. Generally, authorized interactions extend only to those points or topics specified by the Delegate’s own subsystem. It is understood that the Delegate ultimately reports back to the authorizing subsystem.Thus, members are admitted to management’s workspace, either as silent observers, as delegates authorized to deliver, negotiate, and receive messages, or as plenipotentiaries with full authorization to act as discussants, messengers, negotiators, and thoughtful representatives of their subsystems. Clear explanation of these three levels of organizational authorization is provided to conference members and staff, in written and oral forms.
The Delegate level of authorization is sometimes prone to be misunderstood. Paranoia, a clear manifestation of a psychic dimension of human relations, is often stirred up by the members' "allowing" some one of their colleagues to be a Delegate (or Plenipotentiary). The paranoid dimension of relations between members and management may form the irrational basis or motivation for defining the Delegate's task as very narrow or limited in the political sense. Reason would/does dictate a more task-facilitative definition of the responsibilities of the role. A Delegate is simply authorized to deliver a message from her or his subsystem and to receive a response from the addressed subsystem. Every message has a purpose for being delivered: namely, to have a response.
For this reason, a Delegate has the authority to discuss, negotiate, and report on specific points relevant and related directly to the message delivered. Without this reason for formulating and delivering a message, it would be futile to deliver a message solely for the political purpose of delivering a message. Such messages are really closer to the edicts issued in the Middle Ages. In contrast, the member of management who delivers the hypothesis to the members attempts to be sure that members understand the hypothesis ("Any questions or unclarities?" "Shall I read the hypothesis again?").
Consultants, as members of staff, are always and without exception fully authorized plenipotentiaries during all conference events. During the ISE, and whether entering management’s or members’ territories, they therefore act solely in this plenipotentiary capacity and function.
A group relations conference in general and the ISE in particular are designed to supply opportunities to study the nature and working assumptions of the temporary social system that ensues. Participants’ conscious and unconscious collaboration and contribution to the endeavor commence even before the conference convenes.
The ISE allows all participants, both members and staff, to approach the examination of the entire conference institution from multiple personal and temporal perspectives and organizational roles and experiences. The practically inexhaustible lack of coincidence between the promulgated and conscious conference system and the participants’ less than conscious “system-in-the-mind” supplies material for examining and learning in the here and now about the exercise of leadership, authority, and management in groups and organized systems.
As a central or core experiential element of a group relations conference, the ISE furnishes the most nearly “real world” setting for learning from institutional experience. As well, it suggests an ambitious range for the usefulness and application of such learning. The system-level working hypotheses constructed during the ISE are key tools and vehicles for initiating and deepening collective examination of the temporary institution being developed and engaged by conference participants.
The ISE and the associated use of system-level working hypotheses promote and model the innovative study of processes of institutional transformation, which is more profound and enduring than simple change or alteration of participants’ behaviors and motivations. Members of the International Forum for Social Innovation (IFSI), in Paris, France, have advanced the concept and praxis of Institutional Transformation or Transformaction® to mean an intellectual and emotional journey of collaborative systemic transformation, in which a wider than usual range of personal and organizational behaviors are socially and publicly acknowledged and interpreted. This journey is considered to be replete with the inevitably zigzagging path of advance and retreat implicit and evident in all forms of social transformation (Gutmann, 2003). En route, depression, regression, and defensive evasion alternate sporadically and unpredictably with insight, enlightened movement, and progression.
The ISE constitutes a workshop fertile in opportunities for experiential learning about the character of the multiform organizational motivations and behaviors of large social systems. Since experiential learning is likely to influence transformation, system-level working hypotheses offer a reasonably straightforward and effective route to engaging in the study of the individual’s experience of institutional dynamics and transformation.
The management of the event functions as the synthesizer and publisher of system-level working hypotheses. Indeed, management’s dedication to synthesis and communication constitutes its “work” during the event. The output of this work represents its attempts to “capture” and to convey in words the personality and psychology of the institution’s vague unconscious tendencies, fears, reasonings, and desires, in a way that demonstrates their probable involvement in the psychic, political, and spiritual behaviors of the total conference system.
Members, of course, are encouraged to create and disseminate their own working hypotheses, which may or may not incorporate or respond to all or parts of those circulated by ISE management. Consultants only rarely have adequate otherwise unengaged time, the required perspective, or sufficient relevant data for engaging in management’s work of elaborating system-wide working hypotheses. In spite of occasional temptation to attempt to supplant management’s interpretive efforts with their own, consultants’ energies are properly channeled into solid consultation to their clients, the members’ subsystems.
Management’s enunciation of the working hypotheses and consultants’ elaboration or “fleshing out” of them in the context of members’ requests for consultation may together be conducive to experiential knowledge of the existence and activities of the collective psyche, especially its defensive functions, namely the common defense mechanisms of projection, projective identification, denial, and splitting (Klein, 1985).
A rudimentary point of departure for the development or articulation of management’s working hypothesis is provided by the title chosen for the group relations conference at hand. The titles regularly specify two or three pivotal themes or foci. “Authority, Leadership, and Transformation (1995, 1996),” “Authority, Leadership, and Human Diversity (1996),” “Leadership, Encounters, and Transformation (1999)”, and “Authority, Leadership, and Diversity in Groups and Organizations (2006, 2009)” are examples. The published titles paint broad thematic parameters within which to begin to conceptualize individual, subsystem, or total conference system behaviors and experience.
The self-formed member subsystems, which are dynamic in the sense that their composition, demands for loyalty, or idiosyncratic motives, structures, and tasks may evolve over time, can secondarily facilitate management’s visualization and perception of system-level preoccupations, anxieties, and conflicts. These phenomena may be patent in the prerequisites for membership in the newly-formed subsystems (for example, only members who are Catholic or Jewish, or only members who wish to supply counseling and support to conference members laboring under stress and emotional pain) or in the names selected for them (for example, the “Mothers of Transformation” subsystem, the “Power and Influence” subsystem, or the “Tavi virgins” subsystem), in their decisions about governance of physical boundaries, or in the genuine, as opposed to stated, criteria that define entry, inclusion, and accommodation within the subsystem.
The emotional timbre of the conference institution, the participants’ public behaviors, whether antecedent, concurrent, or unique to the ISE, as well as the variety of images or metaphors expressed or implied in the participants’ use of language or symbol—all can convey additional focal points for working hypotheses and can serve as data to build and support them.
Because within any institution or system, subsystem behaviors are nominally, structurally, and psychodynamically intertwined, management is bound to examine within its own composition any factors highlighted or suggested by members’ use of substantives, verbs, and language in general. Relying on language, sentiment, intellect, and experience, ISE management explores the possibility of parallel corresponding or inverse significance between its own ongoing realities and those of the members. This parallel process is sometimes termed “mirroring” (Wheelan & Abraham, 1993), though the belief or assumption that members’ mirroring of management is a unidirectional dynamic is usually suspect unless management displays exceptional experience-based competence in the exercise of its managerial and synthetic tasks.
Predictably, though not by design, the psychic anlagen through which conference themes are enacted and examined are those of memory and desire (Bion, 1967), which are practically inseparable. Desire without memory is rare or impossible; memory without desire, likewise. These primitive structures play key roles in influencing the shape of new or time-limited social institutions. Though outside group relations conferences they are rarely brought to awareness deliberately, in a coherent and verbal way, their determinant sway in molding institutional life must not be doubted or underestimated.
The ISE experience permits learning about the power of memory and desire in the development and functioning of the conference institution system and its subsystems. Memory and desire may easily form the skeleton onto which members overlay their views and expectations of the system. Subsequently, memory and desire may mold members’ response to the “here-and-now” and guide their participation in the system. In contrast, to the extent that it is possible, management’s reduction or elimination of the distortions issuing from memory and desire in their own functioning fosters members’ clarity in perceiving and formulating the current, nascent realities portrayed in the ISE.
Members of management cast what may appear at first glance to be individual behaviors or dynamics into a context of institutional interrelatedness. In this way, they highlight the resonance apparent when personal, individual, idiosyncratic, or solipsistic behaviors can be framed and comprehended in terms of a collective, institutional interplay or tableau of memory and desire. In order to do so, management entertains members’ projections, largely by a process of containment, in order to allow its own resonance to them as institutional phenomena, rather than as personal attacks or invasions or as expressions of exclusively individualistic creations. Managers’ and consultants’ roles within the institution make possible and productive this process of containment.
During the ISE, memory and desire may be more comfortably acted out than verbalized; but without adequate articulation, their character remains diffuse and their distortion of conscious intentions and decisions may remain unaddressed or unaddressable. The acting out of memory and desire can be depicted in the externalization of the images, institutions, or systems latent “in the mind” of conference participants. A paradigm or “system-in-the-mind” may be conscious or unconscious.
Management’s working hypotheses contribute conscious form or specificity to collective memory and desire, through direct attention to the “systems-in-the-mind” as they are displayed during the ISE. Management’s work of hypothesis building aims to interpret and publicize the currently operative “systems-in-the-mind.” Interpretation, via working hypotheses and appropriate consultation, is the essential first step in system transformation.
Desire, conscious as well as unconscious, is always required to bring forth a social reality. Management’s working hypotheses are intents at elucidating and enabling experience, knowledge, and transformation of the conference’s social realities and their underlying strategies and ends. Such work entails exploration of the reasons or motives for the system’s desires.
Marcuse (1964) commented on humankind’s general proclivity for reducing whatever might be regarded as “Other” to one-dimensional terms. This proclivity is no less forcefully in evidence inside the conference institution and the ISE. The working hypotheses from management, by acknowledging the complexity of the experience of institutional life, suggest possibilities for collective reigning in of this simplistic, reductionistic tendency and for addressing the need for the institution to preserve or attain a basic or minimal level of reality-based well-being in order to pursue its learning task. The consultants’ contribution to overall system well-being is vital.
The carriers and constructors of the temporary conference institution depart for their participation in the ISE from multiple and disparate organizational roles and functions. Due to the plurality of manifestations of the Others present and active, the encounter with the Other develops as a prime and powerful lever of transformation. The working hypotheses generated aim to join participants’ discourse about the organization to discourse about the daily, lived experience of those many Others who construct and carry it (VrMeer, 1994). The consultants’ contribution to this discourse builds a bridge to the possibility of system transformation. This is so because the consultants properly work directly with both their own and members’ expressions of memory and desire.
During the ISE, prominent stressors upon the participants include unceasing confrontation with multiple manifestations of the Other, arising in the need for collaborative and rational understanding and interaction with the new, the different, the ambiguous, the diverse. Not only are these stressors encountered objectively, within the social milieu, but also subjectively, within the self. The encounters highlight and challenge members’ memory and desire for previously established systems-in-the-mind. Conscious acquaintance with them mediates their transformation.
Until about 1996, a formal communication from management of the ISE to conference members and consultants was termed a “message” or a “communication” from management. While a message from management may well comprise or comprehend working hypotheses, today the latter are usually more plainly called “working hypotheses,” leaving a message from management to refer more specifically to information-gathering interactions, the transmission of administrative details, or a simple relevant request for clarification of data.
At any one time, management formally conveys to conference members and consultants only one working hypothesis, which may be later or repeatedly refined or amplified. Transmission of the working hypotheses is done orally. Depending on the duration of the ISE, in practice and on average, between one and three communications from management, usually addenda or revisions of managers’ initial working hypothesis, are promulgated. Subsequent communications maintain a coherent link with those previously formulated and publicly delivered. Presentation of the hypotheses consists in an individual reading of the hypothesis, by one or more members of management, routinely followed by a brief review of the relevant, known data therefor.
Because a system-level working hypothesis can be detailed and lengthy, at the recipients’ request, the member of management who delivers it to the subsystems may read it more than once, but no more than twice. Afterwards, the management member conveying the hypothesis attempts briefly to ensure the listeners’ intellectual grasp of it. Subsystem members may pose general or specific questions, but detailed inquiries by members’ subsystems are usually redirected via encouragement of their request for appropriate consultancy. Detailed requests for clarification by consultants are rare but are always answered fully, as appropriate to interactions among plenipotentiary representatives. During the ISE, management and consultants employ the working hypotheses to execute dissimilar but complementary tasks.
Just as democratic political processes depend upon management in public, this latter forms a central focus in the learning opportunities proper to the ISE. The public delivery of working hypotheses concerning the total temporary institution that conference management organizes, administers, and oversees takes place throughout the ISE. In a less formal fashion, it may also occur during various other conference plenary events.
Since the context and exercise of management’s functions and decisions are public, they are considered to constitute shared management. Shared management is conference participants’ collaborative, interactive, or mutual weaving and unweaving of behaviors and psychodynamics in a public setting. ISE management’s public availability, as well as its public elaboration of working hypotheses that are communicated to members and consultants, express its commitment to and role in shared management in public. In order not to contravene this expression of commitment, properly managerial staff tasks are suspended during all breaks occurring between ISE sessions, and are only resumed after the conclusion of the event’s final plenary.
Shared management is not identical to dispersing responsibility for the decisions that must be made in the administration of the enterprise. That responsibility accompanies a specific role, most often a directive or administrative role. Shared management paradoxically calls into focus the individual’s exercise of authority and responsibility. In so doing, it increases focus on the role of the “Other” in the institution’s functioning, precisely because this functioning derives from or is a product of each conference participant’s exercise of individual authority and responsibility.
Shared, public management is rarely embraced or easily adopted wholeheartedly by conference participants. The major resistance to the introduction of democratic public management in the conference institution is the wish or aim, practically unconscious or primeval, to guarantee experiences and illusions that have elsewhere provided a known and comfortable basis for workers’ relationship to their complex and demanding tasks and to management and for their own (and sometimes managers’) unexamined understanding of management’s relationship to the enterprise.
As a regressive defense, resistance to management in public lays bare unmistakable intrusions of memory and desire as factors resulting in a truly incomplete comprehension of the current institution’s life and work. Much interpretive and consultative work may be needed for the exercise of shared, public management to be established within the conference institution as a widespread, innovative, well-established, shared system-in-the-mind.
The frequently or habitually interfering illusions of memory and desire may be both individual and collective in origin. They protect the homeostasis of institutional, organizational systems-in-the-mind that currently contour the accepted nature of work and of the human hierarchies experienced as necessary in order for work to be done and individual comfort to be preserved. In this way, they oppose reflection or contemplation of the current system, because any possible resulting tendency to or logicality for transformation can be viewed as “Other” and perceived as treason or disloyalty to tradition and custom (i.e., to the dominant defensive system-in-the-mind).
The maintenance through defensive inscrutability of illusions, preconscious fantasies, or systems-in-the-mind, as well as the underlying ambivalence about encounter with the Other due to the latter’s potential for stirring transformation are the strongest organizational resistances to shared, public management. In the ISE, the working hypotheses circulated and participants’ attentiveness to them are the anticipated results of conference management’s competence and public availability to “work” or understand them. Through the hypotheses, management endeavors to clarify conflict and difference through analysis of habitual resistances, in order to dilute collective defenses. By mitigating the sway of memory and desire, through unmasking their preconscious and unconscious elements, management and consultants encourage learning about innovation as an alternative adaptive response to the never-ending challenges of institutional life.
Formulating the working hypotheses, which remain open to subsequent public revision and extension even after their dissemination, requires of management team members a refined and experienced capacity for participating in the institution’s conscious system-level activities, while at the same time engaging the unconscious hyper-emotional currents of the collective’s behaviors. Their capacity for holding or containing these shifting amorphous dynamics is fundamental and imperative. These dynamics, conveying the members’ conscious and unconscious strivings, are contained within management’s attention and exploration, as it searches for meaning, resonance, and communicability. This capacity for system-level analysis and action has both primitive unconscious and sophisticated rational qualities; it distinguishes management’s from consultants’ work tasks.
Although conference members infrequently welcome the delivery or content of working hypotheses from management, the hypotheses are supplied in order to activate or mobilize learning about avenues for Institutional Transformation. In this context, Institutional Transformation means the fundamental transformation of the conference system’s psychological premises and psychodynamics.
Institutional Transformation may also impact system behaviors. In order to achieve their purposes, the working hypotheses ideally address system-level resistances, not individual, personal defenses. Thus, themes that may be embodied within the working hypotheses include resistance to learning via experience, resistance to alteration or examination of the status quo, and resistance to dialogue about modification or transformation of systems-in-the-mind.
Management’s use of system-level methodology and perspectives can be usefully transferred to most institutional settings: commercial, educational, political, familial, social, or penal. They implement or operationalize Freud’s (1961, 1980) belief that civilization’s wisdom, sophistication, and transformative management of destructive urges depend upon humankind’s ability to make the unconscious conscious, at both individual and collective levels.
The relevance of the ISE methodology and perspectives to Institutional Transformation derives from the postmodern notion that in the current historical context, organizational leadership is largely the management of meaning in institutional life. Group relations conference settings typically operate with shared, public leadership and management of social meaning. The use of working hypotheses hybridizes primitive, mainly unconscious and nonverbal systemic collaboration with the introduction of and support for conscious investigation and determination of developing or indwelling social meaning.
Central to the ISE, the promulgation of working hypotheses conveys conference management’s understanding of the dynamic and psychodynamic behaviors of the temporary institution called into existence and given reality by conference participants, both members and staff. Formal, task-related communications between management and members arise from staff’s belief that processes conscious and unconscious exist in every institution, temporary or enduring, and that they mobilize the institution’s life.
That these processes energize and move the institution in positive as well as negative directions gives rise to the indispensability for survival of ongoing Institutional Transformation. This same Institutional Transformation is achieved through shared public management, interpretation (i.e., working hypotheses), consultation that enables thought and insight, and collaborative engagement of the system’s members in the overall effort. In other words, Institutional Transformation is very hard work.
The working hypotheses periodically made public are ways of cultivating the resources and conditions needed for the synthesis and transformation of the prevailing impediments to the study of the temporary institution under scrutiny. The experiential study of the temporary institution, in its conscious and unconscious presentations thus constitutes the primary task of the ISE because no Institutional Transformation is possible without it.
The conference-as-a-whole, that is, the conference system and its many interconnected and tangential subsystems, is understood to be an institutional system. Elucidation and interpretation of the social and technical qualities of the conference institution are management functions. They subserve the primary task of the organization, namely, to present opportunities to learn about authority, leadership, and management, as well as their exercise, during and within the various conference events. The exercise of personal authority and leadership is understood to be basic to every task and to all transformation of any institution.
The working hypotheses represent management’s ongoing synthetic work. They make explicit its efforts to understand in a comprehensive or systemic way the qualities of the institution being established by the conference participants. The hypotheses take into account not only the observable and straightforward behaviors of conference members and staff, but also, insofar as the participants’ inherent psychological limitations permit, the covert and unconscious elements that register as salient or determinant in the character and politics of the temporary institution collaboratively constructed.
This intricate and knotty task is not perfectly achieved. Psychic, political, and spiritual expressions are dynamic, not static. The available data may implicate two or more interpretive hypotheses. Yet, as frequently, only one construction of a working hypothesis is conceivable because it makes optimal or satisfactory sense of the panoply of behaviors and emotions at hand.
The ability to accumulate through containment and synthesize the intent and meaning of numerous individual behaviors (physical, emotional, and linguistic) and of members’ personal feelings, in order to consolidate valid system-level hypotheses is critical to the success (i.e., the accuracy) of the hypotheses articulated and transmitted. Unconscious motivations are myriad. Therefore, conscious behaviors are usually overdetermined (Freud, 1980). The quality and unhampered precision of management’s synthetic work ensures the authority, usefulness, and influence of the working hypotheses.
What is the purpose of management’s working hypotheses? Can they be effective if conference members sometimes seem to pay them only passing attention? Does management’s production of working hypotheses merely adhere to the guidelines or ideals of an earlier, modernist era, which were to name, to know, and thereby to liberate institutional forces? Does the modernist comfort with naming as a way of gaining control motivate management’s interpretive efforts?
Such questions require an understanding of impulses, instincts, desires, and the equipotent resistances that those phenomena of psychological life may promptly arouse. The functions and ends of the working hypotheses correspond to the overall primary task of the group relations conference in which they are offered, because the hypotheses encourage conference participants to take thought about their management of sentient and structural behaviors and the unconscious ramifications thereof, in the context of organizational life. In this way, they promote collaborative or shared organizational learning in the collective forum.
Participation in the collectivity gathered during a group relations conference produces or stimulates involvement in experiences on the psychic, political, and spiritual planes. An ideal working hypothesis thus utilizes the available data to incorporate attention to each of these levels of demonstrable relationship and transaction between conference members and management. Working hypotheses do not ordinarily draw attention to the conference members’ involvement with or relationship to the consultants, which is anyhow excluded from the published primary task for the ISE.
Although the working hypotheses may portray accurately the contextual, socially-constructed meaning that members’ behaviors possess at a given point in time, this collectively constructed meaning may not be well understood or flawlessly articulated. Nonetheless, the mere transmission of even inexact working hypotheses has a salutary, if occasionally subliminal, effect on members’ ability to focus and learn in the framework of an institutional system designed and managed for the pursuit of education through personal experience. The efforts aimed at developing the understanding needed to formulate and put into circulation a working hypothesis about systemic behavior have proven a worthwhile and proper exercise of management responsibilities in any institution, modernist or postmodernist.
Conference management’s messages and working hypotheses ideally draw attention to the origins and effects of each participant’s mainly unconscious system-in-the-mind, whose bases lie in memory and desire. The ISE managers are both centrally immersed in and simultaneously displaced or separated from the temporary institution that the full collective of participants fashions through externalization of their implicit systems-in-the-mind. The management function consists, during the short existence of the temporary conference institution, in bringing to light the latter’s nature and dynamics, in order that they be available for examination and related learning by all conference participants. For successful synthetic functioning, containment and objectivity bordering on indifference may be helpful to the event’s management.
The communication of working hypotheses to members documents and promulgates management’s comprehension of the unconscious phenomena underlying the institution’s inarticulate conflicts and defenses, along with their behavioral expressions (specifically, the data that suggest or support the reasonability of the hypotheses offered). Stresses during the ISE are often avoidance-avoidance types of conflict (Lewin, 1935), centered on ambivalence about dependence and independence, oppression and autonomy, objective survival and subjective life, life and hyperlife (Gutmann, 2003).
Besides the already described defensive utilization of refractory systems-in-the-mind, commonly encountered defensive maneuvers include paralysis or withdrawal from social risks more fantasied than validated, sterile repetition or reproduction of what in the here-and-now are inappropriate or dysfunctional systemic structures or behaviors, and degrees of subtle psychological or physical violence and aggression. In some measure, these maneuvers reflect, respectively, defenses originating in the superego, ego, and id. The emergence of parallel manifestations of defensive functioning is observed in wider social systems outside the group relations conference.
Working hypotheses characteristically refrain from therapeutic or reparative intentions; they do not aim to cure the system’s conflicts or to specifically alter individual pain or defense mechanisms. But, to be maximally useful to conference members, the working hypotheses, like effective therapeutic interpretations, must be offered at an appropriate point in time and must encompass reference to evidence of collective conscious and unconscious transactions. These transactions or activities are considered to be the data on which effective working hypotheses are built. Thus, as in the case of therapeutic interventions, the data presented in the working hypotheses must verge more to preconscious than still unconscious awareness.
The body of a working hypothesis points attention to paramount preconscious and unconscious institutional conflicts, in their patent or conscious exhibition. The subsequently stated “because clause” (Turquet, 1974) suggests “why” the observed or hypothesized system behaviors would have meaning in the current institutional context.
The “because clause” is always articulated: for example, “The institution is behaving in this evident manner because it seeks to....” or “The institution in the way described avoids....” This clause is used to indicate the ties between conference participants’ individual inner psychic states and the character of the society or institution that they are jointly building. The “because clause” directs attention to the possible or probable defenses or resistances employed to avoid collective awareness of the central institutional conflicts.
The attention mediated by the “because clause” is directed to plausibly causative preconscious or unconscious elements in the system’s behaviors. To address the system’s ambivalence and conflict without proposing or enabling consideration of the related defenses undermines the integrity and serviceability of a working hypothesis, and minimizes its potential for unifying members’ focus on the system-as-a-whole.
The working hypotheses presented here come from group relations conferences held at different times, in different countries. To preserve confidentiality, minor insubstantial modifications may have been made to these otherwise verbatim hypotheses.
Working hypothesis A
The following working hypothesis was offered during the ISE of the first Tavistock group relations conference (1996) held in the largely rural State of Mississippi, USA. The physical setting for the conference was within a predominantly Afro-american university; conference staff was multiracial and international in composition. The conference theme stressed exploration of encounters with human diversity. The working hypothesis was presented only in English and was the sole hypothesis offered during an abbreviated ISE of two and one-half days’ duration.
Working hypothesis B“Today, in the here and now, the institution created in the ISE seeks to avoid the encounter with the ‘Other,’ and to avoid the innovation and transformation possible or likely through this encounter. Here, the Other is identified as the nominally collaborating ISE subsystems and especially as the diversity displayed within those subsystems.
The conferences sponsored by IFSI during the last 34 years, consonant with its ongoing refinement of the concept of Institutional Transformation, are sources for Hypotheses B and C. The following two communications from conference management, which constitute Hypothesis B, were presented sequentially during the ISE of a large bilingual international European conference, with the theme of Authority, Leadership, and Transformation (1995). The messages were presented to conference members and consultants in both English and French, over a three-day period.
First communication from management:
Second communication from management:“Conference management has noted during the ISE the creation of an institution where the notion of management in public has provoked profound shock. Two examples:• “About two-thirds of the members have wanted to see public management directly (through a large number of observers who ‘audit’ management) or through transactions with delegates and plenipotentiaries (urging a treatment or cure for management, which, during the ISE, operates in public).“Could this be because of the emergence or stranglehold of the ‘family’ model of management, which associates public management with entry into the parents’ bedroom?
Working hypothesis C“During the ISE, management has noted the crystallization of the institution and of its subsystems around the model of the family, for which it seems more and more to be an apt description. We are talking about a family in the ancient Latin sense of the word famulus, which is a grouping together of a family and all its servants. Pointed reference to the ‘Latin’ (in the modern sense) characteristics carried by the members of management is clear. Four of the six members of management have Latin or Hispanic origins or places of residence.
The following three iterations of a working hypothesis were conveyed sequentially during the ISE of a large, bilingual international conference held in Europe, with the theme of Authority, Leadership, and Transformation (1996). The participants represented European countries, Asia, the United States, Palestine, and Israel. The conference included two sets of members: those who were without previous group relations conference experience (the Access sub-conference members) and those who had had previous group relations conference experience (the Application sub-conference members). The hypothesis was presented in both English and French languages.
First message from management:
“During the psychic preparations for the ISE, several processes appeared:Second message from management:(a) On the one hand, the idea of an uncontrolled chain reaction surfaces in two of its forms: cancer (metastases) and nuclear explosion.“Why?
“A number of processes of suppression, repression, and extrusion of ideas, feelings, innovations, or anything that is novel, has arisen in the institution. These processes have been evident during the Large Study System, the Small Study System, and now in the ISE.Third message from management:
“Two different conceptions of management are expressed in the ISE today, here and now:Working hypothesis D
This hypothesis was formulated but not delivered verbally to member subsystems during a conference in the State of Illinois, USA (Authority, Leadership, and Diversity in Groups and Organizations, 2008).
“The institutional system is faced, in the here-and-now, with a collective show of mime or imitation, manifest in the reproduction of unexamined, feared rites and fantasized ‘toxic’ emotions, which seem to be distorted versions of management’s behaviors.These verbatim examples of working hypotheses shaped during the ISE indicate the compass and perspectives that derive from system-level thought and discussion. Their utilization requires preparation and a setting conducive to thoughtful reflection and learning from experience. An appropriate setting, however, is not limited to the group relations conference context.
Large and small organizations, with dissimilar work tasks and structures, may institute evaluation in their directive, administrative, and internal and external consultative functions through courageous involvement in system-wide analysis and interpretation. System-level working hypotheses have long proven wholesome to rational institutional functioning in an ample variety of organizational designs and pursuits (Miller, 1993). They are required for profound institutional or organizational transformation. The resulting transformations may be thus pursued, imperative, desired, or surprising.
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