Authority, Partnership, Trust in Groups and Organisations in a Fast Changing World OFEK Group Relations Conference, Ramot, Golan Heights, Israel, February 2009
The conference experienced as an ‘A’ Member
(‘A’ member is someone attending for the first time)

The starting point for my writing is the dilemma of an explanation that does justice to the impact and the benefit of the conference. I attended the OFEK Group Relations conference in Israel as a member who worked for the Tavistock Institute meaning someone who knew something about the methodology and effects of these events from my everyday working life and experience and who had listened to accounts from colleagues returning from previous Group Relations conferences delivered with the kind of radiant glow that only emanates from truly meaningful life experiences. However there was a tendency for these accounts to suggest not just a life changing experience but also attainment of a form of enlightenment and that was something that I resisted. It was as if Group Relations was an exclusive members club to which attendance was the only route to understanding and enlightenment but language and account were inadequate in their ability to describe the event.

When I did get the opportunity to attend I discovered that this experience, this exclusive ‘club’ called Group Relations was very much centred on language, articulation, expression and developing a sensitivity as to the how, why, when and when not to use. It seemed to be in conflict with the glibness and egotism of the view of enlightenment. This challenge was an emerging anxiety among many of the participants as they neared the end of the conference concerned with how to use a new learned language without alienating people in their ordinary lives. It is a challenge of this story, what is the point of a new language if it means nothing to those with whom we interact?

The context

The conference took place in Israel on the North East shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret, close to the borders with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The conference was managed and staffed by 15 people with about 40 attendees/members. The staff was mostly Israeli, (Israeli Jews with one staff member a Christian Arab) other than an American, an Irish woman and a German, it was directed by a woman, Ilana Livkin. The members were also mostly Israeli with a small international contingent, British, German, German originating from Ukraine and Chilean. The aim was to explore Authority, Partnership and Trust in Groups and Organisations in a fast changing world. It took place a few weeks after elections in Israel, which saw Tzipi Livni win the majority of votes, but unable to form a coalition leaving Benjamin Netanyahu with the advantage, but still the parliament was hung. The election having followed the New Year attacks/retaliations on Gaza. I was nervous about stepping into this complex history, my Middle Eastern politics naïve, it turned out to be the most privileged way of learning about this complex and difficult place.

What is a Group Relations event?

It is a very well designed journey of learning through others and with others defined by a framework/structure/timetable of group ‘events’. The individual attends each event as a member of a group that might be small, Small Study Group; large, Large Study Group; experiential, Inter or Organisational; and applying, Review and Application Group. The conference begins and ends with plenary (everybody) sessions at the beginning enabling the individual to embark on the learning and at the end to process the learning of the conference. This is a path that allows the individual to explore how they behave in each of the different groups and the dynamics and forces that play a part in defining their role: it is a snowball type learning experience.

Each group session sits in a rigid timetable, and is consulted to by staff members who keep the members to task, which varies from group to group. All sessions were an hour and a quarter.

There were three different membership groups of the conference: ‘A’ members attending a group relations conference for the first time and the largest group; ‘B’ members, who had attended a conference before and a smaller group of about seven members; and ‘T’ members who were training to be organisational consultants, about six members.

Opening plenary: here the members were introduced to the staff and the language of the conference, we learnt quickly and dramatically that the consultants were rigid timekeepers and that they will challenge the direction and language of the group. We learnt that they will not answer questions that they will always challenge us to use our authority and to act.

Large Study Group (five sessions in all): in the large study group members and consultants sit in chairs that are arranged in a spiral. The physical arrangement of the chairs is at first unsettling it forces the people in the group to explore what is happening there and then, individuals express their concern about where they sit, how they feel about where they sit. Speaking in this group can be difficult, many people do not speak in 75 minutes, those that do are not always heard and what starts to emerge is an exploration of the appropriateness of language, the nature and authority of the voice, authority, leadership.

To start with the group seemed to function somewhat at the expense of the individual, it took out its issues, fears and concerns on certain individuals who suffered as a result, slowly we learnt from this exploitation eventually realising that the power lies with the individual but only once he or she has found their own voice within the group and this is the struggle that preoccupies us as we attend the large study group each day. As these strengths and characteristics emerge so too does the shape and the character of the group, which is among many things courage, strength, power, masculinity and femininity.

Small Study Group (7 to 8 people with one consultant and 6 sessions). The individual moves daily within the conference from the Large Study Group to the Small Study Group. It is facilitated by a consultant who encourages the members of the group to concentrate on the Here and Now i.e. to think about what is happening in the room, what are the dynamics, what is the quiet person saying, what is the angry person saying, are we helping each other or hindering each other. In the first meetings what actually happens is that it becomes a place to which people want to bring the difficulties they are experiencing in the Large Group especially those that have not found their voice. Each meeting seems to uncover something about either one of its members or about the way the members work or don’t work together. We moved towards a shared understanding of how to create the trust needed for learning and development and then slowly the roles of each member started to be drawn out. There was the person who through her revelations and her honesty encouraged others to confront themselves; there was the person who brought out our understanding of our relationship with our family.

Inter-group event: a large group of all conference members with the task of exploring how groups form and dissolve and how we as individuals behave in groups. The event was facilitated by consultants. Introduced on the second day and spanning four sessions against the continuous background of the Small and Large Study groups the Inter-Group Event was a more dynamic setting where doing, taking part and acting formed a major part of the exploration. The task was set by the conference director and for the first time the members were left to their own devices to form their own groups. Total panic ensued described varyingly as the mob, the big bang moment. Anxiety among members set in: will they be followed if they lead; will they be chosen if they don’t lead so some groups formed quickly amidst this panic. Then there were the more recalcitrant and questioning those who risked not being chosen who remained in the room. Underlying all of this: does it really matter if I end up on my own and if I do for how long will I be on my own? Once the groups are formed they begin an exciting exploration of their role, of what is happening among the other groups, of understanding what factors affected their forming.

My group was made up of two pairs: one female, one male; each pair sharing a bedroom; each pair made of an older and a younger member; one pair the first to form; and one pair the last. Our consultant declared us a mirror version of each other. As we formed in groups we had a learning process, a period of interest, which then subsided and from there came the need to explore the possibility of partnership with other groups. To do this we had to be brave, take risks, understand how to make approaches that would be accepted by others more often than not it was the indirect proposition that worked. Over four events groups formed and dissolved, some groups retained their identity even as they merged into others.

This was where the energy in the conference emerged for me, I enjoyed the excitement and anticipation of the unknown and of exploring what would happen if I went forth and I enjoyed learning how to contain the anxiety and trepidation of the others. I didn’t mind what happened so long as it remained dynamic and very much enjoyed the forming, breaking, remerging, realigning of the groups.

Organisational event: continuing and building on the learning from the Inter-group event and set nearly at the half way point of the conference, there are five sessions. The conference set up a whole organisational event where the conference staff were the management of the organisation: where the consultants’ role was to consult to this organisation and the members became the staff of the organisation. It is more formal, the management and staff have a physical space in which to operate. The members as ‘staff’ are given a structure for interaction: roles of plenipotentiary (full power), delegate (with powers to represent) and observer. The task was to explore the fabric of the ties that make up the organisation.

This event began with similar chaos to the Inter-group event, but as part of the snowball effect of learning the members have learned from experience about the forming of groups. So in an attempt to give some purpose to the group forming a first real struggle and exploration of leadership was acted out. The leadership struggle is in the actual formation of groups and a battle ensued as to whether there will be a leader of the whole group. This battle took place among the men who showed little interest in the voices and suggestions emerging among the female members. But in working out their own power struggle they were failing to engage any followers. Eventually a group did form in reaction to all this and a female voice (mine) in her struggle to be heard somehow found the language and the tone to suggest the formation of a group to explore why women were not taking up roles of leadership in this organisation. A group formed quickly to this cause but procrastinated about leaving the room but eventually did and from there the others formed in similar ways.

There has emerged an ‘organisation’ and in the following three sessions the task was for each strata of the organisation: management, consultants and members to explore the ‘fabric of the ties’ in the organisation, what related each group, how each strata saw itself and others and how the things that we observe affect the way that we interact. In this exploration we learnt the role of our imagination in shaping and swaying opinion (fantasy); how these ‘fantasies’ can prevent us from interacting with other groups or with authority. We learnt that in the course of our learning we also need to be able to articulate our experience in order to persuade others to interact with us. In my group which explored women taking up leadership we conducted some mini research exercises among the other groups which enabled us to begin to form some theories about the nature of female leadership, equality and diversity and which gave us good material to take to the management for consideration. These were the questions we took to the management group for discussion and exploration:

  • What is the policy of the organisation to women?
  • Does the management see inequality in the organisation and if it does see inequality what actions and policies does the management implement?
  • How does the manager (Ilana) characterise her style of leadership and communication?
  • What is the organisational culture as it relates to women?
  • If and where does the management see the glass ceiling in terms of progression for women?

We learnt about our role in the groups and about what gives us energy. Some people interact with other groups, some people are the voice of the group, some the ‘critic’ others keep the group to the primary task.

The Organisational Event closed with a plenary session of different strata/groups: management, consultants and staff, about which there was a lot of concern. It was very difficult to see what shape this would take, the organisation which had established itself seemed chaotic, its management seemed autocratic, but ineffectual and the consultants disorganised, the staff (members) were in eight disparate groups. Towards the end of the penultimate session a movement among the staff (members) to have some impact over the plenary session emerged. I became concerned with whether I would be able to represent the concerns and the work of my group in this session, would they feel that my voice was speaking for them and for the issues that we had uncovered. Somehow I did, the members of the organisation nominated me as the female spokesperson, and while the attempt to impose structure on the session itself failed, the issues that had emerged in our group were definitely voiced as part of the organisational and experiential learning discussion that ensued. For what we ultimately learnt in all of this is that we can cope with the unknown amidst chaos and that it is not as bad as our anxieties drive us to believe.

At the end of the conference Ilana Livkin, the director offered me these words, which I took as an endorsement and validation of this work.

“I felt we were working together on the same cause and at times even crossed the boundary between staff and member”

Review and application group (6-8 people and four sessions). As the Organisational Event brings together the learning from the different group settings, the Review and Application group sessions began just over half way through the conference and took the members from the mode of current, experiential and accumulative learning towards the application of this learning to their working/everyday lives. This group was facilitated by a consultant and a co-consultant (in training).

In contrast to the Small Study Group I found this an uncomfortable setting, my group had some strong characters - all four of us were in leadership roles in the Organisational Event and the group was divided exactly (as were the consultants) by gender. Both men were alpha males; they had an air of lion kings about them, they strutted their stuff, playfully displaying their balls but also indicating that should the situation arise they would lash out to defend their tribe and their territory. One of them described his difficulty with hearing the ‘quiet’ people in an organisation. The women were strong voices too, one seeking approval from the alpha males the other fighting them aggressively (me). This setting evoked a physical reaction in me in the first session as, I found myself sitting between the two men, burning with heat, longing to get out and in the second session I directly attacked the two of them and the male consultant. Each member of the Review and Application group had a session to explore their learning and the opportunity to seek the support of their fellow members and their consultants. Despite the context and the challenges this ultimately proved a rich and rewarding learning experience for me and I found myself able to accept both the praise and the criticism that I received from the other members of the group despite feeling have felt threatened at the outset.

Closing plenary (two closing plenary sessions, one for ‘A’ and ‘B’ members and the final one for all members of the conference). Each closing plenary took the member from the experiential learning of the conference to begin reflection on their journey and where it would take them. It also allowed for a broader reflection on the group and the ‘organisational’ learning that had taken place during the conference.

The closing plenaries were dominated by a concern about language among the members, who were very concerned that this new language they had learnt would be frowned upon within their everyday lives. How could we talk about these things among people who have not experienced them and will these new words that have entered into our vocabulary make sense: anxiety, fantasy, boundaries, projection, transference, the here and now. However above the concerns there was a strong sense of well being and cohesion felt by a group of people who had learnt together in painful and difficult ways, but it would be trite to say that everyone felt good, difficulties were acknowledged too and relief was also present. During the final session one of the conference members spoke for perhaps her second time in a large group and found an expression that was so strong that we continued to listen to her silence as she was constricted by tears. Her comments related to the rain that is so needed in Israel, especially on the Sea of Galiliee, and as the words finally were expressed a rain storm appeared as if from nowhere. So loud, so powerful and so windy that the group could no longer hear itself speak. In our heightened sensitivity to the role of the unconscious in our lives all we could really conclude as we shouted above the storm was that somehow these people, this group and all that had happened in our week by the Sea of Galilee had in its collective thoughts and actions brought on this rain storm of biblical proportions. And whether you believe it or not therein lies the beginning of stories and meaning.

The learnings: language and tools….their application

This is a gift of a set of learned and earned tools some our own and some given to us through the knowledge and experience of the consultants.

We collected different tools and individual experience as part of the snowball of learning to take forward into lives. Very loosely and crudely these were some of my take-ways from the conference:

Experiential learning: how those things that we experience directly are learnt more deeply and effectively

Fantasy: how our fantasies are part of the navigation and experience of our lives, that they should be listened to and understood. Some fantasies are mythological and inhibit us, but others are the basis for a vision of our future.

Transference: that groups and individuals will put their anxieties onto others as a way of playing them out. This can be at the expense of the individual but often helps the learning of the group.

Taking risk: everything is unknown we need to have confidence to know that we can deal with it

Seeing split: how we ignore things and put aside things that are difficult

The “Here and Now”: how being in the present enables us to unpick problems

The subconscious: how this individually and collectively affects our decisions and the things we do

The formation of the groups: observing the way that groups form is helpful to the understanding how we build partnerships.

The spiral: a creative force for thinking

The fabric of the ties: relatedness and relativity, we can be one thing in one place and another thing elsewhere.

More personally the conference distinguished and clarified some important issues for me. I learnt that I thrive when I have a cause and in the experience of this conference I was concerned with femininity especially in the context of Israeli society. In championing the feminine I experienced some of the challenges of fighting a cause:

  • How if you exclude those that seem like the persecutors it can be detrimental to your own cause;
  • How people can join you as saboteurs to your own cause;
  • That those that follow may do so for reasons of solidarity and safety,
  • That you need to be clear about what you are doing and how it needs to be done;
  • That in promoting the cause others will vilify and challenge that which is most precious to you;
  • That you need to contain anxiety and promote confidence at the same time and all this while keeping those involved interested.

I found myself concerned with the nature of leadership. Is the centre of the spiral really the source of power and enlightenment as some members of the conference would have you believe? Intuitively I felt no - that sitting there meant many things, but for me it never defacto determined power or intelligence or leadership? Did the outsiders have a voice or a role? Is leadership really about those that look after themselves? Is it not about those who are able to enable and consider the quieter voices and create an environment that works for them as well?

Listening and hearing – I panicked within the group when I had to gather information from them in order to represent them fairly and honestly to the management group and in the plenary session; an initial avoidance of this nearly led to me stepping down in my leadership role and in seeking confidence from the members. I did however continue and found I was actually able to make this representation well and clearly and with good effect.

Opening up – I learnt that by opening myself up to the environment of which I was a part I achieved and came much closer to the experience. This meant acting from within, from my experience, from my knowledge and from my ability to observe acutely and sensitively. I realised that I am more closed in my everyday life than I would like to believe and that my subconscious acts show this. I am happier when open yet there is a defence mechanism that closes me up, I am not sure what this is, but definitely need to explore this more closely.

There are many histories

Alastair Reid the Scottish poet and translator of the South American poet Jorge Luis Borges in his prose piece Fictions writes:

Language is itself an irony – while we use it to create systems and formulations that are intelligible, coherent, and permanent, the reality they purport to put in order remains shifting, changeable, and chaotic, making it necessary for us all the time to revise our fictions, to dissolve and reform them.

The Group Relations conference is a creative and chaotic event of many histories, the Large Study Group especially providing a heightened sense of narration and happening. For each person a different thing could be going on, in each person’s head a different dialogue continuing, decisions to talk and not to talk constantly being made, contributions not made quickly losing their meaning as other words and meanings are constructed about what is happening to or within the group. So to continue with Alastair Reid:

…it is though our fictions, private and public that we make sense of our world, and find some equilibrium in it, it is through our fictions that we create ourselves.

Returning and the processing

So what did I take home? Immediately following the conference a heightened awareness and sensitivity of what was happening among groups of people; of what people were saying and of what I wanted to articulate; a sense of timing and relevance in my use of language; a way in to understanding the political and the complex; a way to see what happens and what needs to happen in partnership forming and why partnerships fail.

There followed a sense of needing to take up action to fulfil a role in the organisation and to move on. At this I have not been successful as yet and realise that this perhaps needs to be done in consultation with somebody else I can see the conditions and the systems of the organisation are thwarting me in my efforts and I am retreating back into the fogginess that prevailed before.