Group Relations in Peru

Mannie Sher was invited by Mónica Velarde of T-Consult, Peru, to be Associate Director of the group relations conference at the ESAN Business School in Lima, Peru. The ESAN Business School, offers Masters and PhD programmes, one of which is specifically for Health Service senior personnel. Their Masters curriculum includes a 5-day group relations conference for participating doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, biologists and health service managers.

The primary task of the conference was to enable transformation and innovation via management and consultancy in health services: searching for health, well-being and sustainable development". However, the task and design of the conference also related to the context of Peruvian culture and history, which over five centuries was characterised by violent conflict between imported European beliefs and local native traditions, belief and customs. The conference therefore had introduced into it metaphors deriving from local native cultures - from the jungles and from the mountains; metaphors of managing the relationships between chaos and order inherent in the three worlds of the tribal population - the spirit world, the here-and-now world and the underworld, where there is loss of knowledge and innocence. The Incas believe that one should prepare to travel to the afterlife by collecting artefacts to take along. In the conference, exchanges of stones, brooches, colours and gifts figured prominently.

Native beliefs of "cleansing the system" were sometimes presented as competition between different health care methodologies and disciplines. Attempts were made to "integrate different cultures and metaphors" in a Peruvian way, but that often resulted in the destruction of the old order, and thereby weakening native cultures. In the context of the conference, this was sometimes experienced as the importation of new European cultures, including the Tavistock Institute and group relations! Once imported, these systems were integrated into a Peruvian context. This was evident in the religious iconography, eg nativity scenes with many native Peruvian symbols representing their traditions of ancestor worship, explanations of the universe and superstitions.

The free-floating, free association-based nature of group relations work jarred for members coming from highly technical professions. Introducing the concept of working with uncertainty; of eschewing "right or wrong" positions, was challenging, especially as this was manifest too within the staff group over which group relations approach was the "correct" one.

The conference offered the membership a rich experience of learning about dynamic relationships, feelings and processes that lie beneath the surface of group and organisational life. For many, the experience was life-changing, insofar as they took courage to articulate personal and organisational issues in ways they had never done before and many said this had led to clearer ideas about the changes they would need to make in their roles at work and other life decisions.

The presence of the Tavistock Institute was warmly appreciated by members. On the final day a presentation was made to me - a gesture of appreciation for coming to Peru to work with them on difficult organisational social and political issues.

The conference was successful because it brought together in creative tension the traditions of the Tavistock Institute's Leicester conference with the innovations of the Peruvian conference director, a talented consultant trained in the group relations and institutional transformation in Europe, with a wide capacity to contextualise her practice in her own Peruvian history and the culture of its indigenous people.

Mannie Sher
Director of the Group Relations Programme
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations