group relating

April 17, 2006

There is a certain irony in arriving at a conference that is ostensibly about transform-action on a day when the French have decided to stage a day of non-action. But such are the things that these kinds of experiences are made of. I made it to my hotel with 5 minutes to spare before the start of my conference and what a day it has been so far.
For those of you who might be wondering what the agenda is – there simply isn’t one that looks remotely like anything you might imagine. The purpose of the conference is to participate in the creation of a temporary organisation, to reflect on the experience and to use that experience to act. There are “staff” who consult to large working groups and smaller learning groups. Participants are divided into two groups – those of us who are new to the group relations process (called the Access Group) and those who are more experienced (called the Application group). There doesn’t appear to be much different in the process, but the Application Group do spend some time planning the conference with the staff and are invited to think in a meta way about what is going on at the conference and how that relates to their group.
We have sat in two plenary sessions and two small working groups. The space is left open. Anyone can speak about whatever they wish. Already the fantasies about what the staff are “planning” are already rife.. The emotional temperature of the groups wanders all over the place. People take risks and talk about their experience of being in a temporary organisation with “no rules”. The challenge to lead, follow, negotiate, participate, make meaning are all very live. All of a sudden it’s very clear to everyone who is here that the “task” is rarely the focus of our attention when we come together to organise. The consultants who sit in the sessions offer their interpretation of what is happening. The distinction between this kind of process and group therapy is that personal emotional work is not processed and what is experienced by the individual is seen to in some way “belong” to the group. Already there are scapegoats who are doing the work of others. In a traditional organisational structure the action might be to take them out of the system – to “fix” or “control” them because of their non-conformity. In a group relations conference the question is asked – “what is this behaviour saying about the way the group is performing and behaving?”
On the surface is should be quite easy. Sit, listen, talk if you want, stay silent if you don’t. No pressure to perform. No pressure to deliver. But the silence can be persecutory for some. Already there are “demands” for direction. Having the power to create our own experiences isn’t as simple as it looks. The whole concept of leadership is now up for discussion and interpretation.
I find myself comfortable as a participant/observer. I can be “in” the group and reflect “on” the group. While that is a comfortable position for me, it isn’t perceived as such by everyone with whom I’m currently working. Sometimes its best to avoid or ignore the large elephant in the room. I have to ask myself the question – why do I occupy this position? and what is it I’m doing that belongs to the group I’m in? and who am I trying to ally myself with in the room – is it a way of avoiding being part of the group?
As a consultant, these are the questions I ask (generally quietly and silently) when I work in organisations. What a privelige it is to be in a temporary organisation of people who are brave enough to ask them out loud.