Parallel Process of Intergroup Dynamics: How men’s covert conflicts got expressed in overt conflicts between women – part II, intervention and outcomes

The principle of parallel process can be applied to intervention.   A small group of representatives chosen from the larger system can grapple with pertinent issues, unpack the layering of conflicts, understand their emotions and the sources, and imperatively, reflect back their lessons to the larger system.

more parallel lines

In this case, Smith and his colleagues created a “microcosm group” to identify issues, learn to make decisions, and take lessons back to the large group in order to move forward.  Microcosm group learning is different from any individual learning or subgroup learning; microcosm group members need to temporarily suspend their own interests, including any informal clique to which they belong, and only consider the larger unit as a whole.  Their learning and reflections, through the aid of the process consultants (in this case, Smith and colleagues) would mirror what the whole group would have to deal with.  So, the composition of the microcosm group is critical; it needs to be large enough to represent all levels of functions within the whole unit but small enough that it can function.  The group’s heterogeneity also must mirror the whole to achieve sustainable results.

Ordinarily, the larger unit would elect members for the microcosm group.  But given the degree of the dysfunction of the Design and Engineer Unit, the process of choosing alone could stall them in perpetuity.  So, the consultants decided to make a top-down decision on who to include.  The unit’s initial response was critical, for the consultants did not “fix” the situation; however, after explanation, members of the unit grudgingly went along, and while somewhat disgruntled about the consultants’ choice, most members seemed relief for not having to make decisions!  Bailey was one of the six members in the eventual microcosm group.

in this arrangement, our cats would do unspeakable things to the plants at the bottom.

Some of the principles of operating this microcosm group are worth noting here:

  1. There were two “vacant” chairs reserved for any members of the unit who were not officially in the microcosm group but could apply to sit in the scheduled meetings, based on “first come first serve.”  And these temporary members would operate as full members in the meetings.
  2. To ensure that this small group was fully representative of the whole, there wouldn’t be any secrecy and confidentiality.  All its decisions were public knowledge.
  3. For efficiency sake, any previously raised grievances would not be repeated.
  4. To break the mode of negativity, no one would make any negative comment about another person without first making that comment to the person’s face.

The very existence of these ground rules was the first major breakthrough since this unit was not accustomed to drawing boundaries.  Recall their inability to say “no” to work requests.  So, learning to say “no” seemed a good starting point.  Their first decision was to address the constant traffic using the unit’s space as a thoroughfare.  One day, the unit simply decided to lock the door, without telling anyone who’d be affected.  Needless to say, this resulted in such a flood of complaints that eventually higher-ups from other units within Building and Maintenance pressured Ertman, now the acting director for the unit, to unlock the door.

At the next session, the microcosm group understandably was upset, but at the same time, the first act of saying “no” energized them.  They began to appreciate the difference between working on the symbol and working on the concerns behind the symbol.  Their next “practice” came without design.

Johnson decided to take one of the vacant seats, without first applying for it; she just showed up.  So, the group had to decide what to do, and either way would require a “no.”  Rejecting Johnson’s joining this session seemed silly because it was a minor technical glitch and would further the rift between Johnson and Bailey, especially since Bailey was one of the microcosm group.  But allowing Johnson to join would nullify the group’s own newly established rules.  This quandary taught the group about the consequences of avoiding conflict, in that there are always those who would take advantage of “conflict avoiders.”

The group decided to ask Johnson to come back at another time after she had properly gone through channels.  Johnson wasn’t happy, and swore that she would never come back.  She did, but that’s later, and her presence eventually helped create the opportunity and space for her to work out the issue with Bailey.  In the meantime, the group learned to deal with other issues, such as how the “quieter” members’ voice usually got trumped.   One such quiet member, Carlton, found his voice and confronted Bailey on her often demanding and demeaning manner toward him.  Not surprisingly, Bailey was totally unaware of her manner toward Carlton.  But the rest of the group concurred with Carlton’s complaint, and bolstered by the support, Carlton began to assert himself and gain more equal status with Bailey.  As Carlton’s voice grew stronger, Bailey became more vulnerable, more understanding of others’ positions, and less strident.  When all members in a group (or family) are empowered, “their voices can be heard, thereby eliminating their need to act covertly.”

When Johnson eventually showed up (persuaded by others, and with some agreement from the group that they would accommodate her issues on her terms), the tension within the group was palpable, in part owing to her several months’ pregnancy.  At first, Bailey asserted that the problem was with Johnson only and they shouldn’t discuss it in the group.  But the consultants intervened and others in the group concurred that the conflict had been affecting them as well, at which Bailey was genuinely surprised.  But as Johnson and Bailey started talking, the consultants noticed that the men seemed to enjoy their conflict.  So, again, the consultants intervened, and suggested working with Johnson and Bailey privately, to which both agreed, to the apparent disappointment of the men.  During the private session, both women finally realized that they had been the scapegoats for the men’s difficult relationships and that they had been encouraged to carry and continue the fights.  They began to see how rumor, innuendo, and sabotage had been at play without their control, and they vowed to stop being part of the game, and to renew their friendship.  They would deal with facts only, and hold no secrets.  A new coalition of women in the unit was born that day and was evident even 18 months later.

However, as the women coalesced, some of the men had difficulty dealing with it, particularly the recovering alcoholic Walls since often he was the one instigating the conflict between the women.  As things improved all around, and his manufactured innuendos to further the conflict for the women were repeatedly ignored by the other staff, he started threatening to go back to drinking.  At this point, the consultants introduced the microcosm group to the concept of “emotional blackmail.”  Walls’ “blackmailing” was partly a reflection of the unit’s own behavior at not owning their less-than-stellar productivity.  So, in learning how to eventually taking a stand against Walls’ blackmailing, the unit also began to take responsibility for their own work productivity.

A final note on the unit’s progress:  Bailey organized a baby shower for Johnson.  Catucci was amazed at the jovial atmosphere at the party, especially since for a few years, the same group of people could barely stand each other’s presence at their annual holiday party.  Ertman took measures against Walls’ use of unit’s resources for his private enterprise.  A few months later, Walls resigned, with handsome windfalls from his sideline business, and never took up drinking.

intervention: putting cacti at the bottom; problem solved!

The method of using microcosm group can work only when what’s imported into the group gets exported back into the larger system.  A great group experience that doesn’t get transferred back to the whole would be pointless.

And finally, if Smith had taken Catucci’s call at face value and focused on only “fixing the women,” he might have limited his intervention to some therapeutic sessions for the women only, thereby improving some cosmetic measures of personnel performance or the reward system, but the organization would have continued to degenerate.

This is a complicated case, and the writing about group process can never be short- changed.  So, it’s been a long entry that was best split up into two parts, although short on pictures…I ran out of ideas this time!  Feedback, suggestions, please, I welcome them!!

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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