Human beings are social animals — some more so than others – but we all came to be as a result of at least one relationship. Further, the majority of us look for relationships or groups to provide some measure of satisfaction, along with frustration. Understanding how various group memberships impact us provides us some insight with which to better manage our group lives. Not understanding definitely dooms us to remain in the trap/prison for a long period.
When Kenwyn Smith went to conduct research in a school district in a small New England town, he was both excited to see his intergroup dynamics framework manifested in real life, but also dismayed by the seemingly hopeless traps we humans ensnare each other in on a daily basis. Indeed, his detailed account of his months of observations, with follow-up interviews, makes the traps seem even more hopeless. I will share a few stories below. Again, I cannot possibly do justice to the deeply nuanced intrigues related in his book, but I hope I can convey the multiple inescapable realities we collectively construct for ourselves, all the time.
The players involved in this live drama were grouped in this manner:
- Politicians, including one major business tycoon throwing his weight, “the Factory”
- Board of directors
However you dissect or draw lines between these groups, there are always the top-middle-bottom divisions. When Smith approached the school, he systematically approached each of these groups to “admit” him in his role as researcher. Had he relied on any of the top groups for introduction, his access to “honest” information, from all levels, would be severely compromised. His descriptions of this entry process with the student body also entailed the top-middle-bottom dynamics (of course there is such a hierarchy within the student population – had you forgotten?). The reactions from this group toward this stranger ranged from indifference to downright hostility, but eventually resulted in grudging acceptance. One scene involved food tossed at Smith!
The most dramatic scenes in the town’s politics involved the budgeting process, new buildings, and grade alignment, but grade alignment became particularly dramatic. Four hundred some parents along with all the school officials got into heated debates and arguments. Suddenly, the high school principal found himself stressed beyond both physical and psychological limits, suffered a massive heart attack and died! But instead of stepping back and absorbing some lessons, the school board just postponed issues for a period, with one exception — they did manage to quickly appoint an interim principle from one of the two assistant principles. The more senior assistant principle saved the board a tough choice by stepping aside, and the post naturally went to the junior one, L. Brook, who eventually became the permanent principal.
In the grade alignment fight, the board acted as middle and colluded with the upper, the town’s politicians, to force their choice on the rest. That backfired and lead to the fatal scene described above. After the death, you’d think, as Smith did, the board and the superintendent would be shocked into making some sense and acting decisively as the top would. It’s the top’s responsibility to appoint a permanent principal so that the middle, the principal and his assistant principals in this case, can consolidate quickly and allow the lower, teachers and students, to function smoothly. Instead, the board continued to assume their middle nature of indecisiveness, working on the grade alignment again. However, in the shadow of the death, they took on ever more conservative posturing by requesting yet more population trend and financial analysis from the superintendent. As you probably guessed, neither of these additional analyses was likely to lead to any significantly different outcomes than what was already available to the board to make their own stand on grade alignment. Let me quote Smith’s words in length to illustrate the convoluted dynamics:
“Mostly they [the board] carried out this operation [the financial analyses] by engaging the superintendent’s office in a particular manner. They would present their group’s inner tension as an academic problem, which needed more information to resolve (a typically middle orientation). However, they delegated the task of obtaining this information to the superintendent (a typically upper act). In the process the board members made their request for a further study sufficiently ambiguous that no matter what Superintendent Rhodes or his staff came up with it would be unsatisfactory. From the board’s point of view it would be inadequate because it didn’t provide a way for members as uppers to solve their inner conflicts, conflicts that in essence were really middle conflicts that the board was struggling with because it was caught between the polarities of the town politicians and the school system in general.
Please note that at no point did the board approach this in a calculating manner, as if they intended to make the superintendent look incompetent. The board “simply” did as most groups would do, focusing on only the things that concerned them, and not taking the whole system into account.
In the development of appointment for assistant principals, the board, the parents, the politicians, superintendent and his assistant, and the now permanent principal Brook kept the balance of top-middle-bottom gyrating ever so dizzily. After the death of the previous principal, the board feared that the principal position needed more than the usual two assistants. Collier, the remaining assistant principal was more than willing to not compete for the principal position, which allowed the board to act seemingly decisively in offering it to Brook. Now that Brook was the permanent principal, he had to appoint another acting assistant. But before Principal Brook thought it through carefully – he had already been under enormous pressures to manage different demands and tensions from parents, teachers, and an assortment of other forces – he appointed Walder, a well-regarded and liked counselor, as the acting assistant. However, once the search for permanent assistant began, all the above forces weighed in on who they’d like to see to fill the vacant spot. And before you can sort out who wanted what from where and for what reasons, the various pressures resulted in not one assistant principle but two! In addition to Walder, now Maher, a well-respected and liked teacher, joined the ranks. And because of the way this now four-some composition (Brook, Collier, Walder & Maher) came about, each with a different political force behind him, these four principals either form a two-to-two, usually Brook & Walder to Maher & Collier, with opposing shared perspectives or sometimes four different but overlapping perspectives. The same event would elicit four different meanings because each saw with his own particular filter/lens:
“Walder listened to everything through the filter of how it would affect his good relationships with subordinates and his poor relationships with superiors. Maher listened through ears calibrated to augment his good relations with Brook and other superiors while simultaneously hoping to diffuse his anxiety over how he related with teachers and students. Collier listened with the hope of quelling the turnmoil he had to struggle with inside. Brook listened with the overriding concern of keeping the politicians and public ‘off his back’ so he could work on building his educational program without outside interference and without having to constantly put up with subordinates he considered to be incompetent.”
Each of these four principles would react to different events of pressure and to the same pressure differently. So when they communicated, their choice of words would carry different meanings to each other. Communication per se is rarely the problem.
Similarly, while the superintendent was more powerful than the principals and teachers, he did have to report to the board of directors and answer to the parents/townspeople. In yet another dramatic scene where the otherwise divided board (on the issue of renewing the super’s contract) behaved in contentious manner in their internal debates yet quickly switched to a mild and consensus manner when the townspeople showed up for the public agenda. In the presence of the townspeople, the board was the middle. But as soon as that agenda was done and people left, and only the board and the superintendent were present, the heated debate resumed.
As the board was leaning to not renewing the superintendent’s contract – just waiting till the “appropriate” time to make it public – the superintendent planned to resign, as he saw the writing on the wall. As a result, the super, not having anything to lose now, felt compelled to talk to the “Factory” who was the biggest business tycoon in town, the power behind many decisions. Ever since the superintendent came on board, he had studiously avoided talking to the Factory at length for a sense of integrity. During Smith’s exiting process (ending the research), Rhodes asked him what he should do, to which Smith’s response was, “What do you think you shouldn’t do most in this school system?” Two weeks later, Rhodes and the Factory met at a truck stop and began a series of conversations during which the two found more in common than each had imagined. This eventually resulted in Rhodes’ staying at the school system till his retirement.
This last scene, especially Smith’s response to Rhodes’ question, is the strongest take-away lesson for me: When I feel that I have to behave in certain ways (because it’s the principle) or say certain things (because they need to be said), or avoid certain events (for a sense of integrity), I remind myself to pause. This is the lesson of “even when I know I am right, why not try on the role of not being right;” it just may open up some space that I might not have otherwise noticed.
This concludes my long road on intergroup dynamics. I think I know what I may write about for next entry, but who knows what else may crop up in between?! Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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