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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Making the best of diversity: Working towards collaboration between different interest groups. An ongoing research project on collaboration between different interest 'groups'

Man is capable of producing a world that he then experiences as something other than a human product (P.L. Berger & T. Luckmann, 1966) More than ever we are confronted with diversity of all kinds: race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity and interests, and with different sorts of groups: socio-political-, cultural-, national groupings, and organisational units at different stages of socio-economic development. At the macro level, we are becoming aware of the rich social and human diversity on this planet through the media, tourism and the intrusive globalisation of the economy. At the mid-level of society, be find diversity in our neighbourhoods, due to socio-economical stratification and immigration of peoples for political and/or economic reasons. A similar diversity is reflected at the micro level of organisations and the workplace. Some kinds of social diversity easily reconstitute themselves in function of specific issues; others appear more resilient like national, cultural, religious or ethnic groups, sometimes resulting in 'faultlines', in open conflict, or most surprisingly in some fruitful collaboration. The ongoing research-training project was set up in 1996 by our Institute with the explicit purpose to learn and to develop leading professionals (managers and consultants) to establish collaborative processes amongst different legally independent, interest parties. The project, therefore expresses an explicit concern and a value, namely that more people in leadership positions should be enabled to recognise the specific, multiparty dynamics in the issues they are confronted with, and develop a competence to deal with them, not by forging power strategies, but through collaborative efforts. Learning to 'lead' collaborative processes takes us one step up in civilisation, and one step forward in the development of genuine democracy and the maintenance of a global, social fabric.To achieve these research and training objectives, a simulation was developed based on a feasibility study of a particular socio-economical crisis in the Saint Petersburg area, Russia (Cherniavsky, Ostrovskaya & Mgmoyeen Hyder, 1993). The resulting Yacht club simulation (Vansina, Taillieu, & Schruijer, 1999) is run residentially for two consecutive days for managers of international companies, for consultants and in executive programmes of business schools. Seven legally independent parties are stakeholders in a local socio-economic issue. They have different resources and power and can interact with oneaother in real time and almost without imposed constraints. basic ingredients of multiparty issues are present: intergroup interactions, different interests, uncertainties and risks pertaining to the problem or opportunity at hand and to the unpredictability of the groups involved.The major features of multiparty issues: negotiations and conflict resolution, intergroup relations, and leading collaborative processes and mediation are being studied by different disciplines, e.g. political scientists, economists, sociologists, city-planners, social and cognitive psychologists. Each discipline has brought its own notions and perspectives to deal with this important domain. As our experience grew, with about thirty simulations in different countries and a couple of major real life multiparty projects, we became more convinced that the processes and outcomes could not be properly understood by one or another discipline. In this article we will try to share our sense-making efforts of our observations and experiences with multiparty behaviour. In our attempts to understand and to influence these complex dynamic processes we had to integrate a psychodynamic perspective with others from different disciplines. In this sense we are moving into a new domain. After a brief discussion of first, the limitations of psychoanalytic theories for explaining and predicting intergroup behaviour, and second the contributions of other disciplines, in particular social psychology, we will discuss our findings on three major issues: intergroup relations, negotiations and 'leading collaborative processes' or 'mediation'. 1. Intergroup behaviour: The impact of perceived diversity on individuals and groups. The confrontation with manifest diversity of interests threatens groups, unconsciously strengthening group identification expressed in homogenisation and accentuation of differences between in-and out-groups. The encounter triggers anxiety, raises suspicion and competitive feelings particularly in those groups/categories that feel threatened by the presence of the others.Reality testing becomes impaired through: projection and denial; a preoccupation with the other parties' intentions; while the presentation and maintenance of one's social identity deflects energy and attention from 'putting one's own house in order'. Attempts are made to increase one's power position in relation to the others. The most powerful groups try to impose their views and mostly hidden interests onto the others. 2. Negotiations: The collaborative task system (CTS formed by the representatives around the negotiating table) operates in an 'institutional context' (constitutions that traditionally dealt with that problem domain) and an 'emotional context' (urgency to do something about the issue and some 'awareness' that this can only be achieved through collaboration). Three different 'imagined others' or 'ghosts' are likely to emerge: the established authorities (benevolent, malicious or both); agencies that may regulate, reward or bribe interest groups, and the other interest groups in the simulation. The representatives tend to be prototypical for their respective interest groups. The more the encounter becomes anxiety provoking and unpleasant, the more difficult it becomes to make the CTS work constructively, and the more likely that the inter-group context will be used to enact basic assumptions. Under pressure to reach agreement, the objectives are likely to change from doing something together to deal with the issue ('doing business'), to closing a deal (no commitment to further actions). 3. Leading collaborative processes is 'leading from a shared power base' contrasting markedly with the traditional images of leadership.Persons with an outspoken preference, or personalities who have a strong tendency to make marked distinctions between good and bad, right or wrong, likes and dislikes, acceptable or not acceptable (typical for the paranoid-schizoid position) are incapable of fulfilling this leading function. A one-sided emphasis by the chairperson on the positive in the interactions discourages critical thinking and reality testing. The accentuation of 'large agreement' or 'common ground' while not recognising the areas of disagreement or differences, threatens those groups which identity is grounded on those differences.The capacity to maintain a relative autonomy towards social pressures emerges as an essential quality.In the explorations of these findings, one may recognise some of the intergroup dynamics and power plays that emerged after the painful experiences of September 11 and in the Middle East crisis.