Thoughts on Staff Dynamics & Group Work

The Cotswold Community – A Working Note.
Eric Miller, Tavistock Institute, June 1986.

Some months ago – I think during the turmoil in the Cottage – I commented that not enough work was being done on the dynamics of household staff groups.  Individual staff members were evidently being put into isolated and untenable positions, scapegoated and extruded, without sufficient recognition that they might be victims of group processes – within that staff group, within the household, and possibly within the Community as a whole.  It is notorious in Cotswold that staff rarely have good leavings: they tend to depart under a cloud of negative projections.  And perhaps this happens to many of the boys too.

During my most recent visit (June 6, 1986), two staff independently raised questions about the possible need for “group work”.  I also consulted to the working group that has been set up to look at the working patterns of people in the community.  The stimulus for setting up this group was what one staff member (not part of it) described as “the non-sustaining fantasy of the 80-hour week.”  Long hours seemed to be a factor in staff turnover: could they be reduced?

Explorations with the working group suggested that although complaints about long working hours and broken periods of time off have some reality (for example, not enough time for sleep), a reduction in working hours, consolidation of time off, or changes in household staff establishments would probably deal only with symptoms and would not alleviate the underlying feeling of oppression.  Quality of work is significant.  Different activities carry different subjective meanings, values, satisfactions and frustrations.  A particular source of oppression is that so-called “time-off” is not a respite because it is constantly invaded by unresolved problems and feelings that the individual carries home.  So a shorter working week might not effectively increase the time off that staff could really feel was theirs; and correspondingly improved quality of work might increase the experienced period of time off even without any reduction in the formal working week.  One possible objective therefore might be to reduce the spillover of unresolved issues from work to leisure.

In society generally notions of work and leisure have become more polarised over the last 25 years as negative and positive (except that more recently we have learned to be grateful for work in the sense of employment, in contrast to unemployment).  The residential therapeutic community on the-other-hand, belongs to an earlier set of values which emphasised living together as in itself rewarding to staff and therapeutic to boys.  Instead of work, we had vocation.  Currently, these two sets of values coexist uncomfortably in the Cotswold Community.  “Vocation”, with its meanings of commitment and dedication, always has the propensity to generate guilt.  If boys are not getting better, is it because I am not committed enough, not dedicated enough? (In the background is generalised guilt at being a more privileged member of the society that has produced the disturbance and delinquency that the boys present.)  Guilt may be compounded for younger members of staff who have been feared on the work/leisure model and may be asked to display more sense of vocation than they actually feel.

Guilt has been a significant feature of the Cotswold culture.  There is an underlying pressure, when things go wrong with boys, for staff to take blame on themselves for deficiencies in management, in insight or in care.  (And at times this has been powerfully projected outwards on to the non-understanding, noncaring local authority.)  The positive side of this culture is that it encourages and drives people to give of their best and to gain the satisfaction of doing so.  On the other hand it also makes the experience of failure – which is endemic in an institution of this kind – more difficult to bear.  And that reinforces negative perceptions of work.

Thus what may be operating here is a circular reinforcing process.  Guilt about less than total commitment is reinforced by the culture of self-blame, which makes work feel more stressful and less satisfying, thus increasing guilt about less than total commitment…

This analysis may throw light on what sorts of group work may be appropriate and useful.  We have to distinguish on the basis of tasks.  If the task is to help individuals to understand group behaviour and their own complicity in it – ie, an educational task –then it is appropriate to go to a Leicester Conference or some similar event outside the Community.  The same applies if the task is attainment of greater personal insight or reduction of inhibitions: therapy groups, encounter groups, assertiveness training etc. are available.  It has become fashionable in many residential and non-residential establishments working with mentally ill or disturbed people to run “staff sensitivity groups” – typically a regular weekly session, with an external consultant.  My observations suggest that the usefulness of such groups depends on how the task of the group is related to the task of the organisation.  An inwardly focussed group – “closed system” – may enable “open communication” to occur among the participants – staff members can say what they feel about each other – but it is dubious how far this actually helps them to engage with each other more effectively when they return to their work roles and relationships.

My proposition is that the appropriate focus in such a setting is the relatedness of the client group to the staff group and more specifically the ways in which projections from the client group are affecting staff group dynamics.  Thus the primary task in each session is to restore the effectiveness of the group, and derivatively of the members of it, to resume the task of the unit.

Cotswold Community staff, consistently with the culture I have described, have tended to focus on the reciprocal process ie, interpreting disturbances among the boys as products of disturbances within the staff group and the institution as a whole, and seeking to protect the boys from them.  I have always been impressed by the capacity and integrity of staff in working at this, and in no way do I regard it as inappropriate.  My proposition, however, is that study of projection onto the staff from the client system has been relatively neglected and should be given equal or greater importance.

Psychoanalysis offers a relevant model.  The analyst is working with the transference from the patient onto him/her.  In order to do this, he/she has to be aware of the counter transference: it is necessary to distinguish between what is being projected by the patient from what belongs to, and is evoked in, the analyst’s inner world.  Analysts are no more immune to unconscious processes than the rest of us; but their own analysis and training makes them more alert to these processes inside themselves and helps them to distinguish between what belongs to them and what belongs to the patient.

I would expect much the same to apply to the Community.  Just as a patient can evoke strong feelings in the analyst, so the client system of boys, with their dependency, despair and internal conflicts, will generate both strong feelings in individual staff and powerful dynamics in a staff group – feelings of omnipotence or incompetence, splitting and so on.  Through processes of projective identification, the client group will mobilise staff to enact dramas that express the internal world of the boys.  Correspondingly, then, a staff group, in order to be therapeutically effective, needs constantly to review what is its own dynamic and what is being projected onto it.  And this includes the projections of boys onto individual staff members which then get played out within the group.

To sum up: – By working only or mainly on the counter transference, which seems to have been the prevailing pattern, staff are not only constantly reminding themselves of their own inadequacies, and thereby reinforcing their feelings of oppression, but are neglecting to analyse, interpret and use therapeutically the projections that are being put on them.

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