A short history of group relations at the Tavistock

The Tavistock and Portman has a rich history of group relations. Here, William Halton shares snippets of this past and how it has shaped this iconic conference. 

(Based on a talk given at a Trust scientific meeting: ‘Group Relations at the Tavistock: Where from and where to?’ on 11 May 2020.)

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Group Relations owes its origin to Kurt Lewin, a gestalt psychologist from Germany who immigrated to the United States in 1933. Lewin formulated many new concepts such as: group dynamics, systems thinking, feedback mechanisms, action research, and experiential learning.

The social need that led to the discovery of experiential learning in small groups was a request in 1946 from the Connecticut State Interracial Commission. They asked Lewin’s ‘Research Centre for Group Dynamics’ to provide a workshop programme for training local leaders in combating racial and religious prejudice in employment and community practices. At the same time Lewin was to research and evaluate the programme.

The participants were divided into three small workshop groups each with a trainer and a research recorder. Lewin was a recorder. The workshop used discussion and role-play to analyse inter-racial problems.

In the evening the recorders presented their reports to the staff group. Some workshop members asked if they could attend. The staff were reluctant, but Lewin was in favour. The effect was electric. The recorders reported on the group dynamics: for example, that Mrs X attacked the group leader; that Mr Y had come to the leader's defence and group members had been drawn into taking sides. The participants referred to immediately challenged the accuracy of the recorder's report. Soon all the members were attending late into the night and they reported significant learning about group dynamics and resistance to change.  [
Marrow, A.J. 1969]. Experiential learning from the here-and-now dynamics of the small group had been discovered.

The following year, 1947, Lewin founded the National Training Laboratory at Bethel, Maine, with the here-and-now experiential small T-group as its core component. This later became a permanent feature of group relations in the UK.  

In that same year, 1947, in London the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR), with its focus on organisations and group dynamics, became a separate organisation from the Tavistock Clinic with its focus on NHS patients. But the two organisations continued working in the same building, in close cooperation with each other. It would be ten years before the first group relations conference in the UK took place at Leicester and twenty years before group relations started at the Tavistock itself.

During the first ten years leading up to the first Leicester conference two important elements were embedded into the Tavistock approach: namely psychoanalysis and the concept of the self-managing primary work group.

The first industrial consultancy, the Glacier project, established the use of psychoanalysis in non-clinical settings as a tool for organisational consultancy to small groups. Glacier was an engineering company in north London that manufactured steel bearings. Negotiations between union and management had reached an impasse due to a breakdown in trust. Elliott Jaques, a psychoanalyst and member of TIHR, led the project and he describes how he used psychoanalytic interpretations to produce awareness of the obstructive emotional forces that were operating unconsciously below the surface. He wrote: ‘Once a group has developed insight and skill in recognising forces related to status, prestige, security, authority, suspicion, hostility and memories of past events…these forces no longer colour subsequent discussion nor impede progress to the same extent as before.’ (Jaques) The final outcome of the project was workers democratic participation in decision-making at the highest level.

At the same time as the Glacier project was in progress, at the Tavistock Bion was also working on small group dynamics, conceptualising the sophisticated work group and the basic assumptions of dependency, fight & flight and pairing (Bion, 1951).

In this way psychoanalysis in combination with basic assumption theory became the technique of choice for consultancy work and it was the technique used for working with small groups, in group relation conferences.

A second element was known as the self-managing primary work group. A problem for the coal industry, nationalised in 1946, was that the introduction of new coal-cutting machinery had not resulted in the expected increase in coal production. In 1958 Eric Trist, a clinical and social psychologist and founder-member of TIHR, was invited by a colleague to visit a Yorkshire mine where he saw a highly productive group of miners who had organised themselves in their own way to operate new machinery. He had witnessed what became known as a self-managing primary work group. A subsequent research project showed that in those mines where the miners had spontaneously organised themselves into multi-skilled self-managing teams to operate the new coal-cutting machinery they had been able to meet their own needs and also increase output (Trist et al). Trist realised that self-managing teams were both democratic and productive. The link was that greater democracy led to greater productivity.

These two elements, psychoanalytic consultancy and self-managing work groups were to become foundational components of the first group relations conference.

The TIHR vision for British industry was to strengthen its organisational democracy and thereby increase productivity.

After a decade of TIHR consultancy to a wide range of organisations, many of their clients were asking for their own staff to be trained with similar skills (Trist & Sofer). In response to these requests it was decided to organise a twelve-day conference at Leicester. So, in September 1957, with the help of a consultant from the National Training Laboratory at Bethel, TIHR mounted the first UK training conference in Group Relations directed by Eric Trist. It would be a Laboratory style event ‘rooted in British as well as American experience’ (Trist & Sofer; Dicks). Members would experientially learn the psychoanalytical consultancy method and then apply it to local organisations. After the conference they would take their new skills back to their own organisations and apply them there – increasing both democracy and productivity.

The conference consisted of three experiential here-and-now small study groups. The Laboratory trainer was replaced a psychoanalytic consultant who made psychoanalytic and basic-assumption interpretations. The small groups themselves would be self-managing and would be given no tasks other than studying their own behaviour. There were theory lectures illustrating consultations undertaken by TIHR.  A newly-released film 'Twelve Angry Men' was shown twice.

 

Towards the end of the conference Interactive Application Groups involved visits to local firms and return visits by their staff so that members could engage with real organisational problems and share their group dynamic learning with the local community. There were also visits from the participants’ sponsoring organisations to encourage their support for the new vision members would bring with them when they returned to work.

 

An intergroup exercise

 

Learning about self-managing groups became clearer in the second conference, which included a new event – the intergroup exercise, suggested by Harold Bridger. Here is how it went:

 

The members were sitting in loose formation round the hotel ballroom. The Director said they had fifteen minutes to divide themselves into three groups and to occupy three corners of the room, and then plan their special interest sessions. There were a few questions and the Director sat down. A short pause followed. Then an industrial member said angrily that in industry, staff would normally help in making a decision about splitting up into groups.

The staff moved off into their corner of the room. Other members picked up their chairs. Someone said 'Let’s do it alphabetically' but within seconds two groups were heading towards two of the other corners, leaving a remnant group in the middle, who then moved to the fourth corner. 'In this way, within not more than about fifteen seconds, the division had been made without any conscious decision about how it should be done' [Trist & Murray p.201-2].

 

Then followed an inter-group process in which the remnant group felt rejected; another group was paralysed by guilt at initiating the break up; chairmen were elected and resigned; delegates met; meetings were held outside the session times and so on. The members’ resentment at the staff for expecting them to self-manage their own decision-making persisted for the rest of the conference: a resentment that’s been repeated in many subsequent conferences.

 

In a follow-up meeting disillusion had set in. Colleagues back home couldn’t connect with the transformational experience that the members were offering. Transforming organisations would be a slower process requiring more training, more skills and more change agents [Trist & Sofer, 1959]. The vision had encountered resistance to change.

In 1962 AK Rice took over from Eric Trist as Conference Director and created a new group relations model with a different focus. Achieving Trist’s social vision was no longer the aim.

 

The lectures were removed as were the visits to and from local firms and from sponsoring organisations. An experiential Large Study Group was added to the Small Study Groups.

There were two experiential intergroup events. One called the Intergroup Event, members in small groups without staff management. The second, an Institutional Event, in which staff were present as a Management Group. In all these experiential events members were regarded as self-managing. In addition a ‘Training Group’ (for training in group relations work) was developed, which joined the staff in the staff room.

 

These changes signalled a change of purpose from that of training leaders to be change agents for transforming society. The new aim became one of training individuals for organisational leadership roles within the conference itself as an organisation. The conference had become a personal development programme for becoming a leader. Learning about group dynamics was part of the in-put for becoming an organisational leader or a better leader in whatever role one had. As Rice put it, the primary task was ‘to provide members with opportunities to experience for themselves the interpersonal and intergroup relationships involved in leadership’.

 

A typical conference aim was: ‘to provide opportunities to study the exercise of authority in the context of inter-personal, inter-group and institutional relations within the conference institution’ (Miller). The aim did not include changes in other organisations.

This model has barely changed since AK Rice died in November 1969 [Miller]. 

The Rice model gradually spread outside Leicester and the first one at the Tavistock, organised by TIHR, known as the mini-Leicester, was held in the academic year 1969-70, directed by Dr Pierre Turquet. As a one-week non-residential conference it was less of a social island than at Leicester and as an in-house conference it was responsive to the changing dynamics of the Tavistock itself.

I was in my first year as a student. I recall being slightly late for the Large Study Group and found myself in the middle of a spiral of chairs, jammed up against Dr Turquet himself. At one point I crossed my legs and caught him on the shin. His large eyebrows went up with just a flicker of a smile and to my relief he said nothing. From that experience I learned as a later staff member not to persecute members or retaliate for aggression against staff.

Later in the same Large Study Group as manic jokes and laughter swirled round the outer perimeter, I felt the spiral turn. I said I felt this was a frightening place to be. Of course, I didn’t know then that the Large Study Group is the group relations location for processing fears of uncontrolled violence in large groups, where gangs are formed to attack staff and persecute minorities and where individuals struggle to find their existence, identity, point of view and organisational voice.

At first, the conferences were on the Tavistock margins and could be arranged ‘if there is sufficient demand from students and sufficient staff is available’ [TIHR course brochure 1971-72 p.60]. Seven years later they had become an integral part of the inter-disciplinary programme and were organised by a joint TIHR & Tavistock Clinic Steering Committee, which appointed the director. The conference was followed by an application day four weeks later. And then ten lectures on group dynamics by Dr Turquet and ten more lectures by other staff.

As time went on, numbers increased as course leaders started to recommend it to their students. Then for some courses it became a mandatory course module. Other courses now run their own group relations events.

In 1994 when the Clinic became a Trust and TIHR left the building, the Trust took over responsibility for the conferences.

The ones I worked on in the 1990’s showed course identities coming more strongly into the membership. There was a rejection of psychoanalysis as the master discipline. The use of the word ‘unconscious’ in the brochure was said to show staff prejudice. There was a sense of violence in the atmosphere and of students being ‘forced’ to attend and of groups occupying other groups’ rooms and of consultants ‘forcing’ their way into members’ rooms.

As an in-house conference the conference is a place where shifts in the multidisciplinary core of the Tavistock can be registered as fore-shadowing future developments. The survivability of the Tavistock lies in its capacity to contain incompatible diversities and not in some orthodox uniformity. 

In the 1990’s societal changes were prominent in the public sector such as competitive marketisation and authoritarian managerialism. In order to survive, the desire to win the competition against other providers had to be added to the desire to care for patients. At the time I was working in the Tavistock Consultancy Service (now Tavistock Consulting) and I felt there was a training gap for those having to confront these new organisational configurations.

 I designed two new events to address this gap: The Marketplace Event in which on-task competition could be experienced and the Resource Management Event in which top-down undemocratic authority could be enacted. These were able to find a place in the existing group relations model without fundamentally changing it. In 2003 I proposed that the Tavistock should have its own training group in the main winter conference. The steering group agreed and it began in December 2004, directed by Linda Hoyle and myself. 


In the first decade of British group relations there were two models with different aims: Trist’s model was to train existing leaders in group dynamics and consultancy in order to rebuild post-war industry on democratic lines. This early vision has not been fulfilled. The vast majority of organisations do not have democratically elected leaders or self-managing groups or workers participation in decision-making. In 1994 when the Tavistock became a Trust it was itself converted from a democratic organisation that elected its own leaders into a top-down organisation in which leaders are appointed from above.

A.K. Rice’s new model was to train individuals in being better leaders in whatever organisational role they took up. The Tavistock mini-Leicester has been a closed system in the sense of having no external links outside the Tavistock and it is not anchored to any particular societal goal as the purpose for which leaders need to be trained.

But as new work configurations arise from technological change such as digital organisations, virtual teams, networks, partnerships and so forth - and new themes emerge such as creativity, trauma, citizenship, identity, inter-organisational collaboration and globalisation, then new experiential events are required to meet these challenges.

It’s not enough just to give the existing leadership model a new title. If Tavistock group relations is to remain relevant for the next hundred years it must continually innovate new designs and new events in response to new needs in an ever-changing world.

Bion, W.R., (1951) Experiences in Groups. Tavistock Publications.

Dicks H.V., (1970) Fifty Years of the Tavistock Clinic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Jaques, E., (1951) The Changing Culture of a Factory. Tavistock Publications.

Marrow, A.J. (1969) The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. Basic Books Inc.

Miller, E.J., (1989) The “Leicester” Model: Experiential study of group and organizational processes.

TIHR Occasional Paper No. 10. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations

Rice, A.K. (1965) Learning for Leadership: Interpersonal and Intergroup Relations. Karnac Books.

Trist E.L., Higgin, G., Murray, H., & Pollock, A. (1963) Organizational Choice. Tavistock Publications.

Trist E.L. & Murray, H. (1990) The Social Engagement of Social Science, Vol. 1 The Socio-
                                                Psychological Perspective
. Free Association Books: London 1990.

Trist E.L. & Sofer, C. (1959) Exploration in Group Relations. Leicester University Press.

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