By the time Thursday’s Symposium came around, I’d already enjoyed a week packed with learning about the history of the Tavistock and its work, hearing much of it first hand, from the giants of our tradition. Thursday was highlighted as the centerpiece of the Festival: the morning would consist of a deeper look into the archive, at some of the most fundamental work that shaped the T.I.H.R. That would be followed in the afternoon by Eliat Aram’s keynote, and finally a gala celebration in the evening.
The morning began with a beatbox poet and a welcoming address by Cliff Oswick, the Chair of the Tavistock Institute’s Council. Then Alice White and Daniel Monninger presented on “Sites of Selection,” their research on the Tavistock’s emerging methods of leadership identification, assessment, and selection, first for the British Army during World War Two, and then for multinational corporations (especially Unilever) in subsequent decades. They offer this description of their work:
From before the Tavistock Institute even formally existed, its work has been closely connected with trying to understand and improve how people work together. During the Second World War, the group who would go on to form the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations were brought together by a ground- breaking project to help the British Army to select officers. Beginning with work on “problem” officers and intelligence on Germans methods, they worked with soldiers to devise new methods of selection. We explore how this remarkable collaboration came about, and the archive finds that made it possible to examine the work from the psychological point of view for the first time.
The selection methods devised during wartime were soon taken up by commercial enterprises, most notably by Unilever Ltd., one of the largest companies for consumer goods. There, “managing” became a general and distinct ability, irrespective of any specific subject. Management candidates were to be assessed regarding their future potential rather than their record or skills. “Managing” became deeply intertwined with managing (and improving) oneself and relating to others – and these qualities could be determined with the Tavistock’s psychological techniques.
A few things immediately stood out about this work: first, it’s easy to see how this work was not only formative for the Tavistock Institute., but also for entire disciplines, like O.D. & I.O. work, leadership studies, organizational psychology, etc. In fact, in my ongoing attempt to figure out how to describe our (AKRI’s, Group Relations’, etc.) work, I’ve often begun my explanation by telling this history. It has all the elements of a compelling story: historical urgency; a powerful change in the way we think; and an underlying sense of being a force of good in the world, working against an ingrained class system, bureaucratic inaction, and Nazis. By putting the T.I.H.R.’s work at the origin, I’ve found that people can see its significance in shaping how we think about things like leadership and organizational life today.
The second thing that stood out was that the presentation was delivered by two young scholars, presenting work from their doctoral dissertations. Unlike other presentations I’d attended, where septuagenarians and octogenarians took the stage to give firsthand accounts of the work from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, in the case of work from the 40s, the time for that had passed. It brought home the fact that the era when we could hear eyewitness accounts of the wartime years was coming to an end. After the presentation on the officer selection process, a 40-ish woman told me that her father had been thus identified as an officer candidate, and that she was eager tell him about what she’d just learned, but that she wasn’t sure how much of it he would understand, given his state of cognitive decline. It was a moving little glimpse into a past that is slipping away.
Against this background, I eagerly listened as the young scholars replaced my half-baked stories, gleaned from fragmentary comments and hearsay, with facts and a nuanced historical narrative about these transformative projects. The things that stood out to me was how how the work of Bion, Trist and Menzes on leaderless groups helped address what the British military leadership called, “the officer problem”—the incompetence and under-performance of officers selected by status, social class and connections. Indeed, the insight that would transform not only the selection of military officers but also the selection of young leadership in the corporate world was one that looked not simply at who was leading a group, but more importantly at how the group was performing.
Throughout the presentation, I couldn’t help recalling Bion’s own accounts in his War Memoirs (found here) about his frustration with, and disappointment in, the officers who led him, and how their incompetence had real consequences, ranging from the comic to the emotionally taxing to the brutally tragic. It would make sense that a project like this would speak to him, and influence the work as it would come to inform organizational life from top to bottom, with an emphasis on autonomy and democracy throughout.