Thus grew the tale of Taviland: Thus slowly, one by one, Its quaint events were hammered out – And now the tale is done. (Tavistock Lecture Dr Eliat Aram, 2018).
The Tavistock Institute was founded in 1947 as an organisation dedicated to the study of human relations for the purpose of bettering working life and conditions for all humans within their organisations, communities and broader societies. As a part of it’s history the Tavistock Institute was instrumental in working to understand the essence of leadership within the broader context of humans in groups, teams and systems. It’s flagship event is the Leicester Conference, held every year since 1957, which provides a Group Relations experience to the study of relationships in and between groups in a temporary learning organisation.
Sam Crock and I participated in the 2003 Leicester Conference when we were creating the GAMAA Leadership Programme with John Urbano at the Melbourne Business School. John had recommended that we go as one of the most effective ways to ground ourselves in group dynamics and coaching, and ground we did! Both Sam and I found it a brutal and harrowing experience, but also one of the most profound and powerful learning opportunities we have ever had.
In June of this year Sam, John and I lead our first Intersticia Leadership Retreat in London (more on that in another post) and as a complement to this I decided it was time for me to return to Leicester. In 2003 I had to face my own personal demons, many of which were the result of being an only child struggling to understand and cope with Boarding School (this paper by current Tavistock Director Dr Eliat Aram strongly resonates). My objectives in returning some 15 years later were to experience and more fully understand Group Relations for its own sake, and to quite specifically get a sense of how leadership development is evolving in the age of digital media and communications.
The experience I had this year could not have been more different from that in 2003.
Firstly, the balance between psychoanalysts (or the “ologists” as we called them in 2003) and those from the business and commercial sector.
In 2003 business people were in the minority, we didn’t understand the language (“psycho-babble”) that was used throughout, we were treated as inferior outsiders who were tolerated, but mainly useful for target practice, and the only way we coped was for a small group of us to regularly escape to the nearest pub during most of the breaks! Fear and distrust were pervasive, and there arose a small clique who became the self-appointed leaders, among which were the ‘snipers’ who took every available opportunity to humiliate, bully, and victimise. I experienced viscerally how evil triumphs when good ‘men’ stay silent and it wasn’t until the second last day that I had the courage to speak up in the Large Study Group when some of us began to push back. It also didn’t help that Beaumont Hall was rather dingy with unsleepable beds and very ordinary institutional food!
In 2018 the balance within the group was far more even with at least as many participants from the business and commercial sector. I believe that this made for a much more nuanced and less-tribal environment because we were all there seeking the same goals, to develop ourselves and our own leadership practice. Not to mention that College Court was a much more pleasant environment on all fronts!
Secondly, the maturity of Coaching as an industry and profession.
In 2003 the Coaching Industry was in its formative years: the World’s first Coaching Psychology Unit (at the University of Sydney) had only just started and I was enrolled in it’s second cohort; the European Mentoring and Coaching Council had just begun (I went to a very early conference in 2003 after Tavistock), and the language and methods of psychology were a mystery to most outside of the psychology community. In the early 2000’s Coaching courses were filled with either psychologists (many of whom had largely dealt with trauma and dysfunction) wanting to gain access to commercial clients, or people from Human Relations, Organisational Development or retired executives wanting to get in to Executive Coaching. Tony Grant, who started the Sydney Uni course, was adamant that Coaching was not therapy but exists to enhance and improve the performance of fully functional individuals.
Since that time the use of psychological language has become much more mainstream within both the area of ‘business’ training and the community generally (I speculate that the rise of the Snowflake Generation has something to do with this). This meant that within Leicester 2018 the language used throughout the group was more consistent, even though the non-native English speakers had to continually multi-process which I could see was exhausting.
Finally, the global context.
In 2003 we had been jolted out the relatively peaceful period of the 1990’s with 9/11 and the era of global terrorism was just emerging. The global immigration debate was muted, the political impact of Climate Change was slowly beginning to be appreciated, BrExit and Trump were unimaginable, and the online environment was still operating mainly as “read only” World Wide Web 1.0. For me the 2003 outside world felt much safer than that within the Tavistock space. In 2018 it was the outside that seemed more threatening and the Tavi environment seemed like a relatively safe sheltered bubble, sealed off from most of what was going on, even though we did bring the essence of global issues in with us.
After Leicester in 2003 we were warned not to make any life changing decisions for at least 24 hours. Within 24 hours I had bought my flat in London! After Leicester 2018 all I wanted to do was give everyone more hugs!
Of all the changes that have happened in the last decade and a half I personally believe that it is those which are being driven by the developments in digital information technologies which will have the most profound long term impact on humanity. We humans are very good at getting distracted by what is happening in the here and now, by the immediacy of our human interactions, important though they are! Meanwhile the most fundamental changes due to our advancing technologies are creeping up on us, and we only seem to pay attention when there is a media scandal. I have long believed that Homo Sapiens are naively sleepwalking in to the future as we struggle to deal with both exponential change and increasing complexity, largely ignorant of the price that our Faustian bargain will eventually demand that we pay.
I have seen this naivety play out in the numerous leadership courses I have attended, and whilst Leicester 2018 was a powerful personal learning experience, it was no different.
Leicester 2018 – The ART of Enlightened Followership
At the Opening Plenary the Director of the Leicester Conference, Dr Leslie Brissett, explained that our primary task was
to study the exercise of authority in the taking up of roles through the interpersonal, inter-group and institutional relations that develop within the conference as an organisation within its wider context.
For me Leicester 2018 was a place and space within which, as the image above attests, love and truth were predominant. I felt that there was a genuine desire amongst the membership to co-create a learning environment where all of us could focus on the task and grow as individuals.
Three things in particular stand out for me in terms of my own personal development:
- the challenge, but also power, of recognising and analysing my own role in the interpersonal, inter-group and broader organisational system as it evolved, how I personally took up leadership or authority, how I chose to follow (or not follow), and how I chose to give (or not give) authority to others;
- the importance of boundaries – their definition, nurturing and management – and how I personally had to manage my own interaction with the boundaries of individuals, groups and the system as a whole; and
- the deep insight that the study and understanding of how we humans operate in groups, teams and systems is THE MOST IMPORTANT WORK that any of us can do, but our current disciplines and education system are only focusing on a part of it.
What is missing is the integration between the analogue and digital worlds, much more than just Social Media, but more in understanding 21st Century Humanity as becoming a global Social Machine.
The Leicester of 2003 was a physical bubble; the Leicester of 2018 was a porous analogue-digital network with participants from 27 countries who all brought their physical selves in to the community, but were always networked out to their other lives. In the age of digital technologies it is very hard to remain disconnected because digital challenges our notion of place and space, and even our human concept of time.
At the 2018 Learning for Leadership: Where to now? Group Relations Minifest Leslie Brissett addresses this directly by asking
How do we find ourselves as human beings in bodies operating and interacting with the technologies? … What can we learn from seeing, hearing and connecting differently that is opened through Group Relations?
As with Coaching, Group Relations is not therapy, it is about understanding how we operate and present ourselves to others in groups, how others perceive and experience us, and how we determine to act, follow or take authority in an attempt to lead. It is about placing oneself within an organisational system and working on multiple levels to understand how that feels in the here and now, as well as how to perceive and interpret the understanding of others. It is very much about revealing the influence of the unconscious as it acts within us, and through others, to determine how groups of humans will perceive the world around them, and will act in accordance with that.
This influence occurs throughout all aspects of our lives – online and offline – and the key question for me is that as our human existence becomes more connected, mechanised, data driven and reliant on artificial constructs (from organisational bureaucratic systems to artificial intelligence) what does this mean for the essential human experience?
Group Relations as a Social Machine
In my last three posts I talked about Psychohistory, Isaac Azimov’s fictional science which combines history, sociology and the mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of very large groups of people. As I sat within the Leicester conference environment the concept of Psychohistory resonated very strongly for me. This was because what Azimov describes is the ultimate Social Machine of being able to capture, analyse and interpret human thoughts in their entirety, to make the implicit explicit, in order to predict the future, and hopefully protect us from ourselves. This is the focus of Web Science and what is driving neuroscience, artificial intelligence and the moves towards a Transhuman future.
The problem is that much of this being driven by a small group of individuals – mostly scientists and tech-billionaires – who, whilst they espouse the values of social good, in reality are driven by their own egos or personal and/or commercial gain. Many pursue their scientific goals because they can, not because they should, and there is very little in the way of accountability, let alone governance, which limits what they do.
New frontiers are being created which will define the future of humanity. Most of our current leaders do not understand what is happening and therefore cannot participate in the debate because they are stuck in an old paradigm that is rapidly becoming obsolete. This is the crucial challenge of our time.
What I observed at Leicester 2018 was that the group was very easily able to focus on the issues of race, gender, age, discrimination, power, terrorism, but rarely – if at all! – gave any attention to technology in its own right, as something that was also in the ‘here and now’. This was despite the fact that the time boundary was defined by digital clocks and the last sound to be heard in the Large Study Group was the ‘ping’ of an incoming message.
I asked Leslie what he thought of this given his previous statements about technology, and he had made similar observations.
I believe that this is a generational problem and I agree with writer Douglas Adams who believed that when it comes to how different generations approach technology:
- Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
- Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
- Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things!
Most global leaders are in the over 35 age bracket and their default is to focus on the human issues, largely ignorant of the technological ones which they tend to leave to the ‘experts’. In reality the two cannot be separated because all business processes – analogue and digital – are based on algorithms, which are very simply procedures or formulae for solving problems based on conductiong a sequence of specified actions. Algorithms exist in every accounting package, every HR process and every sales plan, and they have all been devised by a human being who – consciously or unconsciously – introduces their human bias and values.
As our systems become more sophisticated these biases become more opaque, until we completely forget they are there.
This is one of the main reasons why diversity is so important in organisations – not just to ensure equality of opportunity for positions, but to ensure a diversity of values influencing day to day operations. The only way to understand how automated systems impact organisations is to understand the algorithms which drive them, which very few Executives even consider (when I articulated this at a recent workshop for the University of Southampton Business School most attendees were gobsmacked).
Technology won’t wait for them to learn – it won’t wait for us to deal with BrExit or Trump, for us to have councils and meetings and world forums – it marches on regardless. The younger generations are beginning to appreciate this, but they are not yet in a position to impact global decision making, nor will they be for at least a decade. Which means that the next ten years are crucial.
Leslie Brissett states that
Technology is collapsing the time that removes the pause which you get when you’re working with humans. The technology wouldn’t put up with it. As humans we sit with the pause.
The importance of events such as the Leicester Conference is that it gives us all the opportunity to take a pause, to reflect and to learn, but we need to do more.
We spend a lot of time and energy stressing the need for our leaders to understand people.
When it comes to framing the future if they don’t understand what shapes it then they are devolving their responsibility to a narrow group of technical experts rather than representing the broader constituency of all humanity.
Leaders must also understand the machines.
Tavi 2018 Online
The Temporary Learning Organisation ceased to exist at midday on Friday 17th August.
During the conference an online Telegram group was created to facilitate some of our informal social interactions, and this virtual connection continues with some 38 of the original 42 members still participating in some way. As the re-entry process began it provided a powerful mechanism for many of us to share our thoughts and feelings after we left Leicester, and numerous themes are emerging which continue the Leicester conversation.
This gives me hope!
We now have a virtual Leicester 2018 community which has the potential to build on the ‘the pause’ and the relationships which developed face to face. This is something that I think is incredibly powerful. Whilst people create online communities all the time very rarely do they evolve as ours has with the combination of the Tavistock experience, Group Relations tools and supporting digital interaction technologies.
Our Review Group Consultant Kathy White suggested that I was analysing the group at Leicester 2018 as part of some personal Post-Doc research, and I wasn’t sure at the time what she meant. I never finished my PhD because I determined that my role in the service of humanity was not as an academic but as a philanthropist helping people become Smarter Humans through developing digital literacy and having Brave Conversations.
What I have now realised is that my own personal task is to continue to study
the exercise of authority in the taking up of roles through the interpersonal, inter-group and institutional relations that develop online within the virtual conference as an adjunct to the wider offline context.
This is the true power and potential of Group Relations in the digital age.
I would like to thank each and every member of the 2018 Leicester Conference Membership for the precious moments we had together, and the wonderful lessons I have learned. In addition, I would like to encourage you all to take the insights gained, plus the ongoing virtual Tavi-space we have co-created, to enhance your own practice and have an impact on all those with whom you live and work.
Homo Sapiens has become the dominant species on the planet through our collective action (Group Relations) and extension of ourselves through the development of technology. Collectively we have created a geographic epoch all of our own making (the Anthropocene) and we do have the power to determine our own fate, if we wake up and take it.
I will conclude with a song, Closing Time, that our Small Group chose for leaving Leicester.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.