Instituto Mexicano de Relaciones Grupales y Organizacionales
Mexican Institute of Group and Organizational Relations

On leaving The Tavistock Institute

Elliott Jaques

March 1998

The 50th Anniversary of The Tavistock Institute arouses strong memories in me. I think that Harold Bridger, Isabel Menzies, and I are the only ones left of that original high-powered group that founded the Institute in 1946 - including Eric Trist, Wilfred Bion, Tommy Wilson, Ronny Hargreaves, Ben Morris, Jock Sutherland, and John Bowlby.

Those early days were heady days. We had two very strong sets of intellectual connections. One was with parts of the British Psychoanalytical Society, in particular with the work of Melanie Klein and her associates, and with some members of what at that time was called the Middle Group. The other was with group dynamics and personality theory - with special emphasis upon Wilfred Bion's theory of group dynamics, and in the U.S. with Kurt Lewin and his Research Center for Group Dynamics, with Henry A. Murray at Harvard and his explorations in personality, and with Jacob Moreno in New York and his sociometrics and psychodrama.

I was personally much involved in these intellectual relationships. First of all, I was in personal analysis with Melanie Klein.  Second, I had been with Henry Murray at the Harvard Psychological Clinic at the beginning of the war, and was well positioned for the liaison role between the Institute and Harvard, Kurt Lewin at MIT (and later at the University of Michigan), and Moreno in New York City.

I mention these contacts because the liaison role was rewarding and stimulating. I was totally engrossed in the group dynamics approach that became a Tavistock Institute hallmark, and has remained so. But by 1952, a major change in my outlook had taken place, a change which set me off on a different path and led to my departure from the Institute. I hope that enough water has flowed under the bridge to make it possible for me to contribute to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Institute of which I was a founding member, by describing how a technical divergence occurred, a divergence that remains, in my judgment, just as important a practical and theoretical issue now as it was in those early days.


My major activity for the Institute was as project officer for the Glacier Project - a collaborative development project with the Glacier Metal Company, an engineering company making plain bearings mainly as engine components, and employing about 5000 people in London and Scotland. Wilfred Brown (later Lord Brown), the Managing Director of the Company, had been interested in the work of the Institute from its beginning for he was concerned to apply the most advanced knowledge available in developing an effective organization and management, along with an equally strong thrust in product development.

One of Brown's own spontaneous interests was in the application of group decision making as part of his commitment to the introduction of industrial democracy into his firm and to the reduction of managerial authority seen as autocracy or authoritarianism (Nevitt Sanford's book The authoritarian personality was close at hand). This outlook fitted like a glove the group dynamics and democratic organizational outlook of the Institute. An agreement was arrived at in 1948 for the Institute to provide a research team under my direction, financially supported by a 3-year Government grant, to work with the Glacier Metal Company to assist with its attempt to develop an outstanding efficient high morale democratic organization.

The group dynamic outlook was so strong that I decided that the members of the team would work with the Glacier employees, as far as was possible, in groups of six. Thus, in working with a department, instead of interviewing individuals, we would conduct interviews with groups of six department members to discuss what they considered the important issues. As far as possible we would also report back our analyses to groups of six, and then finally to the department head and his or her subordinates as a group.

We thus felt most comfortable when we could work with these made up groups, or with natural groups such as groups composed of a manager and subordinates, or elected committees, or working parties, because we could orient toward their problems in terms of our assumptions about intragroup dynamics, or sometimes of intergroup dynamics. Our conception was that we could assist with effective organizational development by helping the employees - especially the managers and the elected staff and union representatives - to understand better the nature of the dynamics of their relationships in these groups, and how they dealt with issues as an interpersonal problem such as authority.


Thus it was that I found myself attending the regular business meeting composed of the Managing Director and his nine immediate subordinates, called Divisional Managers, in what was termed the Divisional Managers Meeting or DMM. They had been having trouble because they had decided to work by group decisions but had found that procedure difficult to carry out in practice. The main difficulty, they thought, came from what they openly referred to as Wilfred Brown's autocratic personality.(3) Brown was seen as dominating the meetings in an autocratic way, seemingly unwilling, for example, to allow consensus decisions if he did not agree with them, or seeking to impose his own decisions even when most of the group opposed them. These situations when they arose lead to vitriolic discussion, with charges of bad will, mistrust, and lack of understanding, filling the air.

Because of my experience with Bion's group dynamics theory and group therapy methods, they asked me if I would take them through a series of Bion groups, to see if they could sort out their problems. So we began a series of special weekly one-and-one-half-hour meetings in the course of which I soon learned a stunning lesson. Their problems lay not in group dynamics and personality differences, but in the unreality of group decision making in a managerial hierarchy organization.

What emerged in the discussion, and eventually they all agreed, was the simple, obvious, and objective fact that Wilfred Brown, as Managing Director, must be held individually accountable by the Board of Directors, for any and all decisions taken in the meeting. It would be no use for Brown to try to explain away a bad decision by telling the Board that all the DMM had agreed, for the Board had appointed him as Managing Director, and held him individually accountable for the decisions at this level.  That is to say, employment contracts are individual: they do not apply to groups of employees.

By the same token, Brown had to hold each of his Divisional Manager subordinates individually accountable for their decisions in their own departments - in sales, production, R & D, etc. - and could not allow them to argue that the accountability for any decision was shared between themselves and their immediate subordinates as a group.

This discovery of the essence of the managerial hierarchy as built upon individual employment contracts and individual accountability came as a major finding at that time, however self-evident it may now seem (despite the current fad for the unreality of "self-managed teams"). They changed the title of the meeting from the DMM to the Manager Director Meeting (MDM), and adapted their procedures accordingly. It became truly a meeting in which Wilfred Brown as manager of the Divisional Managers was accountable for making the decisions, but by team-working with his immediate subordinates, getting their inputs and giving leadership. The stresses and tensions reduced immediately, and Wilfred Brown's behavior became recognized not as autocratic but as accountable and authoritative.

This account is but a brief summary of an intensive work-through. But I was forced to recognize sharply and unequivocally the impact of unrealistic organizational structures and processes upon individual behavior and interpersonal relationships. There was simply no use pursuing vague notions of underlying group dynamics and personality problems ripped out of the context of the realities of accountability and authority that applied within the particular type of organization. It was at this point that I discontinued the practice of seeing people in unconnected groups of six, and dealt with individuals, and natural groups, with a view to helping the company to get a clear grasp of the assignment and operation of individual accountability and authority at all levels and in all functions.


The above experience was strongly reinforced by a second experience which occurred at the same time. Jim Narracott, the London Factories Chief Production Controller, came to see me to seek help with a problem. Part of his organization comprised the Progress Officers who were accountable for following the progress of orders through the factory, to ensure that customers would be getting their orders on time. Average throughput times were over 6 months at the time, and with thousands of orders on the shop floor at any given time, things could get pretty complicated.

It would of course, arise from time to time that a particular order had to be speeded up because it had been beset by delays in production, or the customer was asking for an earlier delivery. A Progress Officer would then have to go down the iron staircase from their offices on a mezzanine floor to the shop floor - they had earned the nickname of "The Boys from up the Iron Staircase" - and try to get this particular order brought forward, an action that might require the temporary interruption of work on another order, that would show up as a mark of inefficiency on the production department's record.

The question was "What was the Progress Officer's authority?" Arguments regularly occurred between them and their Production First Line Manager counterparts. On the organization chart their relationship was shown as the all too familiar dotted line. As Jim Narracott put it to me "Because the meaning of a dotted line relationship is so totally unclear, I have to train my Progress Officers to 'learn how to throw their weight around' and to become proficient in 'using the iron fist inside the velvet glove.'  There must be better ways of doing things!"

We tried some group discussions aimed at lowering the tensions between a few of the Progress Officers and First Line Managers.  No significant clarification ensued. What did emerge, however, was the plain and simple fact that the First Line Managers and the Progress Officers were both fed up, because none of them knew who had what accountability or authority with respect to deciding whether or when work changeovers should take place.

It was then decided to undertake the task of clarifying and specifying the accountability and authority involved.  We worked out a formulation that left the Progress Officer accountable for seeing the First Line Manager, and explaining the situation. The Manager would be accountable for deciding whether or not to comply with the Progress Officer's request taking into account his (the Manager's) total load situation. If the Manager agreed, there was no problem. If he did not agree, then the Progress Officer had to decide whether the overall situation warranted further action, in which case he would have to refer it up to his own manager, or whether on balance it was unrealistic to try to fulfill the customer's need on this occasion and therefore he would drop the matter.

This procedure was eventually termed monitoring; in a more comprehensive analysis I was able to carry out in due course of all the degrees of accountability and authority in cross-functional working relationships - we identified six in all.(4) But suffice it to say for the moment that this very simple clarification of accountability and authority eliminated forthwith what had been a very difficult problem of "interpersonal" relations.

This experience strongly reinforced the realization that the organizational situation - both structure and processes - needs to be requisitely established and articulated, and the people concerned informed of their accountabilities and authority and trained in applying them, before you conclude that there are interpersonal stresses at large that are a product of the personalities involved or of some general group dynamics problem of working together.


My experience since that time has continued to be that if the organizational conditions are anti-requisite and obscure then people have a great potential for destructive conflict. Bad organization is paranoigenic. It stirs suspicion and mistrust and it is certainly the case that we all have substantial stores of paranoid anxiety ready and waiting to be aroused and spread into our personal working relationships.

But it has also been my consistent experience that we all have an equally great potential for constructive collaboration if the organizational conditions are made requisite and clearly articulated for everyone involved. Good organization unleashes mutual trust and confidence. And the most striking finding for me has been the enormous store of such positive mutual feelings and of their availability for use in constructive action. Primal trust is as powerful as primal hate or greed, or envy, and awaits the organizational conditions for full and satisfying expression.

These two experiences, plus related experience in the early days at Glacier, made me realize that there is no such thing in life as situations with free floating accountability and authority, in which something of the order of generalized group processes can occur. Even in specially constructed psychotherapy or group therapy situations, key accountabilities and authority obtain.

The second and equally illuminating finding was that it is possible to bring far-reaching and rapid changes in behavior and in interpersonal relationships, without any change occurring in individual personality, simply by clarifying the nature of the required working relationships, or by clarifying and modifying them. Accountability and authority are at the center of all human relationships. The clarification of the required accountability and authority can have the most profound and lasting effects upon the ways in which people behave toward each other.

It was these experiences and formulations that led me in 1952 to depart from the direction in which the Institute was traveling at that time, and which continues to inform much of its work. I became focused upon the problem of designing what I came to call requisite organization - in all types of institutions, and not just the managerial hierarchy. Unfortunately, such an intellectual shift in 1952 was not compatible with continued Institute membership at that time, and so I left to work on my own.  Interestingly enough, Wilfred Bion himself lost his interest in the group dynamic theories he had propounded. He moved toward attempts to understand the deeper lying sources of behavior in individuals. And so things change.

I understand that it would be easier these days to remain within the Institute and to take the track I did. But the early days at Tavistock were very much dominated by group dynamics. It is intriguing to look back and to recreate the exhilaration that work with groups brought with it in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It clearly still does so for many organizational behavior professionals, but not to the same degree as those early pioneering days.

3 I was authorized by them to publish this material once the issues had been worked through and resolved.  See Jaques (1952)  The changing culture of a factory (Chap. 6) "The Divisional Managers Meeting," currently reproduced by Cason Hall & Co.  Publishers, Rockville, MD.

4 See "Working Relationships" in Jaques (1996) Requisite organization (revised ed.), Cason Hall & Co. Publishers, Rockville, MD.


ELLIOTT JAQUES is Visiting Research Professor in Management Science at George Washington University.  He has been engaged in practical field work over the past 50 years in the development and real-life testing of a comprehensive theory-based system of organizational structure and managerial processes, including fundamental developments in our understanding of the meaning of work. This system calls for sweeping changes in approach to organizational development work and in the evaluation and development of individuals engaged in work.


ii 2016
ix 2013

vi 1999