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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021



Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 6 July 1.45pm-3.00 pm, EEST
Einstein Hall 1

Paper Code: PP24

The Tavistock work discussion group method: Using a group method to promote curiosity in work with discontented organisations

Presenter: Mark Stein
Moderator: Stan Gold

Recent years have been witness to a burgeoning interest in psychoanalytic and systems psychodynamic ideas and their application to consultancy with discontented and troubled organizations, so that there is now a rich diversity of literature in this area. By way of contrast, very little if anything has been written on the use of the work discussion method for organisational consultants, a method that has been central to the training of psychoanalytic and system psychodynamic consultants at the Tavistock Clinic, where much of the work started.

The absence of writing in this area is surprising and stands in sharp contrast with the significance of work discussion. Indeed, writing about its use in relation to a wide area of psychoanalytic work, Klauber describes the post-war development of work discussion at the Tavistock Clinic as ‘a new method of training ... which proved to be a powerful teaching and learning experience’ (2008, Foreword p. xx). Similar sentiments are expressed by Jackson who describes work discussion as ‘one of the most powerful models of learning, training and development’ (Jackson, 2008, p. 62) that has become ‘one of the cornerstones ... within any psychoanalytically oriented training or professional development course’ (Jackson, 2008, p.62).

In this paper I attempt to fill this gap by exploring and furthering our understanding of the work discussion group and its role in the training of organisational consultants to understand and deal with discontented and troubled organizations. I argue that the work discussion seminar is best viewed as a group method intended to facilitate curiosity in work with discontented organisations, and that it needs to be distinguished from the equally important and complementary role of supervision.

I explore how the group and systems thinking of Lewin (1948), Bion (1967; 1977) and others have influenced the work discussion seminar in employing a group method that makes it particularly suited to the exploration and development of curiosity about work with troubled and discontented organisations. It does so by promoting the possibility of multiple and sometimes contradictory vertices (Bion, 1977) that challenge thinking, so that the seminar may therefore be understood as an ‘exercise in imagination’ (Rustin, 2008, p. 5) or a ‘thinking space’ (Hartland-Rowe, 2005, p. 99).

As well as discussing the history and development of the work discussion seminar, I describe how it is used today. I also say something about my own experience of work discussion, how it has influenced my work, and why it has impacted on my thinking in the powerful way it has.

Biographical Summary

Mark Stein PhD is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Management at the University of Leicester, an Associate Lecturer in Consultation and Organisation at the Tavistock Clinic, a Career Consultant at Careers in Depth, and an executive coach and organisational consultant. He has also been an Adjunct Professor and Visiting Scholar at INSEAD, Fontainebleau. He has been awarded the European Academy of Management’s iLab Prize for innovative scholarship; an Emerald Citation of Excellence; the ‘Group & Organization Management’ best paper prize; the Gavin Macfadyen Memorial Essay Prize; and the Richard Normann Prize.