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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Harold Bridger

Harold Bridger (1909-2005), the last surviving founder member of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, has died at the age of 95. Bridger was part of a remarkable group of social scientists at the Tavistock Institute that – since its creation following the Second World War – has made an enduring contribution to the field. These social scientists include Wilfred Bion, Eric Trist, Tommy Wilson, A.K. Rice, Elliot Jaques, Fred Emery, Pierre Turquet, Eric Miller, Isabel Menzies Lyth, Gordon Lawrence, Frank Heller and Lisl Klein.

Harold Bridger was born on May 15th, 1909, and grew up in West London; his father was a Russian Jewish émigré who worked as a tailor. Bridger’s first major contribution occurred during the Second World War when he worked alongside the distinguished psychoanalyst and group consultant, Wilfred Bion. Bridger’s projects during this time – at the War Office Selection Boards, Northfield Hospital and Civil Resettlement Units – were landmark achievements that strongly influenced his later thinking and career.

Following the war, Bridger was invited to become one of the twelve founder members of the Tavistock Institute, thus beginning a remarkable association with that institution that lasted over half a century. Bridger also trained as a psychoanalyst, undergoing analysis with Paula Heimann and being supervised by Melanie Klein and John Rickman, all during one of the most exciting and turbulent periods in the history of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

In the U.K., Bridger worked intensively with a wide range of client companies, including Philips, Shell and Unilever; his work with Unilever, in particular, spanned many decades and was subsequently handed over to colleagues who formed the Bridge Consulting Group. He also did a great deal of work with public and voluntary sector organisations, and made an outstanding contribution to the field of therapeutic communities; Bridger House, a therapeutic outreach service in Birmingham, U.K., is named after him. In 1990, he helped Lisl Klein found the Bayswater Institute in London, where his working conference continues to be run on a regular basis. Similar working conferences continue to be run elsewhere in London by Marlene Spero at the Institute of Group Analysis.

Although Bridger worked extensively in the U.K., much of his achievement lay in his work with a number of key individuals and institutions elsewhere. During the 1950s, he entered a long and distinguished relationship with the National Training Laboratories (NTL) Institute of Applied Behavioural Science in the United States, where his working conferences were run. During the 1960s he also began a lengthy association with Leopold Vansina in Belgium, Max Pages in France, and Traugot Linder in Austria, working with companies such as Unilever and the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation. In 1978, together with his colleagues, he founded the Institute of Human Relations in Lucerne, Switzerland; this later became the Institute of Transitional Dynamics. During the 1980s and 1990s, he worked with Gilles Amado in France and Stanley Gold in Australia, as well as consulting extensively to therapeutic communities in Greece and Italy.

Bridger’s distinctive contribution lay in several areas. First, he developed and refined the ‘double-task’ approach: this involved scrutinising and working with the organisation’s primary task, as well as examining and working with the ‘process’, the secondary task; drawing on his psychoanalytic training, he paid particular attention to the unconscious dimensions of the process. Bridger made a pioneering contribution to understanding and working with the interface between the primary and secondary tasks, dealing with the complex issues that emerge there, and designing methodologies and ‘working conferences’ that facilitate the mutual development of both tasks.

Second, drawing on the psychoanalytic work of Winnicott, Bridger developed the idea of ‘the transitional approach to change’ (now the title of a book on his approach, edited by Amado and Ambrose). Central to this notion is the idea that change can only be successful if it involves ‘transitional’ places to learn and develop, as well as test out new arrangements, relationships and working practices.

Third, he developed ‘working conferences’ – ‘transitional institutions’ operating on ‘double-task’ lines – that ran, and continue to run, on a regular basis for the development of managers; these are intended to allow people the space to develop their thinking about organisations in a new way. Bridger, who developed an exceptional skill in the design and running of these, focused squarely on bringing participants’ current dilemmas and issues into the working conference.

For his work Bridger was awarded the Bowie Medal by the British Institute of Management, the ‘Rosa di Paracelso’ in Italy, and an Honorary Doctorate by the University of East London.

I met Harold Bridger when I had the good fortune to be a junior colleague of his at the Tavistock Institute during the early 1990s. Despite being nearly half a century my senior, I found that he demonstrated remarkable warmth and interest in the younger generation and in their work. I learnt a great deal from him, as well as from being on the staff of various working conferences influenced by him.

Bridger combined gravitas with a joyfulness that could be both surprising and disarming. Through his engaging personality and an uncanny skill in working with others, Bridger made a major and enduring contribution to his field. While some were fortunate enough to work directly with him, there are many others – working under new titles such as ‘teamworking’, ‘coaching’ and ‘leadership’ specialists – whose practice, directly or indirectly, has been influenced by him.

Harold Bridger married Pam Glover in 1945; they had three children and remained happily married until Pam’s death in 1983. Following her death, Bridger found a second family in Australia with Roslyn Glickfeld and her two children. One of Bridger’s sons, Paul, died tragically in Canada in 1997. He is survived by another son, Martin, and daughter Jane.

Harold Bridger, psychoanalyst and organisational consultant, born May 15 1909; died May 3 2005.

Some of the material from this obituary appeared in The Guardian on 12 July 2005.

This obituary was written by:

Dr Mark Stein
Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour and Programme Director,
MSc Management, at Tanaka Business School, Imperial College London.