notes by Eric Miller

As an advisory group member of the Archive Project, I was stimulated to think of my personal archive and how to make it available to the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) Archive process.  After discovering some notes I had made in 1989 when I was part of a Board to which Eric Miller had been invited to consult, the idea was born that the notes could become the basis of an article in this blog.

As I re-read my notes, I remembered the influence of that momentous event on my journey towards organisational consultancy work – shifting the focus of my work with groups and communities in the early years of my career to later, working primarily with individuals, and in the 1980s, extending to working in broader domains – the individual and the group and the system and the environment.

My notes of Eric Miller’s consultancy with a Board of a well-known professional organisation, describe a Board in conflict, holding and managing the competing aims of the different sections of the organisation.  Discussions in Board meetings tended to be circular, repetitive and over-detailed, operational rather than strategic.

Eric Miller used a simple design for the two-day consultation with the Board.  I had worked under Eric’s directorship in group relations conferences in the 1970s and 80s and I recognised the group relations influence in his recommended design of working in small groups and in a full group.  The design quickly allowed for the emergence of key organisational dynamics.  These were first articulated politely, perhaps out of respect for our visitor, and then angrily when the anger could no longer be suppressed. The containing structure of the design and Eric Miller’s calm acceptance of the conflicts, as if these were quite normal, and his willingness to speak to them, allowed others to do the same.

In setting out the work before the small groups dispersed to their rooms, Eric said he wanted to introduce the notion that the small groups were to produce an output for consideration by the large group. With this statement at the very outset of the consultation, Eric demonstrated through the lived experience in the here-and-now, the importance of the sections of the organisation, more used to acting separately and autonomously, actually being accountable to the Board in spirit and in fact.

Eric Miller’s summations of the group conversations were masterful in encapsulating the Board’s underlying tensions and providing insight as to why they existed and helpful practical advice to resolve them.  He commented on the Board’s apparent exhaustion that prevented it from exercising its leadership role properly.  To alleviate overwork and exhaustion, Eric suggested the Board could do with a better administrative framework; that responsibility for some functions might be removed from committees and given to managers with authority to make decisions and who would not be required to reflect greater consensus.

Eric noted how the organisation was becoming rule-bound and he wondered what that was meant to protect – a frightful question that the Board had difficulty answering.

Eric was careful to link the organisation to its wider environment, noting a tendency to look inwards through attaching high value to intensive work with individuals and less value to once or twice-weekly work, which, he said, was the norm in the public service and common in private practice.  Eric felt that references to once-, twice- or three-times weekly personal therapy sounded more like a sexual potency. He was gently challenging a ‘sacred cow’ that had led to devaluing the outputs of the organisation.

Eric thought the Board did not have an agreed primary task and he suggested an expanded definition from ‘Training’ to ‘Training and Professional Development’ which made it possible for the Board to agree.  He made one remarkable interpretation – how the organisation seemed to regard itself as the favoured child that could not grow up/could not be allowed to grow up.  He spoke about the need to value and use our resources.

I was impressed by Eric’s ability to identify the Board’s unconscious determinants of behaviour and then link it to an organisational dynamic – for example, he noted that Board members blocked one another’s ideas and he wondered whether this was an expression of resentment over what the organisation did to its people. Experiencing the way Eric’s presence impacted on the Board made me want that too for myself – I wanted to be able, like him, to use ideas and words to heal broken organisations and systems.

That consultation in 1989 with Eric Miller was a seminal moment for me. Within a year I had resigned from a 20-year career in the NHS to direct an independent organisational development consultancy firm. Eight years later, in 1997, I was appointed to succeed Eric Miller as Director of the Group Relations Programme at the TIHR.

Mannie Sher is a member of the TIHR Archive 2017 Advisory Group, Director, Group Relations Programme and Principal Researcher & Consultant, TIHR

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