Jon Stokes

(Interview with Glenn Gossling for the In Mind magazine in 2019)

Born in London in the 1950s, the son of a diplomat, Jon travelled the world from an early age developing an interest in how individuals and organisations work. Then while studying psychology at Oxford, he discovered the work of Wilfred Bion.

From his first exposure Jon recognised Bion as an original thinker and discovered that he came from a place called the Tavistock. He wrote to them to see if he could train there, but they had stopped doing clinical psychology training, so he went to Kings College Hospital, joining the Tavi after he qualified and later training there in is adult psychotherapy.

Jon said: “I joined the Tavistock in 1980, working in the Adolescent Department. I then went on to the Northgate Clinic, which in those days was quite closely connected. It was a therapeutic community, based on the principle that a group or an organisation can have therapeutic benefit for its members. The relationship between the individual, group and organisation has always been of great interest to me. I think stemming from my experiences from an early age at boarding schools – the way that organisations can both have either a progressive or regressive effect, bringing out the best or the worst in human beings. We need to understand better how to run organisations positively and constructively.

“I later became chair of the Adult Department in the Tavistock Clinic. That got me interested in the business of leadership in a practical sense. It convinced me that I was more interested in consulting to leaders and organisations, and the creation of organisations that have a constructive effect on human beings, than developing a private practice. While at the Tavi I took the opportunity to work part-time at the Tavistock Institute, with one of its founders, Harold Bridger.”

Can you explain a little about psychoanalysis and organisations?

Jon: “One way of answering is to say that at a micro level psychoanalysis and the British Institute of Psychoanalysis are specialists in understanding the internal world of the individual whilst and at the other end of the spectrum you have the Tavistock Institute which looks at organisations, structures, systems and cultures at a macro level. If psychoanalysis is about the internal world and how that gets projected onto the external world, then the Tavistock Institute is about how the external world, the structures, the systems, the culture and influence the individual. At the intersection of those things you’ve got the way in which internal world and external world interact with each other continuously, like in a family, like in a marriage, like in a group – this is the meso level field of the Tavistock Clinic – which in ordinary terms is the study of relationships, which I would say is quintessential Tavistock territory. John Bowlby would be an example of that and so too would Bion’s original work on groups which was done at the Tavistock.”

How and why did Tavistock Consulting get set up?

Jon: “I felt that bringing together psychoanalysis and family systems thinking together with an understanding of  organisations from a system-psychodynamics point of view and an understanding of group dynamics required understanding things from both the internal world and external world perspectives. Whilst the Clinic had for many years offered consultancy services to organisations this was restricted to the public sector and was not an organised offering. I felt there was an opportunity for the Clinic to offer a specific leadership and organisation consulting service. I suggested this to the Tavistock Clinic’s then chief executive, Anton Obholzer, and am very grateful that he said yes.

“I then brought in David Armstrong and Clare Huffington. My vision was to bring together David, who had a great understanding of systems and working with people in a leadership role, Clare who came from a family systems background which looked at organisations from a family dynamics point of view and then myself with an individual and group psychotherapy background. It was essentially bringing those three strands of thinking together to provide a service to organisations and leaders.

“We talked about ‘working below the surface’ in organisations and emotions as a form of intelligence in organisations which then was a pretty radical idea – the dynamics going on below the surface, and the phrase which I came up with, which was ‘the unconscious at work’ this became the title of a book that Anton and Vega Roberts edited: ‘The Unconscious at Work’,” which recently came out in a new edition.

What works in term of getting people to work better together?

Jon: “One thing I think is important, is to realise that whenever we may think that it is individual people who are the problem in organisations, it is often actually the case that they are being influenced by and are expressing powerful, and often only partially conscious, group, and institutional forces. If we are going to be more mature in the way we run organisations we have to accept that everybody has a part to play in the things that can go wrong. So problems need to be worked at collectively as well as at the individual level.

“The behaviour of individuals arises out of group dynamics, “problematic” people at the boundary of the organisation are serving a systemic function of defining the edge of what is acceptable. It’s what Melanie Klein talked about in terms of the distinction between the paranoid-schizoid way of being, where there is extreme splitting in an organisation between the goodies and the baddies and consequently scapegoating of individuals or departments and the depressive position or as Winnicott calls it ‘the capacity for concern’ for another person, which is a developmental achievement and remains a precarious one which needs leadership to sustain in an organisation.

What does the 25th anniversary mean to you?

Jon: “I was the founder, so it is quite moving to see that this thing, which at one point was just an idea in my head, is a reality still, 25 years on. Obviously one is to an extent proud of that, but also proud of the work that has been done by the many people who have worked there over that period, and continue to work there and have developed a distinctive approach to this fascinating subject.”