The Tavistock Institute has mainly researched and consulted in the West and parts of the East like India. An invitation to work in China provided an opportunity to examine the transferability of ways of working that are strongly Anglo-Saxon in orientation, language and concept. How well would Tavistock approaches translate in an environment with a 2,500-year history of Confucian and Taoist philosophies? Confucianism emphasises personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity that is the basis of Chinese tradition and belief, with strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration and respect of elders. Taoist philosophy emphasises living in harmony with the Tao, literally the ‘Way’ of personal improvement through effortless action, naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity; compassion, frugality and humility, keeping human behaviour in accordance with the alternating cycles of nature. Taoism differs from Confucianism by offering spiritual explanations and does not emphasise rigid rituals and social order.
The cultural and spiritual atmosphere in China is one of knowing one’s place, acceptance of rewards and sanctions of life that are instilled from birth through the family, education, religion and state policy. Within these constraints, the personality is formed and the nature of human social relations and individual life’s ambitions are bound together. The result is social conformity that is meant for the greater good, on the one hand, and a tension for the search for personal contentment through developing individual insights and free expression of feelings, on the other.
How then does Tavistock Institute values, philosophy and practice resonate with Chinese traditional behaviour and culture? The invitation to work in China was said to link with the President of China’s dissatisfaction with educational systems that emphasise control and ‘correct answers’ and do not encourage enquiry, questioning and independent thought. Generally, independence of thought does not fit well with tradition, but as China grows in strength and influence in the world, it recognises the need for independent thinkers to challenge but not undermine social and political norms. In other words, to use Tavistock language, how will the Chinese in groups and teams maintain their individual sense of themselves, think independently and fearlessly with personal authority and still remain faithful to the task of the groups of which they are members? Tavistock group relations methods help to examine the inherent tensions between individual desire and responsible group membership.
These tensions are examined usually in small bounded groups that are familiar to most people in China (comparable to the family) and in large social political groups which, in China, are the preserve of few people. New tensions are appearing because of increased individuality in a money-oriented consumerist society that loosens ties to tradition and increases anomie and social dislocation.
During the past year, teams from the Tavistock Institute have worked on teaching and training programmes in China. The programmes are conducted in English with simultaneous translation. This presents immediate obstacles, for no matter how accurate the translation is, communications still have to pass through to another language before they can be understood and then responded to. Another challenge is language construction and tone of voice which are the basis of establishing power, dominance and control between speaker and spoken to. In China these controlling elements in speech are pronounced; subtlety and irony less so, which in China, can lead to insult and humiliation. Making your audience lose face does little to improve its learning.
Our experience of working in China is about confronting an impatience for learning, often expressed as wanting to get things right and to be perfect immediately – wanting to bridge the gap between not knowing and knowing without struggling with the slower assimilation of ideas. Tavistock team members often feel pulled into giving more, before what has already been given is digested. Our programme of studying group dynamics combines traditional teaching methods like lectures, with experiential group work like social dreaming, small and inter-group events that enable ‘living’ and ‘seeing’ the dynamic hidden forces at play. This learning process is cannot be hurried; it is sometimes painful and always only partial. It produces substantial frustration for the programme participants.
The situation in China is one of choosing between ‘catch up’ or development. The timescales for each are different and there is a desperate sense that time is short. The uniqueness of China and the Chinese people themselves makes it difficult to find one’s bearings in China coming from the free world where the trend is to re-engage with ancient values, like so many people do with yoga or acupuncture or use Chinese herbs for healing. The Chinese people seem intent on pursuing money and appear to be losing touch with ancient values. The pace of change in China is ferocious, gratification must be immediate and the new must displace the old. It is almost as though the Chinese are going in opposite directions to where we are going, and as we cross each other, it often feels like a clash of cultures. In our experience, the concept of boundaries is hard for Chinese people to grasp both conceptually and experientially and that provides us with a constant challenge of what it means to work with a fundamentally different concept to that which we are used to and are informed by. Ancient traditions help us learn to be patient and this is a constant every-day lesson.
The Tavistock Institute was invited to bring its well-established ideas to China; one result is that the Tavistock Institute is emerging from its China experience enriched by the magnificence, beauty and continuity of Chinese culture from which paradoxically many Chinese seem to be turning away.
Dr Mannie Sher, PhD
Principal Researcher & Consultant