Harold Bridger (1909 - 2004)

Harold Bridger was a psychoanalyst, who was known in Britain, in Australia and around the world as a highly respected consultant to organisations.

He was born in London in 1909, the eldest of five children and son of a Russian Jewish émigré. After obtaining a degree in mathematics, his first career was as a school teacher.

At the beginning of the Second World War he joined the Royal Artillery, rising to the rank of major, in charge of an anti-aircraft battery. Later he joined with army psychiatrists and psychologists, first working on the War Office Selection Boards, later in Northfield Military Hospital, Birmingham, and towards the end of the war with the Civil Resettlement Units.

That work involved a number of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists such as Bion, Main, Sutherland, Foulkes, to name a few.

Harold’s collaboration with that generation of influential psychiatrists and psychologists continued after the war when he joined them to became one of the 12 founders of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations ((Bridger at al, 1998) and some of his work at the Institute's was derived directly from their wartime experience.

At this time Harold undertook psychoanalytical training with the British Psychoanalytical Society. His training analyst was Paula Heimann; he had supervision with Melanie Klein and John Rickman. In 1950 his membership paper titled “Criteria for the termination of analysis” (Bridger, 1950) was published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and it has been widely referred to since in psychoanalytical publications. We republish this paper here, with the kind permission of the editors of the Journal. (click here)

The work of the Tavistock Clinic led to significant advances in the understanding of group and organisational dynamics, since documented in a number of publications (see Bridger at al, 1998: Pines, 1985; Trist & Murray, 1990).

For Harold, that work was a formative experience in which he also demonstrated his skills and intuition in working with both organisational and personal issues. He explored the depth of the human psyche and examined the human condition in group and organisational contexts. This creative duality (Bion described it as a “binocular vision”) remained Harold’s hallmark throughout his professional life. As his close collaborator and colleague, Lisl Klein stated, “What distinguished Bridger from many others who apply psychoanalytic thinking to organisational life was his recognising the relevance and importance of the context and setting within which internal processes take place, at the same time as paying intense attention to those processes.” (Klein, The Independent, 2 June 2005)

Having practised psychoanalysis for some ten years, Harold moved away from clinical psychoanalysis and devoted himself to the work with organisations. However, he always considered himself a psychoanalyst and those who knew him would agree. He thought as a psychoanalyst and he pursued the inquiry into unconscious phenomena in non-clinical settings. Thanks to his “binocular vision” he was able to see psychoanalytic endeavour in the context of organisational, social and political processes.

His input into the area of organisational work was extensive and informed by his psychoanalytic thinking. He drew inspiration and ideas from Winnicott’s work particularly on transitional phenomena and he made a creative use of these ideas in his work with organisations. As described by Ducceschi, ” Winnicott added to the two areas of internal psychical reality and external social reality a third area which he called the world of transitional phenomena which from the baby’s teddy bear extends to all kinds of cultural phenomena. ... it was subsequently the task of others such as Harold Bridger to take up the idea and see the organisational and social implications in the adult world. The concept of transition combined with change characterises Harold Bridger’s work, wanting to specify exactly the passage from one state to another. These transitions occur in almost continuous transitoriness in which the boundaries which mark the various transitory situations are, as a consequence, shifted. It is this transitional dynamic which we find constantly in the theory of change which Harold Bridger elaborated and applied to organisations ( Ducceschi, 2002, pp.80-81; for elaboration of this aspect of Harold’s work, see also Rayner, 1999, pp.262-265).

As a member of the Tavistock Harold worked in large international organisations such as Philips, Unilever, Lyons, Shell. The programme of management selection he developed for Unilever was innovative at the time and is still considered very relevant.

Having taken part in the experiential learning conferences (so called Leicester model), developed at the Tavistock and later adopted in the USA, Harold created his own conference model which he named Working Conference. This model centred around the double task principle. Eric Trist characterised it as follows, “The link between making the new and tuning in and working-through is made by Bridger in his theory of the “double task”, for an organization is not only a “purpose-oriented” but a “learning and self-reviewing” entity. It will not successfully adapt to a changing and uncertain future if it observes only its own purposes. It must also take stock of itself in relation to its environment and learn from this so that it can reassess its opportunities and constraints and pay attention to feelings of, and conflicts among, its members. This second task is not legitimate in the prevailing bureaucratic culture, and to take out serious time for getting on with it is not allowed except in rare cases at the leading edge”.(Amado, G. & Ambrose, A. 2001, P.XXV)

Along with his interest in the organisational field he remained interested and mindful of contemporary psychoanalytical issues and dilemmas. He gave expression of that in the discussion at the Vienna Congress of the IPA (Gitelson, 1972); his contribution is republished here.

Harold contributed to the organisational work of the Melbourne Institute of Psychoanalysis and of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Psychoanalytical Society. He contributed to our deliberations addressing in a helpful manner issues that were under discussion. His unpublished contribution on Psychoanalysis and its Future, from 1989 is reproduced here.

Here he talks about connection between institutions and psychoanalysis “proper”. For him it was not only an abstract questions. He was involved in practical endeavours that could help to forge and develop links between psychoanalysis and other institutions such as universities. He became one of the initiators and supporters of the Masters course in psychoanalytic studies which was run at Monash University by the group of Melbourne analysts. Throughout the existence of the course Harold offered his generous help and thoughtful input, both into teaching of the group/organisational component of the course, and acting as a mentor and facilitator for the staff.

Harold travelled extensively around the world, an unstoppable traveller, even in his late eighties. He organised conferences, offered teaching, and was helping organisations and people with their work. He founded, with others, the Institute of Human Relations in Lucerne, he helped to found the Bayswater Institute in London and collaborated with The Scottish Institute of Human Relations. He worked in France, Italy, Greece and South America. In Australia he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute of Socioanalysis, a Visiting Fellow of the Australian Management College and an Honorary Member of the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Ha was awarded the British Institute of Management Bowie Medal, the Rosa di Paracelso in Italy and an honorary Doctorate at the University of East London.

Harold left a number of published contributions, a selection of which is listed here. Their number is out of proportion with the extent of his work; the input he made by personal contact was much more extensive. As stated by one of his colleagues, “ Bridger has never found it easy to set down his ideas in writing he has always been much more interested in doing action research with his clients and in talking about it with his colleagues. What he did however, was to form a network of such colleagues who met together, and still do, at regular intervals to examine and discuss in depth transitional thinking and its application to many specific problems of change being encountered by the network members.” (Introduction, Amado, G. & Ambrose, A., 2001)

All who knew him as a consultant, as a colleague or as a friend bear witness to his unique presence in his contact with others. He was warm, thoughtful and interested. He was influential but modest, gentle but forthright and direct, when required. Above all he was facilitating to other people, indeed contributing to development of the transitional space, and helping others to develop it themselves. “Harold Bridger's personal and professional qualities fused with his philosophy, to 'start from where the other is', was not just a guide to consultancy, it was an instinct.” (John Marks, The Independent, 20.06.05)

It was privilege and joy to know Harold Bridger and to work with him.

Compiled by Michal Lapinski with assistance from Ros Glickfeld and Ken Heyward.