The X Factor

By Eric J. Miller | Tavistock Institute, April 1986.
A Note from John

Unlike Isabel Menzies Lyth, Eric Miller did not write a “Working Note” after each of his consultancy days at the Cotswold Community. I guess this reflected his style, which was paying more attention to the process than producing “answers”. However, now and again (and it was very much worth waiting for) Eric wrote something, arising from his consultancy, as a catalyst for further work within the Community. This working note was written early on in my tenure as Principal (1985 – 1999). The concept of the ‘X’ factor was something we came back to time and again, especially when we sensed that staff morale had taken a dip.

The Cotswold Community: A working note

At the request of the Principal, I am writing about two topics that came up in my discussions at Cotswold on 19 April.
The first is a conceptual framework that has some practical implications; the second is a possible alternative model for the exit household at Cotswold (currently Larkrise).

A Conceptual Framework

Dyadic relationships.

I think it was the psychologist Heider who first noted that in any dyadic relationship (A-B) there is always a ‘third’ (X). 1 Heider was discussing the interpersonal pair; but the model applies also to dyadic groups – for example, staff and boys in a household, or staff and boys in the Community as a whole.

One might translate X as ‘task’, using that term in a broad sense. Exceptionally, as in the psychotherapeutic dyad, X is internal to the dyad – in that case we might define it as ‘trying to understand the inner world of the analysand.’ Usually it is external and often it is explicit: for example, the shopkeeper, the customer and the community; or the teacher, the pupil and the lesson. The mother-child relationship comprises a succession of X1, X2, ……..Xn, relating to food, toileting and a multitude of other activities, some very brief, others more prolonged. Beyond the explicit X-x there may lie another Xim that is implicit, unstated and perhaps even unconscious and unrecognised: for example, girl (A) and boy (B) meeting to dance (X-x) may have a shared fantasy (Xim) about a future state of that relationship, be it bed or marriage.

A relationship is in equilibrium when A and B have a shared picture of X (Figure 1). Probably it is never perfectly shared – not least because of the complexities of X-x and Xim – and much of the ‘work’ between A and B is concerned with trying to reach and maintain an equilibrium in which XA = XB. Figure 2.

From these diagrams we can also infer what kinds of things may go wrong in a dyadic relationship.

In Figure 3, both A and B have notions of a shared X, but these are irreconcilably different.

In Figure 4, A has a notion of a shared X, but B is withdrawn: B = XB.

Figure 5 shows yet another dynamic, in which not only has the idea of a shared external X vanished, but each has projected it onto the other. The outcome for the dyad in this third case then takes one of two forms: either fusion – the two becoming one – or an all-absorbing conflict. In both forms the external environment has disappeared: the pair are totally wrapped up in each other, whether in love or in hate.

My proposition is that this conceptual framework offers a way of analysing the dynamics of the Community at three levels: individual staff member and boy; staff and boys within a household; and staff and boys within the institution as a whole. Such an analysis can point to possible corrective action. The dyadic relationship at each of these levels needs its X. And I am inclined to believe that this X also needs to have some felt consistency with the X of the dyad at the next higher level.

To illustrate:- I have heard recently of several instances of a staff member and boy being locked in a mutually absorbing relationship of love or almost murderous hate. In such cases, not only does this dyad lack a shared X, but they have cut themselves off from their respective groups at the level of the household. This could imply that the household itself does not have a sufficiently compelling X – an activity, a project, a sense of shared purpose, a basic assumption – to sustain the collective dyadic relationship between staff and boys. Such a household X should make it possible to unlock the all-absorbing dyad of the two individuals and enable this to establish its own new external X. Similarly, at the level of the institution as a whole a significant Xim between 1982 and 1985 was a fantasy of a revitalised independent Cotswold Community within the voluntary sector. That underpinned the more daunting X-x of providing treatment for disturbed and delinquent boys. It may be that loss of that Xim, with its notion of almost magical cure, accounts for some of the tiredness and depression in staff which seems to me to have become more noticeable in the last six months. Making the Cotswold video may provide an interim X-x for the Community in the coming months; but the need for an Xim – a sustaining myth? – deserves further thought.

An Alternative Model for the Exit Household

Turbulence and loss of morale in Larkrise are currently a cause of concern. To try to restore stability, some boys are being temporarily sent home or back to Northstead. Senior staff are now wondering whether the three-step process, with the separate exit household, is viable, in that it disrupts established relationships at a time when boys facing the anxieties of leaving are vulnerable.

Many explanations for the immediate problems are being put forward:-

  • There is a tendency for one household to be the trouble-spot on behalf of the Community. Most recently it has been the Cottage; now it is Larkrise.
  • Staff turnover: several fairly new staff, and experienced staff leaving.
  • Overall the age of staff is lower than in Northstead, so boys approaching adulthood experience the paradox of acquiring younger parent figures.
  • Larkrise staff’s lack of control over the intake boundary: they feel they are having to accept some boys who are unsuitable.

Probably all these factors contribute, and others besides.

The A-B-X framework offers one way of looking at the problem. In relation to each boy in the exit household there is a need for an X that represents the idea of his future – an X within which the individual staff member can also work with him on issues of leaving and separation. Beyond that, the staff and boys in the household require a collective X. This almost certainly needs to be a tangible project which gives them an experience of potency in relation to their environment. It will thereby be representing and reinforcing the individual boy’s belief in his own ability to be effective in the world outside. Creation of the Larkrise small-holding some 5-6 years ago was one such project. By now, however, it has become something to be maintained – a chore – and offers boys little experience of creativity.

If a new X can be invited, it will reinforce a positive Larkrise identity and in that way help to restore the boundary around the household. It will also communicate a positive message of success to younger boys in the Community. Larkrise is then more likely to be perceived as a positive stepping-stone to the future, rather than an ordeal that has to be gone through.

One possible resolution of the 2-step versus 3-step argument would then be to make admission to Larkrise selective rather than automatic. At present movement between households is based on a ‘social work’ placement procedure. The alternative would be to invite boys to apply for vacancies in Larkrise and to set up a system of negotiation and selection. This should stimulate boys to think more clearly in advance about what they want from the Larkrise experience and, when selected, to join with greater commitment. Also of course it would be advance preparation for applying for jobs when they begin to take the next step.

There are obvious counter-arguments against this model: that it would be elitist; that it would simply be transferring the Larkrise problems to Northstead. These have to be considered seriously. One would certainly not want to see admission criteria set at a level that cut out most applicants; but unless there were a serious hurdle Larkrise would lose its distinctive and desirable culture and boys would be less motivated to apply. My tentative view is that the proposed model would bring about a positive shift in the culture of Northstead – a shift perhaps in the Northstead ‘X’ – in that reaching the standards for admission to Larkrise would help to focus the work of both staff and boys.

I hope this proposal will stimulate further discussion.
Eric J. Miller.

  1. Heider, F., The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, New York: Wiley, 1958. I am not here presenting Heider’s theory but using it as a jumping-off point for my own speculations.