‘We seek to liberate people’

Ian Florance hears from Tony Page – self-employed Chartered Psychologist and author – about our ‘mistaken craving for freedom’.

Tony tells me that ‘writing about my Dad was a need I successfully ignored for many years. Then it came up strongly and repeatedly in supervision. My supervisor is a psychologist friend called David Webster, and our sessions every few weeks were on a reciprocal, unpaid basis, about issues arising in our work as occupational psychologists. A personal issue kept intruding, centred on a box in the attic that I’d put away unopened a decade earlier after my father’s memorial service.’

Tony has strong views about supervision. ‘I delayed taking up supervision, although I give coaching to clients to help them reflect. I relied on journal writing as self-supervision and I was an ongoing member of a learning set. These self and group settings were more comfortable than one-on-one.’ Can you say why? ‘Because one-on-one smacks eerily of therapy, sometimes creating toxic dynamics, vulnerability and abuse. I prefer a level playing field.’

We moved on to writing. In today’s uncertain job market, many psychologists are interested in writing books for income, reputation and to contribute to debates. How did you first get published? ‘I sat down at a conference dinner next to an editor from Gower called Malcolm Stern. He asked, “Have you got a book in you?”’ After this, Gower accepted Tony’s proposal to co-write a book with his client in a big pharmaceutical company, portraying both sides of their client–consultant conversations. But, Tony’s client let him down and Gower agreed he could finish the book alone, drawing from his journal.

That first book, Diary of a Change Agent, shows a serious argument flaring up between Tony and a colleague, he says ‘because I was unstable through working too hard’. It offers the practice of journal writing as a stabiliser. ‘Journal writing often produces surprises,’ Tony tells me. ‘It is a channel to express emotion, to recover a wider perspective, a creative resource giving me answers, ideas and connections. Good consulting – particularly relational consulting – draws from values, intuitions and a quiet inner voice, but this was not how I was trained. The writing brings me to that voice, and it’s a kind of supervision that straddles the professional/personal barrier.’

What was it like to write the first book? ‘My wife Helen says my face dropped for six months. Clearly the writing was churning me up, and I promised never to write another book… it was ten years before I did. I’ve learned to ask why I’m writing something, for whom – myself or an audience – and that there’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself.’

Tony also discovered his category of writing is ‘auto-ethnography’ and is based on ‘participant observation’. ‘Like an anthropologist, your work gets you intimately involved with a tribe. The tribe or team lets you in and the act of writing about it changes what’s inside your skin. Then you start behaving differently towards them, and if you decide to share your insights and you do this judiciously, you are holding up a mirror, which causes the tribe to change.’

His second book, Creating Leadership: How to Change Hippos into Gazelles, first published in 2009, is a real story about bringing British Council staff successfully together across 11 different African countries through a merger. In contrast to those first two books, Tony is self-publishing the third: Secret Box: Searching for Dad in a Century of Self. ‘The world of publishing has changed,’ he says. ‘Publishers were once gatekeepers to a closed world of writer services: contracts, deadlines, advice, editing, design… they created the audience. Now technology opens everything up, but you need help and advice. I’ve had feedback from “first readers”, proof-reading, a designer for the cover and page layouts, plus invaluable help from an experienced book marketeer.’

Tony talks – unlike most occupational psychologists I’ve interviewed – more like a clinical psychologist or even a therapist. This reflects how he became a psychologist. At school he favoured the arts, then turned to the sciences. In a scattergun way he aimed at five different degree subjects but settled for joint honours at Nottingham in maths and psychology. ‘At first, I struggled with the many mysteries of psychology, but its range had great appeal, from Freud, through mice in mazes, to education and industry. My specialist option was occupational, but my dissertation clinical, about the “spontaneous remission” of patients often occurring within two years, regardless of the type of therapy offered. The discovery of therapist bias and of “psycho-therapeutic agents in the community” – perhaps friends and family – drew me to the anti-psychiatry movement, people like Laing and Szasz.’

Tony’s new book describes the influence of a father who was an organisation development consultant with big companies. His father changed as he became involved in the ‘cult-like’ activities of the human potential movement. ‘When I opened the box in the attic, Dad’s diaries showed me what was undiscussable at the time, which pulled him away from the family. It’s an inescapable fact that I followed in Dad’s footsteps because I am an organisation development consultant myself.’

After graduation Tony roadied for his brother’s band Barracuda, before he took generic HR positions, then specialised in training, succession planning and graduate engineer recruitment, until he learned the skills of facilitation with management teams. ‘When the training route began to feel limiting, I re-contacted an old professor about joining the British Psychological Society. He signed my papers on condition I wrote fully about my experience, because he said, “as a profession we need to reflect”. Maybe he sowed a seed.’

His training colleagues taught him the simple practices of co-coaching, exchanging life stories and reflecting together, but ‘they tried to dissuade me from joining PA Consulting. I took that big leap anyway, and my mentor, Dr Lance Lindon, showed me how to survive in a less supportive environment.’ Tony was in the organisation development team as opposed to the assessment team, but still straddling the occupational/clinical divisions.

Many psychologists have to face setting up in businesses, sometimes to supplement other positions. Tony left PA after three years to restore his work–life balance soon after his son was born. What was most difficult about going out on his own? ‘Finding clients. I started a research project, to give me a specialism to sell. I offered teambuilding, but I was asked to do other things instead.’ And any tips? ‘Be professional and reliable but flexible, don’t be afraid of taking risks. Refer the jobs you definitely can’t do. Decide whether to grow a company and manage people or offer your skills directly.’

Freedom and getting over our ‘selves’
Following 30 years in business, Tony’s now pondering freedom. ‘We all want to be free. As psychologists we seek to liberate people: we want our friends and family, our customers and clients to be free. But I’m sensing we’re partially mistaken’. He is pointing out that the world isn’t that big any more. After working in 45 different countries he sees populations huddling together in cities and individuals making ripples, many of them unnoticed. He speaks of ‘invisible threads of consequence’ running between us. ‘When I drop my airline seat onto your lap, you can react by dropping yours onto the passenger behind, or try to bottle it and get angry, or directly counter-react by challenging me. We’re strangely drawn to crowds where the feedback arrives faster with more fury.’

Tony’s overseas work to develop leaders and teams with organisations in the business of cultural relations and poverty alleviation draws from contemporary psychology. ‘The 100 years since Freud spoke about narcissism has been a “century of self” featuring the bloodiest wars and the greatest liberations in the history of humanity. Psychology professors in the USA – Lewin and Milgram, for instance – demonstrated our vulnerability to dictators. Maslow and the writer Aldous Huxley called for self-expression and human growth, lifting everyone’s sights out of the sicknesses that psychotherapy and behaviourism sought to cure. So, the human potential movement was born, but its dream was never realised. Followers – mostly middle-class men in the West – missed the simple fact that their total freedom let them spoil things for others. Their righteous certainty broke apart families like my own. I once believed new media could teach us to co-exist peacefully again, but through highlighting inequality, and stoking mistrust, are we enabling dictators to seduce us and imperil humankind’s great advances?

‘Today’s zeitgeist also acknowledges complexity and embraces humane and diverse influences such as Chimamanda Adichie, Khalil Gibran or Nancy Kline. Mostly we accept that lasting solutions are co-created, not imposed from above. The impetus amongst young people to go green and to clean up plastic might still fulfil Maslow’s later declaration that self-expression was always over-emphasised so we must realise our inter-dependency and discover a unifying sense of purpose.’

How do you think this is relevant to psychologists today? ‘We are atomised into factions that obscure the unifying purpose of our discipline, but I am optimistic. Whether we work as practitioners in schools, hospitals or industry, or as academics doing the teaching and research in universities, we know something about creating human energy, joy and brilliance. Who better than a psychologist to remind everyone we already have the freedom that matters most – to choose how we will live alongside one another, and specifically whether to care about our impacts. Rather than over-empowering individuals to “drop their airline seat onto anyone’s lap”, or supporting the delusion of their independence, psychologists can show everyone how to co-create vibrant living ecosystems that unlock our greater potentials.’

At 60, Tony has taken a change of pace: last year he and his wife went volunteering with VSO to Myanmar and Nepal. How does the world look to him today? ‘It’s smaller and better connected than ever before, with age-old injustices being challenged. Despite the shifting politics, wherever we live we’re far more privileged than we imagine.’

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