Intriguing Group Dynamics (1)

I have worked with hundreds of groups over the years and although the theories of Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) are not widely known or discussed, believe that they can be very helpful in making sense of what can sometimes seem like madness in groups. So I am sharing them here, in the hope you find them useful too.

Bion was a medic, psychotherapist and psychoanalyst who studied small groups in the army during World War II and later at the Tavistock Clinic. He as intrigued by what might be happening when groups became irrational, unproductive and fragmented. It was, he thought, as if they shared some assumptions about what the group was there to do or be. These were not conscious, nor were they acknowledged or spoken about. But they were powerful. 

Groups appeared to focus on self-preservation, as if there was a natural tendency to disintegrate. The wellbeing of individuals became secondary to the need to maintain the group, even though there was no effort to make the group worthwhile. Bion believed that these underlying, unconscious mentalities determine a group’s capacity to achieve its purposes. His theories drew on the earlier work of Melanie Klein who felt that we learn from early infancy to cope with unpleasant emotions and the confusion and anxiety these create, by using various psychological defences.

Bion thought that groups operate simultaneously in two strictly contrasting ways, which he called ‘basic-assumption mentality’ (or ‘ba’), and ‘work-group mentality’ (‘W’).

The Work Group

This has a real purpose on which it focuses. Members know and feel that they are there to achieve – to do some real work. Examples of a Work Group could be:

  • A project team discussing how they will meet the challenging timelines for delivery

  • A sales team focused on meeting targets for next year

  • A group of employees working together to raise money for charity

  • A group of strangers on a beach helping to save a swimmer in distress

  • A Time to Think Council or Action Learning set with each member taking turns to share their experiences in order to help one of its members faced with a challenging situation.

Characteristics of a Work Group include:

  • People are visibly clear about the purpose and each person feels they have a role to play

  • The group is productive and reviews its progress

  • The group is open to external input to help in its task

  • There is a positive sense that people are united, with no or limited power play

  • People are accepting of differences in personality, behavior and contribution as long as individuals are playing their part

  • The group acknowledges failure or mistakes and wants to learn from them.

Bion’s Basic Assumption groups:

On the other hand, Basic Assumption groups are held together not by a purpose but a shared yet unconscious set of common and interlocked feelings, comprised of wishes, fears, defences, fantasies, impulses and projections. They manifest tensions between the need to belong or to stay separate, and the need to get on with the task or to avoid it and the discomfort it brings.  People move from a Work Group to a Basic Assumption group when there is unspoken and uncontrollable anxiety. Examples of a Basic Assumption group include:

  • A project team meeting focused - for the duration - on complaining about another team that’s slowing them down.

  • A sales team expecting the sales manager to provide ideas about how to achieve their own targets, and frustrated at the manager when they do not.

  • A group of employees bickering continually about something of little importance in the wider scheme of things.

  • A learning group in prolonged silence waiting for a volunteer to present first.

The main differences between the Work Group and the Basic Assumption Group is that the Work group is productive and members take responsibility for achieving together, and the Basic Assumption group is not and does not.

Characteristics of a Basic Assumption group include:

  • Periods of long silence waiting for someone to speak / rescue them.

  • Members passively look to the trainer/leader for all the answers.

  • Alternatively, the group demonstrates hostility and disappointment towards the leader, ignores them or continually fights amongst themselves, and then searches for alternative leader when the original one fails to control them.

  • The group expresses surprise, denial or annoyance when their unproductive behaviour is pointed out.

  •  Members of the group do not question ‘the movement’ or the cause even if its an extreme one.

  • The group creates an “enemy” real or imagined – inside or outside the group, including scapegoating.

  • Weaknesses (as perceived by the group) are not tolerated and members ejected.

  • The group appears irrational, even a little mad, losing its focus in the task or gets stuck on nit picking or irrelevance.

  • The group might look to two individuals for all creative effort, in hopeful anticipation; the rest of the group is initially attentive and interested in the pair coming up with the ideas. However solutions or leaders generated by pairing are sabotaged and destroyed by the group.


Bion identified 3 basic assumptions and members of a group in Basic Assumption mentality can fluctuate between the different “bas”. 

Basic Assumption Dependency (baD): The group acts as if their task is to obtain security and protection from one individual – either the designated leader or trainer/coach/teacher or a member who assumes the role.

Basic Assumption Fight/Flight (baF): The group acts as if it must preserve itself by action – either fighting (e.g. active aggression, scapegoating, and physical attack) or by fleeing (e.g. withdrawal, passivity, avoidance, and ruminating on past history). Leadership is given to anyone who can mobilize the aggressive forces of the group or helps it to move away from the task.

Basic Assumption Pairing (baP): The group acts as if their survival depends on two people producing some magical solution to its difficulties that will save the group. The group will put forth two people to pair with each other, with the hope that they will produce this unborn saviour / idea.

Later, other psychotherapists added two more Basic Assumptions:

Basic Assumption Oneness (ba0 -Turquet, 1974): The group seeks an undifferentiated state of wholeness – there is no sense of individuality, only homogeneity. Members want to immerse themselves in this omnipotent force, and to surrender to passive participation in order to feel existence, well-being, and wholeness. The group commits a cause outside itself, as a way of survival.

Basic Assumption Me-ness (baM - Bain, Lawrence, and Gould, 1996): The opposite to baO. Group members act as if there is no group – each member is an individual with no connection to the whole. The denial of the group serves to defend members from the destructive aspects of group life and instead ensures individualism. This may be culturally oriented to Westernism.


Heavy stuff?! Yes maybe. But do you recognise any of these at play in the groups you belong to or work with?

In my next post I'll provide some simple ways that you can help groups to stay in Work Group mentality instead of sliding into Basic Assumption mentality!

Further reading