Intriguing Group Dynamics (2)

My recent post - Intriguing Group Dynamics - about the work of Wilfred Bion and his ideas around “Basic Assumption Mentality” and “Work-group Mentality” prompted a number of people to contact me directly for help. 

They wanted to know how they could best manage groups or teams to reduce the likelihood of them developing Basic Assumption Mentality - shared unconscious assumptions that avoid or disrupt progress, built on the group’s wishes, fears, defences, projections and anxieties - and instead encourage Work Group Mentality - where a group is purposeful, productive, focused on its task, and able to manage conflict well. 

How you do this will vary depending on the reason the group is together – for example, a project meeting, a training event, an offsite, or a group / team coaching session – but there are some key principles that you can draw upon to create optimal conditions for groups to collaborate, learn, develop and achieve together. 

By way of background - over 20 years ago I worked – over several days - with what I could only then describe as a "group from hell". The experience was terrifying, deeply painful, and at the time, I was so shocked and bruised I swore I would never work with groups again. Yet I decided I had to find a way to recover, so I took myself off to study group dynamics, which changed my outlook entirely. Yes they behaved very badly. But I know now that I had not taken adequate care of their psychological safety needs, and so they reacted against me. Badly. But, as they say,

"Experience is what you get just after you needed it"

So, here and in the next post I will share here some of mine so that you have it before you do!   There are several things you can pay attention to. 

1) Make it as SAFE as possible, as QUICKLY as possible. People will not collaborate or contribute if they don’t feel safe to do so. To achieve this:

* Have a tried and tested framework to help you to manage the group’s psychological safety needs, such as The Thinking Environment (

* Communicate as much practical information for example about the purpose, pre-work, location, journey, etc as you can beforehand. People who arrive in an uncertain or anxious state can continue to be so – and spread it.  

* Allocate clear roles and responsibilities to your colleagues for welcoming arrivals; don’t leave people hanging around on their own. Be welcoming. 

* Choose the room (s) carefully – a room with glass walls, uncomfortable seating, outside noise etc is not conducive to safety. If you’re stuck with glass walls, try to adjust seating so the faces of participants aren't easily visible to those outside. 

* Consider who is coming and why they are there. Address what I call “sent” issues (where someone hasn’t opted to be there but has been told or sent) and normalize their concerns lightly and with good humor: “I expect some of you are a little uncertain about what this session is all about, or maybe even would rather be somewhere else?!” 


2) Make it as EASY as possible for people to participate. To achieve this:

* Invite everyone to speak at the start. People haven't "arrived" until they have spoken so let them land, in person, and if the group is too big to go around everyone for safety or practical purposes, invite them to talk in pairs or in smaller groups so they can introduce themselves and connect with others.

* If discussion stalls in large groups divide people into smaller groups or pairs. The smaller the group or subgroup, the safer (unless you have paired people with their boss without checking first!).

* Use “rounds” regularly to foster engagement and equality so that anyone can speak if they wish to, knowing they will have a turn, without trying or having to interrupt someone or to remain silent because of hierarchy or strong personalities.

 * Don’t threaten the group’s self-esteem with overly easy tasks, or impossibly hard tasks straight away. Allow time for confidence to grow and allow the group to reflect on each experience. But be aware of the pace - if you rush or go too slowly you can meet with resistance.


NB - I am by no means saying that groups cannot take on challenging dynamics and tasks. That's a normal part of learning and progression. BUT if you have not created the right environment to make participation and learning possible as soon as possible, you will be spending more time and energy on repairing the damage than on developing and growing the group. My somewhat brutal experience of learning about groups came at great personal cost - it doesn't have to be the same for others!


In the next post I will look at how to manage a group's "projections" and its effects on your own psychological safety so that managing even a "group from hell" will not be impossible. If you would like to read that, make sure you follow me.


Reading and further information

Bion, W.R. Experiences in groups and other papers, 1961. Latest edition Routledge Nov 1998.

Thornton, Christine. Group and Team Coaching, the Essential Guide. Routledge, 2010

The Centre for the Study of Groups and Social Systems