Intriguing Group Dynamics (3)

This is the third and final post about the work of Wilfred Bion and his ideas around “Basic Assumption Mentality”and “Work-group Mentality”. Like the first, the second 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. 

The prevalent Basic Assumption provides the emotional energy for everything that happens in the group, and it has a fundamental influence on the norms and roles of the group. Groups can move in and out of the different Basic Assumptions during the course of a meeting or session and if you aren't on your toes, you can get swallowed up in them yourself. 

In my last post (Part 2) on this I outlined some simple measures to help you to 1) make it safe and 2) make it easy for them to participate and collaborate. And now, I look at how to hold your authority and manage a group's "projections" and anxieties, and the potential effects of these on your own psychological safety.

3) Hold your authority by agreeing their boundaries without losing yours.

* Agree the group contract as soon as possible. Give a broad outline of the session and timings, even if only general. If they are flexible and can be negotiated say so up front. Making last minute on the hoof changes when the group is expecting something else can increase anxiety. I heard of one trainer who kept the group in session until 7pm when they had been told it would end at 5pm. They went along with it at the time because she was struggling to cover everything she'd said she would, but their feedback afterwards was truly awful and her credibility was shot for ever as far as they were concerned.

* Handle late arrivals and early exits carefully - don’t ignore them entirely; acknowledge the change in group composition and then continue, giving them time to land if they have come in late before you ask them to introduce themselves. If they leave the room and don't come back, if you can, schedule in a short comfort / refreshment break for everyone so you aren't neglecting the group whilst you find out what's happened. If you have a co-facilitator early exits are easier to handle.

* Don’t do “menial” tasks yourself – credibility is particularly important with groups. Your expertise as a facilitator or similar lies in group development not in making everyone tea, nor in being part of the group. The exception to making the tea is when you are in an unquestionable position of authority and have the charisma to carry it off - I heard from someone who had a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg that she was happy to pour the tea!

* If you want to make a direct comment about the group and its communication style, ask from a place of impartial observation not expert analysis unless that's what you have agreed your role will be: So “I notice that the group has gone quiet since we raised this subject” will be less confrontational than “It seems to me that you’re avoiding this subject!”

* Avoid resorting to name dropping ("But I've done this loads of times with XYZ company and they loved it") or overselling your experience or knowledge to compensate for any feelings of anxiety you have. Focus on their needs, not on yours. See Projective Identification below.

4) Know that discomfort in your or in them – is normal

* Good things can come out of discomfort in the group including learning and growth. However, there can be many unconscious processes (aka "Defence Mechanisms") at play that can impact on how the group and its members behave with each other and towards you. These can include:

"Idealization" - when people look to someone in authority as the fount of all knowledge they can quickly idealize their positive qualities and underestimate the less positive ones. Whilst it's wonderful to have the feeling that the group likes and rates you, you need to be aware that they can just as easily switch when they realise that you're not perfect! The higher they put you harder you can fall - this is known as "splitting" where they are unable to tolerate ambivalent feelings, so things - or people - become "all good" or "all bad".

"Identification" - is when people model qualities and characteristics of another (person or group or organization) that lead to a feeling of one-ness. Organizations encourage this positively with company values, employer branding, uniforms, etc. For example, with groups in Basic Assumption "Fight or Fight" , if one person behaves badly, to create safety and a feeling of unity the rest of the group can follow suit. That can feel like you are being ganged up against. It's a form of scapegoating, and in larger societies, it can be collective prejudice. Just recognising that this is happening can keep you from feeling paranoid yourself.

"Projection" occurs when people in vulnerable circumstances can project their feelings out to another. So if for example, they're struggling to understand something you have said, or feeling anxious that they aren't liked or being taken seriously by the rest of group, or are less clever / senior / knowledgeable than others, they can project this out. And guess who gets to catch it?! Often you! The vulnerability / inadequacy becomes yours. This is known as "Projective identification" when you take on the (usually unwanted) feelings of another or the group and experience them for yourself. It can happen to therapists, coaches, presenters, trainers etc. – e.g. feeling stuck or incompetent - it’s the client / audience / group projecting its own anxieties. Don't let their anxiety become yours. Try to become an observer of yourself. How much is you and how much is the group's?

* Having a co-facilitator is invaluable so you can support each other and recognise when these phenomena are happening. Before you start the work together, agree a set of strategies & signals you can use to flag up issues and ensure you build in time to debrief at regular intervals, away from the group. 

To summarise

There are many defence processes that can play out in groups, and the above are just a few of them. Learning more about them will help you to stay sane yourself even when under extreme psychological pressure. It is very easy to get sucked into Basic Assumption groups so knowing about them will help you to think when under fire, and reflect on the experience whilst you are actually having it. Learning to observe the dynamics and not get swallowed in them will help you avoid becoming paranoid yourself, and just accept that this is how things are with the group, at this moment. Then you can ask yourself what the group needs from you right now in order to feel safe enough to get back into Work Group mode.

I hope these posts have been useful - do contact me if you would like me to facilitate any kind of group or team event for you. I love the challenge!

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