Wilfred Bion was one of the first people to focus on the unconscious defenses that a group uses to deal with anxiety and conflict that distract the group from its conscious tasks. Working as a psychiatrist during World War II, he was one of the founders of group dynamics. In working with groups, he noticed that there were interaction patterns that members of the group were largely unaware of, that appeared to emerge not from one person but were a product of the group dynamic, and that interfered with adequate group performance because they tended to lead to more primitive rather than more advanced levels of functioning. He noted what he called “basic assumptions” that were unconscious, a product of the group, and caused groups to derail from their actual tasks. He called these basic assumptions “dependency,” “fight-flight,” and “pairing.” When an ongoing group strays off course from its actual tasks as a group and continues to function in a way that interferes with the achievement of group goals it is said to have created a “collusive culture” [1, 2].
In groups in the thrall of “dependency” assumptions, the members of the group are united by common feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, neediness, and fear and are searching for a charismatic leader upon whom they can depend, who will relieve all anxiety, while protecting and guiding them. When this occurs, group members fail to take initiative, use critical judgment, and depend on leadership too much.
Groups who are susceptible to “fight-flight” are characterized by avoidance and attack. These are the two main strategies group members utilize and the group tends to split into camps of friends and enemies. The fight reaction manifests in aggression, jealousy, competition, and sibling rivalry, while the flight reaction includes avoidance, absenteeism, and giving up. Us-vs.-them language is commonly heard. When leaders become a part of this split, they unite followers against the “enemy” and all of the group’s energy may be diverted to a dangerous or lost cause.
Bion’s third basic assumption group is called “pairing.” When this unconscious assumption is in play, people come to believe that the best creation will be a result of pairing up in twos, but unfortunately this means splitting up the group and results in increased levels of intra- and intergroup conflict. “Leave it to the two of us” often does not work as an innovative strategy, and fantasizing that if the “CEO and the COO only worked better together everything would be fine” just keeps the group from progressing.
1. Bion, W.R., Experiences in Groups. 1961, London: Routledge.
2. Kets de Vries, M., The Leader on the Cuch: A Clinical Approach to Changing People and Organizations. 2006, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.