unconscious structures in groups

November 14, 2011

Johnnie references an interesting post (rhizome) about the occupy wall street protests and in particular the idea of ‘structurelessness’ in a group.

I don’t think there is ever true “structurelessness” in a group – only an unwillingness or inability to see what structures are there. 

I agree with his point – and more often than not the structures we can’t see are unconscious ones – imposed by assumptions, projections and ideas of what should be going on that isn’t and what is going on that shouldn’t.  Wilfred Bion termed this unconscious ‘group think’ Basic Assumptions.  He maintained that at any given moment in time there are two processes going on in a group.  The first is the actual task that the group has been charged with doing (the work task) and the other is a series of unconscious assumptions that derail the work task (acting out primitive fantasies).  He proposed that groups operate as though the members all subscribe to a series of unconscious fantasies (which in the main are about alleviating the stress and anxiety of being in the group in the first place).  These fantasies are the product of the group – not individuals within it.  The three assumptions Bion developed are fight/flight (the group believes it has to fight or flee from a common enemy either within or without the group); dependency (the group believes that a leader will relieve the anxiety and stress in the group – when (and not if) the leader fails to live up to expectation s/he is attacked and replaced with a new leader;  and pairing (the group believes it can only go on if two members of the group unite and produce a new leader/solution to the crisis.  Groups move between these fantasies at the same time as trying to get the work task completed – is it any wonder that going to work can be a stressful activity sometimes?


Stepping back from the psychology for a moment – it’s interesting to note how these basic assumptions manifest…this week for example we have seen two European leaders removed from office….new leaders have stepped in and are expected to ‘save’ the Euro crisis.  This is a classic example of Dependency as conceived by Bion.  Sarkozy and Merkel are frequently believed to be hatching a plot to also save the Euro crisis – a classic example of Pairing…and as for fight/flight…we need look no further than the degree to which individual European countries take the stage to be the scapegoat du jour.  It used to be Ireland, then Greece and now Italy has moved centre stage.


Bion’s work teaches us that there is always an unconscious component to group relating … most of the time that component is an attempt to manage difficult and primitive feelings that cannot be expressed consciously.  The challenge in organizations is to understand the function of the behavior without immediately trying to dismantle and eliminate it.  Finding a new scapegoat is simply a way of moving anxiety around under the illusion that it has been alleviated.  Anxiety (and fear) are part of relating – we can attempt to embrace them or delude ourselves that a simple solution exists.  Perhaps a more interesting question to consider is – how do we go on while at the same time feeling the anxiety that going on evokes?


BION, W. 1961. Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, London, Tavistock.


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