G8 and thoughts on groups

When I was working, a lot of what I did was with groups and organizations.

Well, we are all in groups and organizations most of the time – so nothing new there.

But, some of my job was learning and teaching about how within any group each groupie can observe the unconscious processes of functioning and dysfunctioning which slither over and under the rational purposes.

Three things have combined to encourage me to post some of those thoughts and theories, feelings and awarenesses, they might be useful sometime, somewhere, just as emotional intelligence is a sort of now you have it, now you don’t, and is very useful indeed when you do. Those three things are:

First, in spite of many previous posts which might imply that Block Island is the most wonderful place on earth, it is of course home to a community – a group – at least part of which lurched last summer into severe dysfunction. (look up BI Times if the detail of what, where, why matters) Now, first piece of info I have to give here – when a group is dysfunctional, it DOES NOT MEAN THAT EACH OR ANY OF ITS MEMBERS ARE. They could be of course, and may become so, as a dysfunctional group has terrible effects on its members, but they are all probably trying hard to keep doing what they are supposed to be doing, and also trying hard to keep the rest of their lives in some sort of order, business as usual in many other areas, and the groups which belong to those other areas. My heart goes out to the people involved, doing their best and getting crucified.

[One bit of evidence for dysfunction is that over and over again, huge efforts go nowhere.] That’s where the “in a hole… don’t dig…” sort of advice is pretty good and worth taking. But, you usually need more than one bit of evidence.]

Second, a recent post from Sidey suggests she has been in a dysfunctional group for about a year now. Again, doesn’t mean she is not functional, she is affected by it, but, as far as bloggy buddies can see, she continues to function. And she will have other roles in other groups. No-one needs to know details, what she posted lets us feel some of the feelings she has experienced. Second piece of info to give – it is “feelings” which provide the awareness to observe what the unconscious process might be, and offer a guide to whether what is happening in the group is functional or dysfunctional. Get to know your own feelings, at several levels, and how and when they shift or stay stuck. [I posted about using feelings here.]

Third, the G8 is meeting next week in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. “Groupiness” applies to political groups – even the self-appointed kind – just as much as to any other group (Speccy reminded me). This made me think about all the many groupings Northern Ireland has had, and all of those in other places like Turkey and Syria and Pakistan and China and everywhere. Are they functional or dysfunctional? My own suspicion is that ideology, and especially religious ideology, is a dysfunction. But, that’s opinion. Ideology certainly arouses feelings. Is it not more important to find what is really happening in a particular situation, and think about values, and the spirit of the law, rather than applying rules and ideology? So, the third piece of info is simply for the moment, forget the rational, the reasoning, and even the principles or values which can be named, wonder about the unconscious processes instead – see below – as none of us can see the future. We hope our actions and behaviours work towards making a better future for us all, and we can make that more PROBABLE, not more certain, by choosing how we are in the real real group, which is very much both unconscious and conscious.

What might be observable? How can it be seen it if it is hidden from consciousness?

It is seventy odd years since Wilfred Bion brought his compassion and his capacity to listen to his work as an army psychiatrist. The theory of group unconscious he then wrote about was not a theory of “make hypothesis, seek evidence” but is more of a slow realization: maybe this is what I am seeing here. When I have worked with his theory, this is also what I have found. It doesn’t really work at all if I am trying to apply it. When I am just listening, letting myself feel the atmosphere, suddenly one bit of the theory jumps out from somewhere and CLICK that works, now I see something and feel something which was previously hidden.

How useful is that? Usually absolutely incredibly useful.

That caveat about how to use this theory having been made…further caveat, this post is also far too dry – trying to summarise complicated thought – so I intend to follow this idiotically long dull post with something which has examples and illustrations and stuff which can be connected with more, that is more emotionally. Because, emotion, not reason, is the point to be made! Hope I can do it.

Bion’s ideas, my words: Groups are everywhere, and often can’t be defined, though they might be identified by what the people in them think they are in them for – e.g this is Grade 3, these are the representatives attending G8, this is the Block Island community, that lot are Sidey and Sidey’s colleagues with a particular task. From this you can see that some groups have a very clear membership (Grade 3) some have not (Block Island community – any particular person can be sort of half-in or half out – a winter resident … but I am from Ireland, not Block Island… someone else only comes in summer, but grew up here and belongs in a quite profound way). I have no idea how clear or stable, the membership of Sidey’s group is. I think the G8 group has a definite membership, each appointed as a representative, but it will only last for a few days, where Grade 3 lasts for a year, Sidey’s group may last for a longer time though its members can change over that time, and the Block Island community – well – probably until the sea level rises and there is no more Block island.

Each member brings history, and each group has its own history, probably much of it unknown to any member, and with a multiplicity of strands.

A group has its OWN unconscious. More than the collections of each member’s unconscious.

Bion observed that when a group is functioning, the various bits and pieces of group unconscious do not get in the way too much. The group does what it is supposed to be doing – more or less well, happily or unhappily, the people involved contribute well or badly, etc. The group ‘works’ and he called this the WORK GROUP. While the work-group is functioning, the group unconscious is trundling along helping or hindering, in a way, just like a person’s unconscious is sometimes well in tune with conscious aims and desires, and even simultaneously may be sabotaging the efforts made, coping with defences, on an ego trip, or whatever. It helps to become aware of what might be happening in one’s unconscious, because then one can get more in tune, rather than less in tune. Similarly, as a group member, one can find awareness (in part) of the group unconscious.

In a group, Bion identified three, he said only three , distinct types of unconscious process. Further, he said only one of these would operate at any one time, though a group could fluctuate between them rapidly or hardly at all. Each group member in some part of their own unconscious world linked in to the group unconscious process of the moment, so each group member not only contributed to the group unconscious process, each also had within themselves a link to the group unconscious.

Find that link. You then find out something about how this group works.

It is unconscious, so it won’t be rational. It will be found from feelings, dreams, slips/mistakes, inadvertent stray notions, something that keeps knocking like a tune you can’t get out of your head. (Similar notion to what I wrote about here on my other blog.)

When a group is failing to function, when it is dysfunctional, one of the three processes has become paramount, over-riding the work group, making all the members dance to its tune. Call it a mob, call it group ideology, even call it having a great time (remember an awful party when you/everyone over-indulged…), whatever you call it, the main reason for the group being together has lost out to some other state, one unconsciously driven. Bion called the processes the Basic Assumptions – each different from each other and different from the Work-group.

1. Basic Assumption – dependence

2. Basic Assumption – fight/flight

3. Basic Assumption – pairing

ref:W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups, Tavistock, London 1968

Bion made us aware of unconscious GROUP FUNCTIONING, a combination of WORK-GROUP ACTIVITY and BASIC ASSUMPTION ACTIVITY (one out of the 3 kinds)

The group as a whole seems to have a mentality, of conscious and unconscious parts. Every individual in the group is in some way involved in the processes of the group as a whole, taking part through part of themselves. Individuals who are self-aware are better placed to become aware of the group mentality when they are not defensive about how the group is affecting them (or is affected by them).

The ‘work group’ furthers the development of the primary task of the group in relation to reality; it is comparable to the healthy ego in an individual.

The ‘basic assumption states’ are mutually exclusive and are bound up with maintaining inner processes regardless of the real task.  They can be helpful or damaging, comparable to individual defenses.

A group can be in a basic assumption state without any work-group functioning (comparable to a mentally ill individual), but it cannot be in a pure work-group state.

Each BA attempts to ensure security (even insulation) from the emotional difficulties inherent in development  or change. Each may prevent the group from thinking about reality.

BA Dependency – the group knows a leader exists and what a leader should do to maintain the group and protect it from a variety of dangers such as splitting or breaking up or becoming a different kind of group. (The leader need not be a person e.g an ideology will do)

BA Fight/Flight  – the group manages real feelings by aggression or avoidance, that is a kind of displacement, as the aggression/avoidance may be about things external or particular members who carry ‘something’ for everyone else.

BA Pairing – the group maintains itself by hope in the future, often seen as the result of a pair getting together to produce the ‘new baby’ which will solve the problems, like the messiah.

Group Dysfunction – being in one BA mode, or swopping between basic assumptions is the chief determinant of what the group does.  Hence, a dysfunctional group may think it is working, individuals may be exhausting themselves by effort, but the more effort they make, the more they bind themselves in the BA process.

Sophisticated Group Functioning – the Work Group Leadership consciously uses a BA to harness the group members together for purposeful work activity

OK OK needs work to illustrate – will get there sometime.


5 thoughts on “G8 and thoughts on groups

  1. I think, and I could be wrong, my tendency is to go with and rely on ’emotional intelligence’ which in all likelihood is probably to my detriment as I do so excessively.(which is okay as I would rather die on my own sword then to be silenced by that of someone else).. ‘Emotional intelligence’ seems to get me through and past the trials and tribulations as well side stepping unanswerable questions and problems that have no real solution, Perseverance to the infinite degree -never give up, even when abilities, lack of knowledge and resources suggest their is no hope seems to the main ‘thread’ which keeps all the other threads together. Standing still or dormant or ignoring to face responsibilities of issues seems to be the crux of that matter. Perhaps in the end it is not the solutions which matter so much as it to maintain the integrity of process which goes to groups.

    It’s amazing to me how some issues and problems, though seemly benign at first, can cross over an corrupt other areas of life, ideals and beliefs due to unknown, unforeseen and uncontrollable forces (am talking singular rather than group I know, but I think it is within acceptable tolerances for either or).

    I have to admit, I really have to sponge up most of what you put forward here. Much of this, if one puts into practice, benefits beyond the group model, even beyond personal, as it really seems to speak to the core -it speaks to the ‘why’ and not the ‘how’.


    1. I fell into the ‘unconscious awareness’ sort of stuff by what now seems happy chance, sheer good fortune. Having found out that some of the why and how can be glimpsed, everything is opened up, ok not protected from misery, but somehow also get the keep going energy, and always a wonderment that I see shared with others


  2. I need to come back to this again and again: I am part of at least one dysfunctional group at the minute and trying to figure out how to help us shift a bit…
    thanks for the info and challenge 🙂


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