05th Sep 2011

Group Functioning - how does it work?

Organisations are built by people, and sustained by people. These people usually work in groups. Acknowledging the importance of group functioning, and having an awareness of the group phenomenon is vital to the success of a business. 

In the 1940’s the British psychoanalyst Wilfred R. Bion conducted a series of experiments in the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London. From these studies emerged the Tavistock Method. Bion recognised through his experiments, the importance of considering an individual within the group they are a part of.

But how does a group come about? Why and when do disparate individuals coalesce into a group? The premise of the Tavistock Method allows that a cluster of people will bond through a shared objective, and a group will be created. Groups can grow out of a common need, a conscious mutual decision, or due to an external influence or threat. Essentially – though it is often posing as a more immediate issue – the primary task of the group is survival.

When individuals become a group they work as a system. Bion focused his study on the group as a whole collective identity. He found that groups, like much else, are made of overt and covert parts. A work group is a group that exercises commonality of purpose, and pursuit of a shared goal. This is the overt aspect. A basic assumption group is that which is focused more internally, either consciously or unconsciously, on a latent agenda; dreams, fears or projections below the surface, where there is natural tendency to hide issues from the group.

On the basic assumption level of functioning Bion observed that there are certain basic assumptions that the group use and believe in, whether they are true, valid and real, or not. These assumptions are employed in the service of survival. Bion identified three separate types of basic assumptions; dependency, fight/flight and pairing.

As its name suggests, basic assumption dependency occurs when the functioning of the group becomes dependent on an individual leader. This leader may be the actual manager, or an individual who has assumed leadership through necessity; that is the survival of the group. This leader is often relied upon as the ‘saviour’ of the group. Problems inevitably arise when the ‘saviour’ cannot fulfill his or her duty.

The basic assumption fight/flight occurs when the functioning of the group is based around aggression and scape-goating, or avoidance. The strongest aggressor can often be rendered leader, but due to the belligerent nature of the group this leadership is often unstable and short-lived. In flight functioning, the individual who focuses on the abstract while failing to emphasise or optimize the importance of the common task within the group, is usually granted leadership.

Basic assumption pairing is fairly self-explanatory – it occurs when bonding takes place between two individuals to the exclusion of the other members of the group. This pairing will provide mutual support for each to the other. Again in this functioning the survival of the group is thought to rest on the shoulders of a spectral ‘saviour’.

The basic assumption group is one which feeds on primitive instinctual motivations. Though these may not be entirely based in the realistic, they are valid and can be exploited for benefit, once understood.

The Tavistock Method is invaluable in the understanding of group dynamics; as a leader it is essential to understand how your team functions. When do members bestow authority on others? When and why do they do this? Understanding the overt and covert functioning of the group as a whole is vital to success. Afterall, a healthy team is a successful team.

Hilda Goold



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