I have been inspired by Paul Slater’s excellent article this week, Getting Teams Working, to reflect on some work I’ve been doing recently with a team. A good chunk of my training and experience has been in group dynamics and there is direct relevance of this body of knowledge to organisational life. In the workplace, there is some growing awareness of group dynamics as a key influencer of organisational effectiveness. Many people are now familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s group development model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning; and it is good that people who manage teams of people are opening their eyes to the processes that go on when humans gather together, for whatever purpose. Despite our best efforts, there is something mystifying that seems to get in the way of team effectiveness and it can be useful to look “underneath” at the dynamics and unexpressed assumptions out of which we operate.
Perhaps less well-known in this sphere is the work of Wilfred Bion. Bion trained in medicine and went on to develop an interest in psychoanalysis, eventually immersing himself in the study of groups and group process. He was commissioned into the British Army during World War II, working in military hospitals. Here he devoted himself to finding ways to treat post-traumatic stress and devised ways of working with these patients in a group context. Out of his work in group dynamics, he went on to write “Experiences in Groups” (1961) which became a seminal work in the field of group psychotherapy, providing a basis for the application of group theory in many other fields.
I think it’s important to remember that there are, indeed, many models of group development, Tuckman’s being perhaps the most well-known, and that these are more descriptive than prescriptive. What I mean by this is that these models are not stages we “take groups through” but they are phenomena that groups experience naturally. The various models are simply different lenses through which to observe these group phenomena and once observed, we can begin to make sense of the undercurrents that affect our teams and groups. From here, we can develop some capabilities within ourselves to respond more ably to what goes on in our teams.
All of those models have some validity in my eyes, but for me, the work of Bion seems to have been the one that has most unlocked some of the mystery of what goes on in groups. Anyone who manages teams, whether that be a project team or an ongoing team within a business, will have found that the work of that team sometimes seem to be sabotaged by things seemingly unrelated to its work. This is sometimes put down to “personality clashes”, politicking or competing professional interests. While this sometimes may be the case, there is another lens through which we can see underperformance or ineffectiveness in teams. I am currently working with a team who are embarking on a transformation process which may eventually entail some reorganising of their workloads, responsibilities and lines of authority and accountability. The manager has undertaken to initiate a process involving every member of this team contributing to shaping its form, so that they end up with a team structure that is fit for its purpose, rather than soldiering on with a structure that they have inherited from the past and which is proving to be ineffective and unwieldy. This process is, unsurprisingly, generating a little uncertainty in the team members.
Transition and change naturally provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Once again, we are dealing with feelings, whether we like it or not. As Louise Altman writes frequently on her excellent blog The Intentional Workplace, emotions are there; it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Even if we try to hide our heads in the sand and focus purely on work outputs, what goes on underneath will impact on a team or organisation’s ability to be effective. I recommend having a look at Louise’s article, 5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years. In it, she suggests that business can no longer afford to dismiss the impact of emotions on our abilities to work well and to be well. To continue treating people as resources and automatons a la Henry Ford (“Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”) is very simply, unsustainable.
So if you are willing to peer underneath the functioning of your team, you will be treated to a fascinating display of raw human-ness. Above the surface, what we can see, is what Bion calls the “work group”. This is the stated and overt reason teams form. Groups and organisations come together to pursue sensible and realistic goals and this “work group” is what keeps people on task. Below the surface is what he calls the “basic assumption” groups. They are the unspoken assumptions about how the group operates. Bion asserts that teams sometimes fall into what he calls madness; this is the skewed functioning that arises in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
Bion observed three kinds of “basic assumption” groups: fight-flight, dependency and pairing. The “madness” of which Bion spoke and which he describes with these three “basic assumption” groups, is the anxiety that arises from change, unpredictability and volatility. In response to a VUCA environment, team members will adopt one of these basic assumptions, and the ensuing behaviours will interfere with the team’s ability to achieve its work goals effectively.
If a group is operating from a fight-flight assumption, people behave as if the primary need is self-preservation. Threatened by change, people resort to either fighting something (or someone) or running away from something (or someone). A team leader will observe scapegoating, aggressiveness or unreasonable defensiveness amongst the group or alternatively, avoidance behaviours such as tangential conversations, overuse of humour as a distraction from serious issues, lateness to meetings or anything else that circumvents the work at hand.
If the group is operating out of dependency mode, the primary aim is to achieve certainty or safety. In other words, when things are unclear and changeable, the group strives to regain some sense of security. A dependency basic assumption says that protection will come in the form of one person and they become overly dependent on that one person to “fix” it or make it better. They abdicate responsibility and look to the identified leader, who is of course omniscient and omnipotent, to sort things out. A team leader who observes dependency behaviour will be greeted with acquiescent silence in response to a work-related question, a “just tell me what to do and how to do it” attitude or excessive flattery and “people-pleasing” behaviours. Conversely, the group may “rebel” against the leader; counter-dependency is the flip side of the same coin and the leader may feel like he or she is subject to mass mutiny, with their every decision, suggestion or initiative being rejected.
Pairing derives from the underlying assumption that the group will be saved by the pairing of two of its members, who together will metaphorically create a new messiah. Effective team functioning is frozen in the hope that two people will create the kind of leadership to take them to the promised land of “everything is OK”. This may take the form of a number of pairs emerging within a team or the whole team sitting back while one pair comes to their rescue. Team leaders will observe a pair of allies spending lots of time having private conversations which, unbeknownst to him or her, will be characterised by “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing; if only s/he’d do it our way, things would be ticking along nicely.” During team meetings, the team leader will notice these two folks sharing knowing glances with each other, the unspoken message being, “See? S/he’s doing it again.” “There you go, that’s what we were talking about earlier.” “Told you s/he would say that.” It may be that these two do things at work that are outside the remit of the “work group” but they believe they are justified because they actually know best. Something in your gut tells you that these two are undermining you in some way, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
When a group operates out of one of these basic assumption, it is important to remember that it is doing so unconsciously and is not aware of what is happening. The team becomes subject to the forces of its own dynamics and is immune to the logic and reason of external realities and work expectations.
When we first begin to observe these “basic assumption” behaviours, it can be tempting to resort to labels and become rigid or formulaic in our responses. There is nothing more frustrating than someone armed with a little psychological knowledge and adopting the mantle of Team Psychologist. Unfortunately there is no stock response to a team behaving out of one of these basic assumptions. There are no top tips or easy-to-apply strategies. Apply a lens so that you can make more sense of what is happening, but then go on to reflect. Each team has the right to its own character and its own story. When these underlying, unconscious processes take hold and begin to rope the leader in, and I believe they do inevitably, the trick is to learn how to respond with grace and humanity. Learning to keep going while “under fire” takes practice, resilience and lots of personal reflection on the part of whoever is in a position of leadership. Humans, when gathered together, are subject to deep psychological forces. If we are to keep our heads, we need to become aware of “what is ours” and what is a group phenomenon. Reflection is one of the best practices to help overcome the sense of frustration or overwhelm when we become affected by what goes on in our teams.
Becoming the kind of leader who courageously grapples with the dynamics of groups and teams requires ongoing interest and curiosity, magnanimity and humour. Attending to your team’s dynamics requires you to foster good relationships and open communication, tolerance for difference and collaboration. Therein lies the work of the 21st century leader.