The Subconscious of Groups

I love working with groups and teams. Accompanying a leadership team through their development fascinates me and positively challenges me. I am – positively – on edge when facilitating workshops with leadership teams. I am fascinated by the dynamics between a group of very respectable and capable individuals. So far, I have not found any correlation between the members’ capabilities and expertise and the group’s functioning.

Yes, I have read many books and articles on teamwork. My favorite continues to be Jon Katzenbach’s “Wisdom of Teams” (2015). He explains how important the individual’s commitment to the team’s goals, purpose, and working process is for a team’s success. His suggestion that the ability to learn from each other is the differentiating factor for becoming a high-performance team is fascinating.

But there is still something missing. Recently, I came across the work of Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897 – 1979), a British psychoanalyst who researched groups extensively. While most of the literature on teams takes the individual’s perspective on collaboration, Bion argues that a group has a conscious and subconscious of its own in addition to the individual’s perspective.

Bion speaks of the “work group” and the “basic assumption group,” both present simultaneously. The work group represents, in my terminology, the conscious part of a group. It is defined by its purpose, its goals, and its task. It is what we first observe in groups.

Underlying the work group is an unconscious level, which Bion calls the basic assumption group. Neither group members nor the group as a whole are aware of this unconscious level. But the basic assumption group drives how a group works together. Members behave as if the assumptions they make about the group were true. The kind and extent of the basic assumption group present drives what kind of leadership the group requires.

In Bion’s view, both groups are active at the same time in a kind of parallel universe. While a team might work their way through their agenda, they will find themselves derailed occasionally. It is hard for the group to find the source of their derailment. Often, it is blamed on a lack of discipline or the behavior of one or more individual team members. But mostly, it is the basic assumption group acting up and torpedoing the work group.

Bion went further and identified three different basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, and paring. While these three kinds might not be exhaustive, they illustrate how basic assumption groups work.

Individual members look up to their group leader in a basic assumption group characterized by dependency. They expect the leader to protect them, nourish them, and give them direction. This can go to extremes where the group would not accept any other leader. The leader of such a group needs to balance being reliable and dependable with not becoming idealized and self-absorbed.

A basic assumption group leaning towards fight-flight protects itself at all costs. It is willing to find for the sake of the group or to flee if necessary. The group has or imagines an external enemy. It also can be manipulated to see a true or imagined enemy. Such a group looks for courageous and motivating leaders. The leader needs to know how easily such a group can be manipulated.

When pairing is the characterization of the basic assumption group, members focus on ensuring the future of their purpose. Bion means by pairing very much the purpose of reproduction. Such a group often splits into members engaged in reproduction and the ones observing with hopeful anticipation. Formally, they might not have a leader but hope for the arrival of an – almost – messianic one to arrive.

When working with teams, identifying and addressing the underlying basic assumption group starts a process of self-reflection and awareness. More and more team members become aware of behavior driven from the subconscious level versus the conscious one. What might seem a perfectly rational argument comes from the perceived need to protect the group at all costs.

On an individual level, such reflection cannot be done alone. Neither individuals nor teams see their blind spots. It takes an experienced coach to guide a team through such a process. As coaches, our focus must be on the subconscious level, supporting our clients in identifying and addressing what is happening subconsciously.

Here are three different approaches a coach or facilitator can take to bring the basic assumption group to the surface:

  • Stepping Back: Observe a typical team meeting. Identify the work group and watch for clues of the basic assumption group. Pause the meeting and ask everyone to take a step back. Ask participants what they observe about how they work together, their lines of communication, and whom they follow when. This will unearth a first glimpse of the basic assumption group.
  • Leadership Attributes: Ask team members to describe their team leadership. Watch for terms such as responsible, reliable, courageous, team-focused, creative, etc. The attributes team members use will help you identify the main underlying basic assumption group. Once done, you can enter into a conversation about what that means for the group.
  • Changing Leadership: Use a multi-round simulation, e.g., the beer game, and ask the team to switch leaders for each round. This works especially well with outdoor activities. After each round, ask participants to rank leadership attributes for the leader of the round quickly and write down a few observations on how they felt as a team member. After the simulation, overlay the leadership attributes with how participants felt. This will give them a first-hand experience of being part of different basic assumption groups with the same people.

Learning about the subconsciousness of groups can be an even richer experience than learning about oneself. The subconsciousness of groups is exponentially more complex. But it is worth getting started. Teams will see a major shift in their performance within a relatively short period of time.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2015). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high-performance organization. Harvard Business Review Press.
Colman, A. D., & Bexton, W. H. (1975). Group Relations Reader. The A. K. Rice Institute, Minneapolis.
Bion, W. R. (1948). Experiences in groups: I. Human relations, 1(3), 314-320.
Bion, W. R. (1948). Experiences in groups: II. Human Relations, 1(4), 487-496.
Bion, W. R. (1949). Experiences in groups: III. Human Relations, 2(1), 13-22.
Bion, W. R. (1949). Experiences in groups: IV. Human Relations, 2(4), 295-303.
Bion, W. R. (1950). Experiences in groups: V. Human Relations, 3(1), 3-14.
Bion, W. R. (1950). Experiences in groups: VI. Human Relations, 3(4), 395-402.
Bion, W. R. (1951). Experiences in groups: VII. Human Relations, 4(3), 221-227.