Identify what needs leadership

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Why teams work and don’t work and what you can do about it.

Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) was a psychoanalyst famous for his study of group processes and interactions. He uses the term ‘work group’ to describe a group that can manage its shared tensions, anxieties and relationships to achieve set goals. In an ECEC context all team members would be working to help children achieve Learning Outcomes and maintain the daily service routines.

Bion says work groups will become ineffective from time to time when individuals in the group are overtaken, consciously or unconsciously, by strong emotions eg fear, anxiety, love, anger, guilt. When this happens the group loses touch with its purpose and gives in to ‘basic assumption mentality’.  The belief or assumption is basic because all group thinking and activity is based around avoiding the strong emotion. Each of us might do this for example when we convince ourselves we need to make a ‘to do’ list before starting to work, and then never start the real work.  Groups in this mode seem to be getting work done but they’re not achieving what they should really be doing because they have turned away from their real purpose. Group members ignore what is actually happening around them and time has no meaning to them because they are caught up in something else. The group behaves as if all group members agreed to this way of operating, even though this never really happened – so it can be difficult for any group member to challenge what is going on.

Bion said basic assumption groups fall into three types of states: Dependency, Pairing and Fight or Flight. In the Dependency State, members are overly dependent on the leader who they consciously or unconsciously expect to know everything and solve all their problems.  Group members may feel neglected, misunderstood, compete for attention, or become passively compliant, even sullen, in response to the leader’s requests. If the leader can’t solve all the problems, group members look for a new leader. There may be cycles of leader seeking, idealisation and belittling.

In the Pairing State, the group’s focus shifts from the group as a whole to one (or more) pairs within the group which hopefully will save them from their unacknowledged anxieties and tensions.

In the Fight/Flight State the group tries to collectively fight or escape form a common enemy who can be found inside or outside the group. There may be a lot of conflict within the group, as some members challenge the leader’s authority, form subgroups or withdraw.

Bion noted that the work group and basic assumption mentalities always co-exist within every group, but that one tends to dominate the other at any particular moment. This means all groups can rapidly or slowly move from a work group mentality to a basic assumption mentality and vice-versa. They can also move between the three basic assumption States. When and how this happens depends on whether group members can control emotional tensions (conscious and unconscious) well enough to avoid work group mentality being overtaken by basic assumption mentality.

Which type of group(s) do you think you lead? Some questions to consider include:

  • how well does the team meet the goals it’s been given ie get the real work done?
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  • how heavily do your educators rely on you as Room Leader?
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  • how aware are educators of the time they have to complete their work?
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  • have any of our team members paired up (got together) to achieve alternative goals?
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  • is there anyone or anything the team is trying to avoid in your room?
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Bion said there were three group mentalities in basic assumption groups – dependence, pairing and fight/flight. It’s interesting that he never applied these States to the more functional ‘work-group mentality’ groups.

French and Simpson think this is unreasonable. They think these States can be seen in basic assumption groups or work groups. They argue there are plenty of occasions, for example, when dependence on a leader leads to productive work rather than stagnation ie dependence in the service of, not in conflict with, the group’s purpose. They’ve also seen pairings which result in a significant contribution to the group’s purpose because the people involved pair up to achieve the group’s purpose rather than for personal advantage.

Remember too that Bion said work groups and basic assumption groups are never completely pure. Work group and basic assumption behaviours always co-exist, although one behaviour will dominate at specific times. So you may have a group where a pair, for example, is productive at one time but due to factors, conscious or unconscious, become unproductive at others.

The real significance of French and Simpson’s ideas, however, are that they suggest a way in which basic assumption mentality can be shifted to work group mentality. They suggest the move works better if the focus is not on the same type of State. For example, if a basic assumption group is in a flight/fight State, then the group is likely to refocus on its purpose if an intervention to work group behaviour supports dependence or pairing. 

Source: R French and P Simpson (2010) The Work Group: Redressing the Balance in Bion’s Experiences in Groups

If your educators are not achieving their tasks/purpose (a basic assumption group) reflect on how you might move them towards a more effective work group. What State are they in and what technique could you use to stop that way of working?

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