Group Dynamics: The Inside Story on Teams and Leading Them

Pat Murphy




Wilfred Bion was a British physician and psychoanalyst in the early to mid-20th century. Almost unknown in the business community, he nonetheless came up with some of the most significant management theories ever developed.


Bion’s ideas are controversial. He took the position that most of what we believe about teams and how to build and manage them is completely counterproductive and destructive to good teamwork.


Bion s first exposure to group behavior came during World War I, where he served as a low-level officer in the British infantry. He was fascinated by the way wave after wave of soldiers would rise out of the trenches and march into deadly hails of machine gun fire and almost certain death. To Bion, that kind of behavior made no sense.


On many occasions, he also noticed that groups of out-manned, out-positioned, and out-gunned soldiers could still win battles. On paper, they were inferior in every way, yet they managed to defeat bigger and better equipped groups of soldiers. That didn’t make sense either. Although intrigued by these behaviors, he didn’t pursue them until the next world war.


During World War II, Bion was again drafted into the British Army. Because of his age and medical degree, they made him a psychiatrist (even though he wasn’t) and put him in charge of a hospital. He was charged with dealing with severe cases of shell shock and battle fatigue, patients who were fine physically, but were emotional basket cases because of the honors of war.


Because he was short on supplies and staff and because he didn’t know any better, Bion began using group therapy to treat these patients. Group therapy is commonplace today, but back then it was never used. He had no idea if it would work or not, but given his limited resources, he didn’t have much choice.


After a few weeks of running the groups, he noticed certain patterns of behavior among the patients. As he went about the task of running the hospital, he began to notice that the doctors would act exactly the same way during staff meetings. Later, at a staff meeting involving senior officers of the British Army, Bion noticed the generals doing the exact same things as the doctors and patients. In fact, Bion noted that if he closed his eyes and just listened, he couldn’t tell if he was among the patients, doctors, or generals.


After the war, Bion went back to school, studied psychiatry, and became a practicing psychoanalyst. In 1958, he wrote a book called Experiences in Groups. From this book came two very important management theories.


Bion was fascinated by what he called the “thought process that human beings engage in when in groups. The thought process deals with how the authority figure in the group thinks about, feels about, and behaves toward the group; and, in return, how the group thinks about, feels about, and behaves toward the authority figure. After many years of studying this thought process, Bion found that there are very specific patterns of behavior that occur in any group.




Bion’s first contention is that all people are social, or pack, animals. By that he means that we are, without exception, fundamentally, completely, and thoroughly group-oriented. We get everything we know, everything we believe, all of our behavior, our assumptions, our process of interpreting, our morals, ethics, and principles, and our character structure from groups.


For example, every person grows up with a family, whether it is an extended family, a single-parent family, or even a foster home. Every person has their own individual family experience. There are all sorts of things deep in every person’s bones that have to do with membership in that group. You will never leave your family group. Even if you live miles away and have no communication, you are always a part of that group because it is so deeply embedded in you.


Every company, whether new or old, has a culture. In a new company, the culture originates from the founder. In an old company, the culture emanates from the whole structure and the power figures as they come and go. If you work for a company a long time and you like that company, you will take a lot of that culture when you leave.


The same is true for other groups you belong to. When you leave, you tend to take the best parts of the group along with you. For example, people that belong to elite military groups like the Green Berets or Navy Seals tend to carry the codes of ethics and standards of behavior of those groups long after they have physically left the group.


Every profession has what constitutes “best practice.” Finance people look at the world in financial terms; marketing people see marketing problems; operations people see operational problems. Psychologists see one thing, architects see another, and biologists see yet another. The point is that if you want to understand somebody and their behavior at any given point in time, all you have to do is understand what group they have in mind.


Kurt Lewin, another psychologist who studied group behavior, said, “All actions are based on the ground a person happens to stand on. The firmness of their actions and the clearness of their decisions depend largely upon the stability of the ground, although they may not even be aware of its nature. Whatever a person does or wishes to do, they must have some ground to stand on. One of the most important constituents of the ground on which the individual stands is the social group to which they belong, the group they identify with most dominantly. Their comfortable, deep membership in that group or handful of groups make or break them psychologically. To counteract fear and to make the individual strong to face whatever the future holds, there is nothing so important as a fully accepted belonging to a group whose fate has a positive meaning.” Lewin defines a team as a collection of people with a shared fate. If you want a high-performing team, the single most important reality to create is shared fate, which means that whatever happens to one happens to all.


Bion’s second contention is that individual action is a myth; there is only group action. Groups are a mental configuration. They don’t have to be physically present to fully influence a person. Attachment to groups is mostly psychological and emotional. Groups are a state of mind; we carry our groups with us at all times.


Connection to groups is a requirement for human survival. This is one of the most important and fundamental tenets of all Bion’ s work. The opposite of connection is separation; it destroys people and their will to live.


If infants are not held and given a certain level of human touch and connection, they will develop “anaclitic depression.” Many of them will simply die in their cribs. Those that grow up will be unable to bond with other people and form any kind of meaningful relationships. In adults, this syndrome is called Musselman’s disease, which has been documented in prisoner of war situations. Prisoners of war have been known to lay down and die because of the lack of connection. They don’t die from physical problems; they die emotionally and mentally and then the body dies.


The fear of separation is so powerful that people will go to almost any lengths to avoid it. Whether it’s marriage, a job, etc., people will do all sorts of things they normally wouldn’t do in order to avoid separation. It is as fundamental a reality as any part of human life.


As a leader, your fundamental job is to maximize connection and minimize separation anxiety. You maximize connection by helping the group deal with its real issues. This is easy to say and. to understand, but very difficult to do.




A real issue is any issue that causes everyone in the group to experience high levels of anxiety even when thinking about the issue, much less talking about it. The very, issues that can blow the group up are the same issues that can weld it together.


Reality always wins; your job is to get in touch with it. Pretending an issue isn’t there doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. In fact, pretending an issue isn’t there guarantees it will happen.


The reality is that facing the tough stuff is what makes high performing teams. Often a team will have to face a very difficult issue. It gets put on the table, the group thrashes it around and somehow manages to resolve the issue. At the end of the process, all the relationships in the room are still intact. When a group goes through that process, it is very powerful. The group feels much closer and believes it could accomplish almost anything. When teams do this on a regular basis, they feel invincible.

That feeling of being very close, special, and invincible is not a mood; it is an experience. That reality can’t be faked; it only comes from the group knowing that they can do it. This kind of experience comes from dealing with real issues.


Healthy groups always have real issues; dysfunctional groups have truckloads of real issues. There will always be issues that make people tense, that they would rather avoid. If you want to know what those issues are, make a list of the topics of conversation that, if brought up at a meeting, would make your stomach chum.


Everybody in the group knows what isn’t being talked about. Furthermore, everybody in the group colludes to make sure it doesn’t get talked about. It takes a team effort to avoid real issues. Everybody has to agree not to talk about them.


Your worst competitive nightmare is to have to compete against a management team that has made a habit of dealing with its real issues. If your competitor has. a. team that regularly deals with its real issues, you’re in trouble. On the other hand, if you and your team make a habit of dealing with your real issues, you will be your competitor’s worst nightmare.


The primary contribution of the authority figure (the leader) is to help the team stay in touch with reality. Great people will rarely leave a team that regularly deals with reality. It is too intoxicating, too stimulating, and too special for people to leave.


Regularly dealing with reality is not easy. To get good at it, you have to get very good at managing your own anxiety. Over time it gets easier as you make it a habit. But in the beginning, it can be very stressful.


There are three basic issues that all groups must deal with. Most of the group’s real issues will come from these three areas:


  1. Purpose: This has to do with shared fate and the degree to which you can create it. You can create a high sense of shared fate:


  • Through a vision, mission, or purpose; all the long-range “dream” type activities.
  • By emphasizing shared values; “We are all the same here.”
  • With consequences.
  • How you structure the work.


However you do it, there must be enough of it to get people all in the same boat. The more you can create common cause, the higher the level of performance you will get. There is a 1-1 correlation between a high level of shared fate and connection and high levels of growth, profits, market share, competitive advantage, etc. When you have low levels of shared fate and connection, you get high levels of anaclitic depression; which means you get low performance, poor profits, high turnover, declining market share, etc.


  1. Investment: Investment deals with risk. Not financial risk, but the amount of self invested in the group. This is how much people are willing to risk themselves in a productive way for the shared purpose and for each other.


A healthy team regularly faces two kinds of risk-taking behaviors. The first is the risk of self-disclosure. In a healthy team, people are not guarded. They are open, straight­forward, frank and honest. The second important risk-taking behavior is confronting. Not in the sense as most people understand it, which means arguing and conflict, but as a search for truth. Confronting means to search for the truth without hurting, humiliating, or degrading people.


When people will not wade into the truth, you have a low investment, low risk-taking situation. In such a situation, you have to uncover what is happening in the. team that is making it unsafe for people to speak up and tell the truth.


  1. Performance: Performance is about accountability, which is the toughest conversation to have. Whatever affects the group must be talked about in the group, no matter what the issue. This means that performance should be talked about publicly. Yet, in reality, it is almost always talked about privately.


It’s common knowledge that managers are supposed to praise in public and criticize in private.

Bion says that by doing so, you ruin the group. You should praise and criticize in public.

(Criticize doesn’t mean to berate the person, but to talk about the not-so-good as well as the good.) Everything that affects the group should be done publicly.


The key to this process is to make the anxiety manageable enough so the team can get through it. People don’t talk about performance problems because the anxiety levels are so high. They create such strong negative fantasies (mental constructs of what will happen before it actually happens) that they are unable to deal with the issue. There are moments of truth in organizations, when it is time to deliver on the commitment, when the performance is due. At the moment of truth, you can only get two “products.” You either get the promised performance or you get a story. In many organizations, a good story is . the same as delivering the performance. If you want a good team, you have to make performance the only acceptable product. You can’t accept stories.


Ninety-nine percent of the time, when the anxiety level on a particular issue is high, the group drops it on the leader. The leader accepts the issue because it reduces his anxiety as well. It’s easier for him to tackle the issue than bring it up at the group level where who knows what will happen.


At that point, the rest of the group goes on vacation in regards to the issue while the leader tries to fix the problem. If you handle your big problems in that manner, the group will disintegrate.


The only way to resolve the issue is to take it to the group and force them to deal with it as a group.




To have a coherent, high performing team, you must bring every issue to the table. To do that, you must be straight and sensitive at the same time. Normally, in a conversation you only get one or the other. People are usually too frank to too sensitive. It isn’t easy to be straight and sensitive at the same time, but it can be done with practice. Here are a few rules to guide handling an issue in that manner:


  • No surprises: This is common courtesy. If you are going to raise an issue, let everybody know in advance that you are going to bring it up. This eliminates the “feeding frenzy” process which can occur when the issue is very strong and people are waiting to unload.
  • Revisit the expectations: As you begin talking about the issue, talk thoroughly and explicitly about the expectations. This is all factual stuff to remind people about what the original agreement was. Problems only exist within a given context. It’s only a problem because the expectations have been violated. When you lay out the expectations, you lay out the framework for the performance discussion.
  • Speak on your own behalf and educate yourself: These are the only fundamental activities that need to take place during the discussion of the issue. You don’t have to plan or script your conversation as long as you can flow with these two things. Speak for yourself means to make “I” statements: “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe.”


This may seem inconsequential but, in high anxiety situations, it has a real impact. In high anxiety situations, you almost always hear “you” statements which blame and attack. “I” statements don’t attack people; they merely speak for themselves.


When you speak for yourself, you introduce real data into the conversation. Plus, you put gentle pressure on everyone else in the room to speak for themselves (especially if you are the authority figure). “I” statements stop the feeding frenzies and other destructive group behaviors. If you can get everyone speaking for themselves, you have already won half the baffle.


Educating yourself means to be slow to understand. You can only educate yourself; you can never educate anyone else. If you think of communication as a continuum between “ask” and “tell,” plant yourself at the “ask” end. Be slow to understand. Avoid being judgmental and shooting from the hip.


The slower you are to understand, the higher the quality of the communication. Look at every confrontation as a problem naming exercise. The problem you name is the problem you solve. Naming it is everything.


When it comes to dealing with real issues, there are no techniques. All techniques are phony and designed to avoid reality. There is only speaking for yourself and being slow to understand.




According to Bion, groups are like a light switch; they are either on or off. They are either working or not working; there is no gray area in-between.


Work means to pursue a task that the group understands and agrees on in a way that is rational, scientific (empirical), cooperative, controlled, and conscious. When a group is working, it is fully conscious and fully functional.


When a group is not working, everything that goes on is the antithesis of work. The behavior is irrational, unscientific, collusive (collectively perpetrating a fraud), uncontrolled, and completely unconscious.


No group works all the time; all groups spend time in both states. It isn’t realistic to expect a group to work all the time. It is realistic to expect it to spend much more time working than not working. It is also realistic to expect that you will get better at catching yourself in the non-work mode and going back to work.


Groups shift from work to non-work mode to avoid a real issue. The process is driven by anxiety, tension, fear, and discomfort. The higher the anxiety level, the more pressure there is for the group to check out.


Bion defines the non-work mode as a basic assumption mental state (BAMS). A BAMS is an unconscious assumption about reality shared by everybody in the group. When a group goes into the non-work mode, it normally moves into dependence, which Bion calls the ‘messiah syndrome.”


When the group is working on something and a real issue emerges, it gets anxious. Unconsciously, the group wants to reduce the anxiety level to zero so they can get back to the desired comfort level. In order to do that, the group begins to view the leader as having messianic powers. The shared basic assumption is that they need to have absolute safety and security, so the group engages in certain behaviors to return to that state.


When dealing with a tough issue, there is only one way to be completely safe and that is to be led by a deity. Human beings make bad calls and they miss things, but deities never do. So the group begins to view the leader as a deity, as someone who can take all the anxieties away and make them completely safe. As they do so, they try to seduce the leader into accepting the role of messiah.


In this situation, nonnally capable, competent people will suddenly begin to look and act less competent. They will begin to act more childlike and confused. That is their unconscious signal for the leader to save them by taking the issue and solving the problem. To make the situation worse, it is very hard for the leader to decline the offer to be a deity.


Not only can the group shift to a non-work mode, but the leader can also lead them there. Often, when the anxiety level goes up, the leader gets scared and uncomfortable. They cope with the anxiety by taking control of the process and shutting everybody else out. Either way, the group begins moving into the dependence mode.


Here are some common signs of dependence in an organization:


  • All the critical group issues are brought to you in private to solve.
  • If, in the group setting, there is almost no cross-talk and all the tension is focused on you.
  • If you feel like the joy has gone out of your life, like everything is being sucked out of you, and you are carrying the entire company on your back.


Work always feels good; BAMS always feels bad. If you want to know what state your group is in, check your gut after the meeting. If you are feeling charged, energized, and enthusiastic, like you could have worked longer, work has predominated. If you are feeling angry, trapped, resentful, impotent, or some other bad feeling, BAMS has predominated.


Any leader who agrees to meet the unlimited, full-blown unconscious dependence of a group has set up the very conditions that will lead to their downfall. Sooner or later, all messiahs get crucified. BAMS is not a normal state of mind; people don’t think rationally. When a leader agrees to be the messiah, sooner or later he will violate the unconscious expectations of the group. He will turn out to be human and make a bad call. At that point, the group will kill the leader.


Prior to that happening, the group will move into pairing, where the people in the group break into subgroups or political camps. The shared unconscious assumption is the need for rebirth or regeneration. The subgroups then go about trying to fmd the new messiah, which can either be a person or idea.


When you start hearing “if only…” talk, you know the group has moved into a BAMS state. For example, “if only we had TQM in this company, everything would be great” or “if only we had a new MIS system, all our problems would be solved.”


Fight or flight is when the group kills the leader. The group is already in pieces so you usually get both fight and flight behavior at the same time. If the group manages to stay together for any period of time, it is usually the same person who leads the fight to do the dirty work of killing the leader. The shared basic assumption is that the group needs to do whatever it can to survive. What they are trying to ensure is the survival of their BAMS.


BAMS is cyclical. It begins with dependence, moves to pairing, and then goes to fight or flight. The group brings in a new messiah and the whole process starts over again.




If you accept these premises as being true, the big question is: “How do you get out of trouble?” One company uses the following process:


STEP 1: Anybody in the team who realizes the team is in a BAMS has the responsibility to call it. This is the production line equivalent of shutting down the assembly line when a problem occurs. Too often, the team realizes they are in trouble but they wait for the leader to stop it. That is especially bad if the leader is the problem. Make anyone and everyone on the team responsible for calling a BAMS situation.

STEP 2: They ask the work questions, “What are we afraid of taking about?”

STEP 3: They take however much time it requires to identify the real issue and then deal with it on the spot. Some form of this process can work for any company. The key is to initially recognize and stop the non-work (BAMS) mode.




Valence means natural tendency. When it comes to basic assumption behavior, many people have a valence, a favorite place to go when they stop working. For example, some people have a very high tendency towards dependence; others have a high tendency to demand dependence and become an autocrat. Some have a high tendency for avoidance; some have a high tendency to fight.


One of the strongest valences is the tendency to pair. People learn to get things done in organizations through politics, so it’s natural to form coalitions and subgroups when work is being avoided. If your valence (whatever it is) is strong enough, it can take the group out of the work mode and put it into a BANS.





Work groups:

  • Have rules for proceeding, simple controls to get the job done.
  • Have common purpose.
  • Can lose and gain some members without losing identity.
  • Have freedom from subgroups and minimum pairing.
  • . Value each member. You can’t have a great team if any member is not valued.
  • Have the ability to face and cope with discontent.


TEC – Group Dynamics – The Inside Story on Teams and Leading Them – Pat Murray