A Theorist Worth Remembering – Wilfred Bion (1897-1979)

The best way to put new knowledge to the test is through experience. I have come to recognize the power of that statement in the engagement process. Relationships, whether personal or professional demand work. Blood, sweat and tears come to mind. The challenge I believe we all face is to associated with protecting our sterilized image of ourselves. The fact that defenses are raised in the interaction process, tell us that protecting the self is of great importance especially in groups.

I have come across the work of Wilfred Bion, a psychoanalyst whose work can be  applied to the understanding of human relations. I want to share his observations and challenge you to look at any interaction that struggled because of these variables.

Bion articulated that his study of groups in a clinical setting pointed to two variables: the work assumption group and the basic assumption group. The work assumption group addresses the task, structure and the roles each member will occupy. Once we understand what needs to be done (task related), members of a group can function in accordance with meeting expectations. But life is not so orderly.

The basic assumption group dynamics appear to be those behaviours that lie beneath the surface, causing disruption in the way members of the group perceive each other. He noted three types of basic assumption groups: the dependency, the fight-flight, and the pairing groups.

The dependency group: The focus of this group is to be assured of their security and reach out to an individual to assume the leadership role. Group members act as if they know nothing and rely heavily on the leader to make their lives comfortable. The leader is thrust into the role as the “messiah” and once he fails to meet the group’s idealized expectation’s, he is quickly pushed aside as the group tries to locate another.

The fight-flight group: The assumption that prevails in this kind of group is that the group has formed to protect itself and this can be done by fighting or fleeing from someone or something. Both responses are action oriented and also require a leader. The assumption is that whoever is called to lead should be capable of  providing direction when there is need to attack or run. Bion suggests that operating in this mode, the group does not respond well to intellectual stimulation. The leader’s attempt to have the group participate in introspection on their work habits will be rejected and instead, will be replaced by behaviours like inattentiveness, absenteeism and tardiness.

Pairing: In this scenario, the assumption is that the group has been formed to produce a leader. When active, the group is held in rapt attention and hope dwells among them. The group gets along because they hold to a belief of better will come. If something emerges from the group that points to hope, they will reject it because they would have weakened their position, that of living in eternal hope.

Bion’s work has allowed me to look at how groups and individual members adapt and sequester themselves as a mechanism to protect themselves. As I dig deeper into the literature on conflict, there are so many solutions to be found in how organizations tackle the issue of dysfunction in groups. People, by virtue of their diverse worldviews add several layers of complexity to the study of human relations. Revisiting the contributions made by others in the field may lend some texture and context to our current concerns with the management of relationships.

© Suzette Henry-Campbell 2014





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