Group Dynamics. ISP Training Course


ISP Training Course, John Whitwell and Mark Thomas, June 2005

Aims and Objectives

To gain a greater understanding of how groups operate.

To look at our own experiences of groups.
To understand the surface behaviour of groups.
To consider what goes on beneath the surface of groups.

What is a group? When does a collection of individuals become a group?

EXAMPLE – sunny afternoon on a beach – families, individuals minding their own business. Suddenly cries for “help” are heard coming from the sea. Some people come together to help. One of them becomes a natural leader and in this emergency gives instructions which are obeyed. The rescue is successful. There is a good feeling in this impromptu group. They are congratulated. Perhaps they disperse at this point or perhaps they agree to meet later to share info about the outcome of their rescue. This is clearly a group. They formed to carry out a purpose / task. There was a structure and possibly a hierarchy based on knowledge and experience of command. Whether they continue as a group may depend on the seriousness of the situation eg., survivors of a rail crash may form a self-help group or a pressure group to get compensation and / or improvements in safety on the railways. They may decide to meet again on the anniversary of the particular event. One of the members of this group may decide to produce a newsletter to keep the group informed. If they become a campaigning group they may need to get into fundraising. And so it may go on.

Family Origins of Groups

Everyone has more experience and knowledge of groups than they are consciously aware. It’s intuitive. We grew up in groups – family, extended family, neighbours, school etc. We have internalised these experiences of groups from a very young age and they affect our attitude to and behaviour in groups now. We’ll be going into this later.

What is “group dynamics”?

  • It is what goes on within groups.
  • It is about the surface behaviour between members of the group.
  • It is also about what is going on beneath the surface eg., thinking about the meaning of the observable behaviour – the feelings that individuals bring to the group, the feelings they have in the group and the feelings they take away from the group.

Thinking about the group as a whole – a group mind – when we say, “That was a difficult group” or “The group felt depressed” or “That group was really positive and volunteered for everything”. What do we mean? Are we saying every individual in the group felt the same simultaneously or are we saying that there was a definable quality about the group as a whole, which was bigger than the sum of its parts? Is there such a thing as a group mind? We will be coming back to this later.

Group leaders or facilitators who have had a lot of experience, over many years, with many groups, are humbled by the fact that each group has its own distinct chemistry, of which they are a part, but only a part and that the success or failure of a group doesn’t depend solely on the leader.

Characteristics Of An Effective Group

  • Shared aims and objectives.
  • A sense of commitment to the group.
  • Acceptance of group values, systems and rules.
  • A feeling of mutual trust.
  • Full participation by all members and decision making by consensus.
  • A free flow of information and communications.
  • The open expression of feelings and disagreements and the ability to resolve conflict.

The Life Of Groups

Groups have a formal and informal life. The formal life, or content, is the purpose and aims of the group.

However groups also have an informal life, which is the process. This is made up of what is happening between group members and may include conflict, co-operation, support or participation. These group dynamics are influenced by how people feel when they are in a group.

Group Development And Maturity

A group formed to serve purposes such as exploration, learning and personal growth will tend to develop through a predictable sequence of stages. Although the accounts use different terms, the general sequence which emerges is:

    An initial phase when there is uncertainty in the group and people stay on their guard. Although anxious members find out about each other and establish their own identity.
    A stage when members get to know each other better. They begin to recognise that power is an issue within the group and start to challenge leaders and each other. This often leads to more meaningful group processes.
    A stage where things begin to settle down and patterns, or norms, become established.
    A highly productive stage when people have come to trust each other and are able to work effectively as a team.
    A final stage – if the group has to come to an end where members are beginning to disengage but also feeling that they will miss the group.

(Tuckman 1965, Brown 1979)

Group Work Skills

  1. Interpersonal Skills:
    These are needed to enable group members to communicate with one another and to ensure that the group tasks are carried out to everyone’s satisfaction.
  2. Receiving Skills
    – listening carefully to what each other has to say
    – trying to understand the feelings behind what is being said
    – checking out statements to understand correctly and accurately that what is heard is what is said
    – focussing and clarifying so that others are helped to communicate more effectively
    – interpreting, checking out and making appropriate responses to non-verbal messages
  3. Feedback Skills
    To give appropriate feedback to people on what they are saying and on how they are performing in the group. It is important:
    – to be constructively critical, commenting on what the other might do to change something as opposed to being destructive, with the intention of putting the person down (That was a stupid idea).
    – to concentrate any personal feedback on behaviour rather than on whole personality and therefore avoid making moralistic sounding statements or personal judgements of others, eg, “You haven’t said anything so far……”, not, “Why are you such a lazy person….”.
    – to criticise the behaviour rather than the person. – to be responsible for what you yourself feel and think and do, not project your feelings onto others, eg, “I feel very angry about…..”, not, “Everything about this group is so boring and dead”.

Bion’s Theory Of Groups

In groups there are two agendas:

  • There is the overt and conscious purpose for the group’s existence – its work task or primary task.
  • There is also another hidden agenda – one which the participants are usually unaware. This concerns the life of the group itself.

Bion’s theory of groups is based on some assumptions about people.

  • Things are not as they seem.
  • The continuing and continuous influence of very early life and experience into adulthood.
  • We develop psychological defences to cope with anxiety, to make it more tolerable:
    Denial Cynicism Withdrawal Intellectualisation
  • There are primitive defences in groups e.g. splitting and projection.

Wilfred Bion was a psychiatrist who worked with the army during the Second World War, and who later became an influential psychoanalyst. Bion and others combined basic research on group processes with the use of group processes to raise morale, to treat psychiatric casualties of war, to improve officer selection procedures and to increase the effectiveness of work groups.

After the Second World War, the productiveness of this research led to the growth of social psychiatry and the development of therapeutic communities where patients live together and their psychiatric treatment occurs in groups.

As a result of his work with groups at Northfield military psychiatric hospital Bion developed his theory that in groups there are two agendas:

  • There is the overt and conscious purpose for the group’s existence – its work task or primary task. Insofar as the group attends to this task it is functioning as a work group.
  • There is also another hidden agenda – one which the participants are usually not aware of. This concerns the life of the group itself – a spontaneous but unconscious concern about tensions within the group, relationships and emotions.

Bion’s theory of groups is based on some assumptions about what makes people tick.

  • Things are not as they seem. Human behaviour and consciousness is largely determined by unconscious motives which may give rise to irrational feelings and behaviour. Powerful feelings can be generated in families, work groups, large groups and crowds, sometimes for no obvious reasons.
  • The continuing, and continuous, influence of very early life and experience into adulthood ie., very early experience leads to the formation of lasting internal worlds. In all cultures, the earliest group experiences take place within some form of family or close kinship system. These experiences of families and close kin relationships survive as building blocks for the way we experience, behave and use others in group settings through the rest of life. Group membership in our adult life can make us feel somewhat lost and childlike again. Anxiety can be aroused in groups by unconsciously re-experiencing sibling behaviours such as rivalries, envy, bullying, or not being able to make oneself heard. The behaviour of the group leader eg., feeling pressured, unappreciated or singled out as special, can stir up feelings from the past about one’s parents or teachers.
  • We develop psychological defences to cope with anxiety, to make it more tolerable. What we are talking about here is not anxiety about physical dangers but anxiety which is an early warning system of psychological pain eg a common anxiety in groups is about being lost or swallowed up and retaining our individual sense of identity. Examples of defences :- DENIAL, rejection of all difficulties by denying their existence. CYNICISM, the individual responds with contempt to the concerns of the other group members. WITHDRAWAL, dealing with anxiety by withdrawing from the emotional life of the group – this could be by silence and lead to leaving the group altogether. INTELLECTUALISATION – being clever to avoid feelings.
  • Primitive defences in groups – these originate from a very early age, before language develops eg., SPLITTING keeps the good and loving parts of experience separate from the bad and hateful ones. PROJECTION – infants may be unable to tolerate the strength of the bad feelings and may defend themselves by getting rid of or projecting the pain and conflict. In groups adults may, as individuals resort to projection. They place those feelings or aspects of themselves that they find too difficult to own into other group members (in phantasy) and these others are then experienced as exhibiting the unwanted traits. The angry one – the anxious one etc. USE FLIPCHART TO SHOW OLYA’S DIAGRAM OF PROJECTION. Projection can have a positive side – the abilities and strengths of members of the group can be projected into one person ? a leader to get a job done eg Sven Goran Eriksson or Tony Blair.

Bion maintained that there are 3 basis assumptions that influence how groups behave.

  1. Basic assumption dependency
  2. Basic assumption fight/flight
  3. Basic assumption pairing

Bion’s theory examines why groups don’t carry out the real work or the task of the group. Why do they often get diverted from this? This is because of the hidden agenda – the basic assumption of each group, which is usually about reducing anxiety or avoiding psychological pain. We are usually unaware of these basic assumptions ie., they are unconscious. Bion maintained that there are 3 basic assumptions that influence how groups behave.

  1. Basic assumption Dependency (BaD). The aim is to attain security through, and have its members protected by one individual. The leader is idealised and made into a kind of god who will take care of his / her children. The leader is bound to fail to meet these expectations and will be replaced.
  2. Basic assumption fight / flight (BaF). These are 2 sides of the same coin. The assumption is that the group has met to preserve itself and this can be done only by fighting someone or something or by running away. Action is essential. The leader is expected to recognise danger and enemies, and needs to be a bit paranoid.
  3. Basic assumption Pairing (BaP). Here the group acts as if it has met to produce a person or an idea which will rescue the group from its difficulties. The underlying belief is that whatever the problems or needs of the group may be in the present, there will exist something or somebody in the future who will solve it – a kind of hope. The group is then intent on bringing two of its group members together so that out of this pairing a messiah will be born. This may be a friendly pairing where the two have a lot in common and monopolise the conversation while the rest look on. Or it may be hostile with the two locked in battle while the rest look on.

Bion also pointed out that while basic assumptions in the main interfere with the work task of the group, like naughty impulses, they can also be mobilised to aid the work task eg, BaD is useful for caring for people in hospitals; BaFF is necessary in the army especially during a war (peace-keeping is difficult for armies); BaP gives hope to the therapist / client relationship.


Where a group has learnt to work together you will find both a common purpose and a high degree of member participation. A common enemy will unite a group very quickly. This is a weak solution to group cohesion because the group’s internal hostility is projected outwards.

LEADERSHIP – A leader is in some respects a parent figure ie., we respond to him / her as we responded to our parents in the past.

An authoritarian leader is a strong one and may also be loved. The group will follow him / her anywhere and he will not be criticised, both from fear of reprisals and because to criticise him is to criticise the group itself. The demand for complete obedience leads to resentment and hostility. In authoritarian classrooms learning tends to be passive and merely soaked up, instead of active and creative. (Bion’s BaD)

Weak leadership won’t help a group learn to work together because it is unable to guarantee security and unable to find a common purpose. This leads to an increase in fear and resentment.

Optimum leadership – here the identification with the leader is positive but quite mild. This leader guides without domination. The group is not afraid of him nor he of it. The parallel is with the good parent. He is trusted, can be criticised, possesses competence, is a reliable authority figure when needed, encourages experiment and exploration. This leads to a democratic atmosphere, to satisfaction and personal growth. This type of leader gets the most from each member of the group. He may have to restrain the dominant ones and encourage the timid. It is in learning these attitudes and ways of behaving that the group learns to work together. Eventually the good leader will be made increasingly redundant in the group.

In relation to a school : Helping a group to work together may involve preparing special material and having good physical conditions, BUT essentially it is the leader’s (teacher’s) own personality that is his or her main tool.


  1. Select a group of 12.
  2. Ask them to select a leader / chair.
  3. Give them a controversial topic to discuss.
  4. The remainder to sit on the outside and observe.
  5. Select 4 observers to write notes on what they see going on in the group.
  6. Afterwards have a debriefing in this order:
    • The group itself
    • The informal observers
    • The formal observers