Team coaching – part 1

How do you coach teams? In a three-part series, we provide some answers. This month, Andrew Day looks at unconscious dynamics in teams

A management team procrastinates and consistently avoids making an important decision in the face of business uncertainties.

A board suffers from continuous conflict, disagreement and competition to the extent that factions form and sub-groups fight with each other.

A design team experiences a sense of deadness, inertia and detachment which impedes its creativity and productivity.

At one level, each of these situations could be considered to be unrelated. At another, they could be understood as manifestations of unconscious group dynamics. Unconscious in the sense that all the members of the group are unwittingly contributing to a dysfunctional situation without fully understanding how or why.

Team coaches have to be able to understand and work with unconscious processes. It is in these moments that a team coach adds real value in helping teams to perform and realise their potential.

This article provides a short introduction to some of the theory on unconscious group dynamics and describes how a coach can intervene and work with a team.

What are unconscious dynamics?

We have all found ourselves in groups which are stuck and unproductive. When this happens, we can feel confused, frustrated and helpless. The group appears to have a life of its own and to act in a manner that undermines its purpose. Freud observed this phenomenon nearly 100 years ago when he stated: “Something is unmistakably at work [in groups] in the nature of compulsion to do the same as the others…”1.

Unconscious dynamics cannot be directly observed, only inferred from our observations of how members of a group are interacting with each other, particularly when individuals’ accounts of what they are doing contradicts their actual behaviour. They therefore provide an explanatory framework for group phenomena that are hard, or impossible to explain with cognitive or behavioural models. 

From a psychodynamic perspective, we can listen to the manifest content of a group’s process, namely what is being consciously said or talked about by the members of the group, and simultaneously the covert content, or the unconscious, latent and associative meanings of what is being spoken about by the group. The covert level is associated with underlying fantasies, fears, anxieties or concerns shared by members of the group. It can be thought of as an unarticulated metaphor that is influencing the group’s behaviour. To illustrate, I recently worked with a management team in a utilities company who acted ‘as if’ they could perform magic by ‘pulling out of the hat’ an engineering plan that would make dramatic improvements in efficiencies.  In my judgment, this was a way of the team avoiding overwhelming anxieties of failure, shame and being blamed. To understand a group, we have to listen to both the manifest and covert levels.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion2 started to study the presence of unconscious dynamics in groups at depth. He observed that, at times, the functioning of a group is profoundly affected by unconscious and unacknowledged emotions and irrational feelings such as anxiety, fear, hate, love, hope, anger and guilt. While these feelings remained unrecognised and avoided, he noted that the group struggled to perform its task. His great insight was that there are points in a group’s life when all the members behave ‘as if’ they held the same basic assumption or metaphor. He called these states ‘Basic Assumptions’. When operating from a basic assumption the group loses sight of its purpose, cannot think about its work and is unable to reflect on how it is behaving.

Bion noted three forms of basic assumption activity: Dependency, Fight-Flight and Pairing. Each of which are associated with distinct emotional states and behaviours. When acting according to one of these basic assumptions the group is stuck and unable to engage effectively with its work. This framework represents one theory for understanding group dynamics. Each basic assumption is described below.

  • In Dependency, the group acts ‘as if’ the aims of the leader is to protect and nurture the group. Members of the group occupy a dependent position, feeling needy and helpless, in relation to the leader who is expected to be omnipotent. He or she is relied upon to provide thinking and initiative on behalf of the group. The group culture becomes one of passivity and expectation. When the leader ultimately fails then the group rejects the leader and searches for a replacement who can take on the role of saviour for the group.
  • In Fight-Flight, the group behaves ‘as if’ it is faced with a threat to its existence. The group is confronted with a choice of whether to flee or to engage in a fight with an enemy. Any opposition to the ideology of the group cannot be tolerated.
    In flight, the group avoids facing some difficult problem. It may arrive late, put issues off or talk endlessly about irrelevant and non-consequential issues. In fight, the group is characterised by aggressiveness and hostility towards others. The leader is mobilised by the group to lead the attack or flight. 
  • In Pairing, the group acts ‘as if’ a future idea or event will meet the needs of the group and address any problems it is experiencing. The atmosphere of the group is full of hope and expectation for the future but at the expense of facing current difficulties. Two members of the group carry out the work of the group on the assumption that they will give birth to a new idea or solution. The group waits in anticipation. 

These dynamics can be hard to identify. Clues that they are present include: feeling confused and frustrated by the group, a felt sense that the team is avoiding in some way its primary task, an underlying sense of anxiety or emotionality that is not being commented on or discussed by the group. It also helps to imagine if the group was to continue to behave in this manner what would happen in the long-term. If you conclude that it will ultimately fail then it is likely that the group is enacting an unconscious dynamic. 

When the group is trying to keep strong emotions and feelings from being experienced and expressed this takes up considerable energy on behalf of the group. This is energy that is directed away from the work of the group and therefore impedes its performance. For instance, several years ago I worked with the leadership team of a business unit in an engineering company. As we gathered at the start of an offsite, they started to converse about the previous day’s management conference. The members of the group complained about feeling criticised and blamed for the performance of the firm. This conversation continued with great energy and emotion to the extent that I found it hard to make a start on the agenda. As my sense of being ignored grew, I began to think that the group was engaged in flight from the task, for the day, of working on its development. I intervened by naming some of the underlying feelings of hurt, anger and vulnerability that the group appeared to be expressing. This helped the team to start to talk to each other about its anxieties and after a short amount of time the group had settled to the extent that we were able to focus on the agenda for the day. By expressing its underlying hurt and anger the group was able to re-engage with its task.

Implications for team coaching

To help a group explore its dynamics requires a safe, contained environment in which the group is willing to take risks in disclosing anxieties, assumptions and feelings. This should be the starting point for a team coach. The coach or consultant can establish a ‘safe enough’ environment by contracting explicitly with the group around their role, the purpose of the work and how it will be undertaken. Clear boundaries of time, space and confidentiality also help provide containment of anxieties.

A central principle when intervening is to focus on the group’s here-and-now experience.

This is because the group dynamic is maintained by feelings, anxieties and assumptions that exist in the present. If the group focuses most of its attention on people outside of the room or the distant past or future then it is likely to be avoiding something important in the present. Interventions that can help a group to become more conscious of its dynamics include:

  • Supporting the team to explore and confront the real, and imagined, challenges and difficulties in its environment rather than avoid them by blaming others, engaging in ‘wishful thinking’ or avoiding the realities of its situation.
  • Helping the team to clarify its task and reflect on whether it is working on its task or engaged in some other unconscious process that does not help it to achieve its goals.
  • ‘Suspending the agenda’ and encouraging the team to reflect on how it is working together. Who is taking on which psychological roles? How are members relating to each other? What is the group learning about how it is working together?
  • Helping the team to notice and reflect on patterns of interaction within the team and with the wider system.
  • Facilitating the exploration of underlying anxieties and emotions within the group that are being expressed through the behaviour of individual members or the group as a whole.

When a team starts to talk about its dynamics and connect them with underlying emotions and concerns then it has started to work on its dynamics. At this point we start to notice shifts and changes in a team’s dynamics
and effectiveness.

In summary, the unconscious emotional life of a group can impede its performance and prevent the group from realising its potential. A team coach can act as a catalyst in helping the group to explore difficult or painful anxieties which can help it to redirect its energy to its primary task.

Next month we will be exploring the shadow sides of Boards

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.


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