The group unconscious as a working proposition
dramatically changes the way we think about
and work with groups. No longer can we be
satisfied with superficial explanations for
such behavior in groups as absenteeism, fluctuations
in the energy of the group, or sudden changes
of topic in the discussion. When we work with
the idea of a group unconscious we are bound
to ask the question, "What does this
behavior communicate about the group?"
use the word "group' to mean a psychological
group and not just an association of people.
The members of a psychological group come
together for a common purpose. They develop
relationships not only with one another but
also to "the group-as-a-whole".
The group-as-a-whole has an existence for
group members separate from that of individual
members. Members become attached to the group-as-a-whole.
This attachment is often sharply apparent
in the feelings of loss when the group comes
to an end.
The Group Unconscious
group unconscious is that part of a group
member's unconscious which he or she has in
common with other members. It is a repository
among other things for the group's history
and culture. The individual's unconscious
is in communication with each other member
and collectively this network of links constitutes
the group unconscious.
The group unconscious
is bound up with important group processes.
For example, we are all familiar with the
phenomenon of informal subgroups discussing
group issues and events outside meetings.
This is a sign of low trust in the group.
Furthermore, it can create an impediment to
the development of trust within the group.
We might make a ground rule that members report
these subgroup conversations to the group
- if the group is able to do it. However,
experiences in intensive groups have shown
that even if these breaches of the group are
not shared, members are aware of them at an
unconscious level. This awareness provokes
fantasies and feelings which affect communication
in the group.
The group defense mechanisms
that Wilfred Bion observed constitute another
aspect of the group unconscious. Bion noticed
certain patterns of behavior that occur with
great regularity in all groups. He termed
these dependency, fight/flight and pairing.
He formulated these observations as his Basic
Assumption (BA) Group theory. These BA groups
coexist at all times with what he called the
Work Group. The Work Group is that time when
the group is fully functioning and task-oriented.
When an issue emerges in the group unconscious
which provokes anxiety the BA group overwhelms
the Work group mode. For example, instead
of pursuing their stated goals, a group may
fall into fighting among themselves. A group
of normally resourceful people may find themselves
passive and waiting to be told what to do.
The group members are caught up in an unconscious
collusion to protect themselves against the
felt threat. The question that must be addressed
is "What is provoking the group's anxiety
and how can this issue be brought into the
the group unconscious is a mode of communication
in the group, although not one that can be
directly controlled. This communication is
at a symbolic level. Certain symbols and figures
are embedded in the group's conversation and
register at a pre-conscious or unconscious
level in group members. Think of it as a coded
communication which bypasses our consciousness.
For instance, images of policemen and spies
suggest that at an unconscious level the group
is experiencing considerable anxiety. In one
case, a group on a Team Management training
course had worked together very productively
for three days and had become quite close.
At the last break on the last day they began
to talk about peripheral arterial disease
and people losing their fingers and toes.
Talking openly about a sense of loss at the
end of a rewarding group felt too risky, so
the group found another way to do it unconsciously.
A facilitator can become attuned to these
communications by listening to the group in
a state of suspended attention and noticing
the thoughts and feelings that emerge into
his or her mind.
All of these group
phenomena are very evident in intensive groups
that meet together with a purpose of investigating
group process (T-groups, personal development
groups, psychotherapy groups). The same phenomena
are also present in groups that develop in
organizations. Although the character of these
groups' activities and culture make the processes
less visible, they are still active. They
affect the groups effectiveness, and
they carry important information for the group.
The group unconscious is a controversial
idea, yet we need this construct to explain
a range of phenomena we observe in groups.
The concept risks attributing an existence
to something outside of the members of the
group that has a power to influence the group.
However, it is not such a strange idea if
we recognize that human beings are extraordinarily
sensitive at a pre-conscious level to nuances
and symbols in speech. Combine this with the
power of non-verbal communication, and we
can recognize a considerable capacity for
unconscious communication within a group.