Group Theory

There is the saying that “we come into the world alone, and leave alone and everything else is a gift”. Whilst our significant one to one relationships are crucial to our emotional wellbeing, it is an understanding of who we are with groups, family work or social, that is at least as important to good emotional health. The purpose of this article is to go through a few of the key theories around groups, how groups develop, group conflict, some personal thoughts and experiences, and signpost to additional resources. 

When people join together in any kind of group setting, it becomes a living and growing entity. Some people act quite differently in a group setting to the way they act with people 1-1, and can either thrive or struggle with the different dynamics and form that group relationships take to 1-1. When people work together in a group, all sorts of things happen: allegiances are made, cliques formed within the wider group, there are issues around control and dominance, and sometimes “scapegoating” of an individual(s) can take place; this is what is referred to as the group process or group dynamic, and often gets overlooked in work settings for the apparent “chalice” of the task.

There are a number of aspects of the group process or group dynamic including:

  • Patterns of communication and coordination within the group
  • Patterns of influence
  • Roles / relationship of people within the group
  • Patterns of dominance (e.g. who leads, who defers)
  • The balance of task focus versus social focus
  • The level of group effectiveness, and the clarity of what the group is there to do
  • How conflict is handled within the group
  • The emotional state of the group as a whole, or what Wilfred Bion called “basic assumptions”

Bion and basic assumptions theory

groups 5Bion’s theory is based in large part on his work managing a rehabilitation unit for psychiatric patients during the Second World War, and his later work at the Tavistock Clinic.  His central theory is that in every group, 2 groups exist; the “work group” and the “basic assumption group”; effectively, two dimensions of behaviour within the group. The work group is primarily concerned with tasks and focus of the group, and usually in groups that work well, there is a clear focus and purpose. Bion was interested in why groups sometimes don’t work and are ineffective, and reflected that this was because some basic assumptions were at play.

A group works on tacit assumptions “as if” something was at play, and Bion describes 3 types:

  • The “dependency” group depends strongly on a leader where idealisation and potentially later a devaluation of the Leaders happen; the Church may be seen as an example
  • The “fight-flight” group works on the basis of a common enemy, and by fighting or fleeing from someone or something: the Army could be seen as an example.
  • The “pairing group” is a bit more complicated, and works on the basis of 2 people getting together to carry out the task of a leader, and act as a “saviour” to the group; the old adage of “aristocracy” might be used as an example.

Schutz’s theories of inclusion, control and openness

groups 6This theory focuses on the interpersonal underworld of a small group. The theory is based on the belief that when people get together in a group, there are three main interpersonal needs they are looking to obtain – inclusion in the group, affection and openness, and control. Schutz developed a measuring instrument later from the basic theory called FIRO-B, which is still used extensively in teams and work groups.
Inclusion:  the first phase of a group looks at whether group members feel significant, and to what extent they feel included or excluded by colleagues; in a potential scapegoating context, people can be excluded, or indeed exclude themselves, and this could  manifest itself particularly with new members coming into a group. Often, these issues are unspoken and part of a hidden agenda; they may not even be at a conscious level within the group and are “out of awareness”. There is a maxim for Facilitators that “you will always experience what a group cannot tell you about itself”

Control: once the issues of inclusion have been resolved, the group begins to focus on issues of leadership and structure. This can include competing for airtime, advancing ideas with the group, or asking the group for help. The approach people take will depend on their need for a level of control, or deference to others.

Affection/openness: during the third phase, people focus on the need to build emotional attachments. This is often expressed at the end of each time when the group meets, or at the end of the group’s lifecycle.

Systems Theory

Systems theory finds commonalities between individual beings and groups of beings. The theory sees groups as living systems that connect, work together, and evolve over time. Relationships are constantly interacting and changing both within and between themselves. Whilst group boundaries provide some stability, they are open to various life forces which pull and pull on the group; a “stormy sea of changes both within and outside the group”

Some core principles of system theory applied to groups are:

  • Interpersonal systems are holistic: as people we need social bonds and relationships for our emotional wellbeing. Most people have strong bonds with formal and informal groups such as couples, families, circles of friends, work groups, community groups etc. When people come together in a group a psychological boundary develops around them and separates them from other people, and can often make them stronger and different; consider the less skilful teams that win championships as they work together as a strong unit, or the evidence that family experts now recognise that the health of the whole family must be improved in order to help individual members
  • The principles also work on the basis of “complementarity”; that each member of the group makes a beneficial contribution of ideas which are not available otherwise; each member is needed, and no one is there by accident
  • Group systems are always changing: as changes happen for individuals, this impacts on them, and creates a “vibration” which results in change in a group. This can lead from a period of stability, to stress, to a period of dissonance, and then finally to change. This change cycle helps groups constantly change to things happening within and outside the group
  • Systems theory also sees groups through lifespan changes including; birth and infancy, early development, adolescence, maturity, ageing and disintegration, when the group is no longer viable
  • Pattern dependency; groups over time tend to develop a self-organising nature which works to maintain stability and minimise threats. They create patterns to meet needs, cope with stress and conflict, and to deal with the demands from outside. The early spontaneity of relationships is replaced by a reliance on patterns, and an unwillingness to change.

Group Development and phases

The goal of most research on group development is to learn why and how small groups change over time. To do this, researchers examine patterns of change and continuity in groups over time. Aspects of a group that might be studied include the quality of the output produced by a group, the type and frequency of its activities, its cohesiveness, the existence of conflict, amongst others.

Perhaps the best known of these models is Tuckers 4 stage model for teams, designed in 1965:

As the team forms, members tend to be on their ‘best behavior’ and work on getting along 

As the team gets closer, conflict develops.  Disagreements build and cliques appear
Rules of conduct develop and members discuss their differences rather than argue
As the team reaches maturity, members are open and supportive of each other.