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 by David Armstrong


This paper was written for and presented to members attending a study weekend at the Tavistock Institute, organised by the Institute’s Leadership and Organisation Unit in February 2002. The title of the weekend was ‘Reflections on Group Relations, Past Experience and Future Possibilities’. Those attending included past members or staff of one or more of the Institute’s Group Relations Conferences, together with a small number of interested others.

It can be said, I think, without undue exaggeration that the origin of Group Relations, as we are familiar with it, both as a theory and as a method of exploration, is to be found in Wilfred Bion’s distinction between the ‘work group’ and the ‘basic’ or ‘basic assumption group’, where these terms are deployed to capture and define two aspects or modes of mental activity identifiable within, though not necessarily confined to, all group life. 

Whereas, however, the concept of the basic assumptions has been a continuing focus of attention, curiosity and puzzlement, both in the literature and in the practice of Group Relations, that of the ‘work group’ has in my view tended to be taken for granted, as if it were quite evident and unproblematic. Or as if its role were simply to get the much more intriguing theme of basic assumption functioning off the ground. 

I believe this neglect to be a mistake, which limits and may sometimes distort both our understanding and practice. This paper is my attempt to clarify, deploy or perhaps simply exorcise this unease. 

Before turning to Bion’s characterisation of the work group, I want to emphasise something I alluded to a moment ago. Both of the two defining terms in Bion’s account of experiences in groups refer to aspects of mental or proto-mental activity (that is activity on the borderline between somatic and psychic life). In this sense, there is no such thing as a work group or a basic assumption group per se. There are only two modes of mental functioning, intrinsic to all our mental life and always in interplay, just as conscious and unconscious processes are always in interplay.

Bion regards these two modes of mental functioning as derivatives of what he terms our “inheritance as a group species”. On this view, one might say, our destiny as human animals is from the outset embedded in the group and subject to its vagaries, whether or not an actual group is present. As he puts it, in the Re-View at the end of Experiences in Groups: 

the individual is and always has been, a member of a group, even if his membership of it consists of behaving in such a way that reality is given to an idea that he does not belong to a group at all. The individual is a group animal at war, both with the group and with those aspects of his personality that constitute his ‘groupishness’…………In fact no individual, however isolated in time and space, should be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology”(Bion 1961 pp168-9).* 

Both the work group and the basic group are manifestations of group psychology and neither as it were can escape the clutches of each other. We are fated to experience the tension between the two, here, now and always. Anything else is an illusion. 

Now I think that one source of difficulty in taking on board the implications of this view, particularly in respect of work group functioning (and this is a difficulty that Bion’s own language occasionally plays into) is that the way such functioning is described makes the work group sound something like a purely intentional object, created for a specific purpose and structured in accordance with rational principles to do with the relation between means and ends. 

So for example, introducing the idea of the Work Group in the fifth chapter of Experiences in Groups, Bion begins: 

when a group meet it meets for a specific task and in most human activities today cooperation has to achieved by sophisticated means …… rules of procedure are adopted; there is usually an established administrative machinery operated by officials who are recognizable as such by the rest of the group and so on”(Bion, op cit, pp 98-9).

He notes that “ the capacity for cooperation on this level is great as anybody’s experience of groups will show” and, after differentiating this capacity from what is evident on the basic assumption level (which he will later refer to as ‘valency’) continues: 

in my experience the psychological structure of the work group is very powerful, and it is noteworthy that it survives with a vitality that would suggest that fears that the work group will be swamped by the emotional states proper to the basic assumptions are quite out of proportion.” 

Later in the Re-View chapter that concludes the book he returns to this theme in distinguishing his views from Freud’s: 

when Freud quotes Le Bon as saying that ‘Groups have never thirsted after truth. They demand illusions and cannot do without them,’ I do not feel able to agree with that description…I attribute great force and influence to the work group, which through its concern with reality is compelled to employ the methods of science in no matter how rudimentary a form. I think one of the striking things about a group is that, despite the influence of the basic assumptions it is the W Group that triumphs in the long run” (Bion, op cit, p135) 

In these passages there is, for me at least, an intriguing and somewhat unsettling shift of tone or register: from dispassionate to passionate, or disengagement to engagement, which is also mirrored in my own response as a reader. 

What is it that gives the Work Group as sketched in the first sentence I cited the power, vitality, force and influence the subsequent sentences attribute to it? 

Following his introduction of the term, Bion distinguishes three elements or ideas in the “mental phenomena” of the Work Group that are, he says, “ linked together…just as the emotions in the basic assumption group are linked together.” These are respectively the “idea of development” rather than “full equipment of instinct”; the “ idea of the value of a rational or scientific approach to development, (in however embryonic a form)” and also “ as an inevitable concomitant of the idea of development (an acceptance) of the validity of learning by experience” (Bion, op cit pp 98-99) 

Work group functioning on this view is a developmental achievement and participation in such activity is possible, Bion says “only to individuals with years of training and capacity for experience that has permitted them to develop mentally” (I think, incidentally, that this view may be overstated, unless one keeps in mind that the beginnings, at least, of achieved maturity, which is perhaps another way of stating what Bion has in mind, can well predate our conventional views of adulthood).

How does Bion see the nature of the links he identifies in work group mentality? It arises out of the Work Group’s commitment to action, or as it puts it elsewhere to “ the development of thought designed for translation into action” (Bion, op cit,p145) Because: 

action inevitably means contact with reality and contact with reality compels regard for truth and therefore scientific method and hence the evocation of the work group” (Bion, op cit, p136)

Note here the use of “evocation”, which seems to imply something distinct from just a conscious intent. 

In each and every one of these various respects basic assumption mentality is, using Bion’s formulation, the ‘dual’ of the work group. Here is Bion’s description of this ‘dual’ as it emerges in a group of patients: 

In every group it will be common at some time or another to find patients complaining that treatment is long: that they always forget what happened in the previous group: that they do not seem to have learnt anything; and that they do not see, not only what the interpretations have to do with their case, but what the emotional experiences to which I am trying to draw attention can matter to them. They also show, as in psycho-analysis, that they do not have much belief in their capacity for learning by experience –‘What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history’.

Now all this, and more like it, really boils down to the hatred of a process of development. Even the complaint about time, which seems reasonable enough, is only to complain of one of the essentials of the process of development. There is a hatred of having to learn by experience at all, and lack of faith in the worth of such a kind of learning. A little experience of groups soon shows that this is not simply a negative attitude; the process of development is really being compared with some other state, the nature of which is not immediately apparent. The belief in this other state often shows itself in everyday life, perhaps most clearly in the schoolboy belief in the hero who never does any work and yet is always top of the form – the opposite of the ‘swot’, in fact.

In the group it becomes very clear that this longed-for alternative to the group procedure is really something like arriving fully equipped as an adult fitted by instinct to know without training or development exactly how to live and move and have his being in a group.

There is only kind of group and one kind of man that approximates to this dream, and that is the basic group- the group dominated by one of the three basic assumptions, dependence, pairing, and flight or fight-and the man who is able to sink his identity in the herd” ( Bion, op cit, pp88-9)

This is Bion at his most trenchant and provocative. But for me the crux comes in the next sentence: 

I do not suggest for a moment that this ideal corresponds to reality, for, of course, the whole group-therapeutic experience shows that the group and the individuals in it are hopelessly committed to a developmental procedure, no matter what might have been the case with our remote ancestors”. 

It is this idea of our being “ hopelessly committed to a developmental procedure” that I want to draw attention to, which Bion implies is an attribute not just of the individuals within the group but of the group as a whole. And doesn’t this in turn imply that when earlier Bion has referred to the individual as a “group animal at war, both with the group and with those aspects of his personality that constitutes his ‘groupishness’,” the term ‘groupishness’ qualifies both work group and basic assumption mentality and not just the latter. We are as driven to one as to the other. 

This is not, I think, just a neat theoretical sleight of hand. For it is this “almost-instinct”quality attached to both aspects of mentality that informs and underlies the intensity of the struggle or conflict that the group and its members are subject to. To put this another way, the “ hatred of having to learn by experience” would seem redundant unless that were a continuous countervailing pull to learn by experience in the first place. And indeed it is this countervailing pull which Bion explicitly and paradoxically places as a factor in the extent of the hostility a group can mobilise against any attempt to clarify its tensions. So, for example, describing the psychiatrist’s dilemma in a patient group under the sway of basic assumption dependence, Bion notes: 

“ it is essential that the psychiatrist should be firm in drawing attention to the reality of the group’s claim upon him, no matter how fantastic their elucidation makes those claims appear to be, and then to the reality of the hostility which is aroused by his elucidation” (Bion, op cit, p100) . 

He then adds: 

it is on occasions such as this that one can see both the strength of the emotions associated with the basic assumption and the vigor and vitality which can be mobilised by the work group. It is almost as if human beings were aware of the painful and often fatal consequences of having to act without an adequate grasp of reality, and therefore were aware of the need for truth as a criterion in the evaluation of their findings

Surely here Bion must mean that it is the unconscious pressure of work group mentality and the fear this arouses in the dependent group that underscores the hostility to interpretation. Just as it is the unconscious processing of work group mentality that may in time make a difference, may mitigate or bring about a change in the prevailing group functioning, a re-engagement with the psychic reality of the task. 

From this perspective the work group is an expression at the group level of a development push (and in the Re-View chapter Bion will refer to this as a “compulsion to develop”) which is built in to the human organism. Correspondingly the basic assumptions are an expression of a regressive pull, equally built in, which seeks to evade development and the mental burden or pain development implies. The tension between this push and pull, which Bion first explored in Experiences in Groups foreshadows and as it were recapitulates the story of the individual life which Bion was to spend the rest of his life investigating, through the lens of psychoanalytic practice. 

To understand what happens in group, as to understand what happens in the inner world each of us inhabits, both poles have to be held in view. One might say they are co-dependent, each operating as a silent, unconscious complement to the other, 

This point is important because there is sometimes a tendency to construe the distinction between work group and basic group in terms of a differentiation between conscious and unconscious processes. And indeed Bion’s terminology of sophisticated and basic can play into this, as also can his implicit references to Freud’s distinction between primary and secondary processes.

(A parallel tendency is to emphasise the emotionality, often qualified by the adjective ‘primitive’, characteristic of basic assumption functioning as contrasted with the ‘rationality’ of the work group). 

But to go back to something I mentioned at the outset. I think this is to confuse the work group as an intentional object, with the work group as an aspect, one might almost say a basic aspect of human mentality, of which the intentional group is an outcrop. In this guise the work group exerts an influence on our experience in groups that can be no less unconscious than the basic assumptions. Indeed I believe the unconscious life of the group, as of the organisation, is always an expression or function of both push and pull. Correspondingly, the task of the consultant is not simply to probe the to’s and fro’s of the basic assumptions as he or she becomes aware of these, but rather to probe the reciprocal influence of the two levels of mentality operating within the group and what may be shaping this. 

Now here one comes up against a difficulty that is intrinsic not so much to the theory of Group Relations, nor necessarily to its use as an exploratory tool in applied settings, but rather to its institutionalization in Group Relations conferences and events.

Such conferences in my view both open up but simultaneously circumscribe or set limits to what can be explored. Whether or not this circumscription is inevitable and if it is not, how it can be avoided I am not sure and this is a question we can perhaps open up for discussion. 

The argument runs as follows 

Group Relations conferences, whatever the titles they trade under, are temporary training institutions set up to explore or study the tensions inherent in group life, using a method of experiential learning. This is their manifest intention or ‘primary task’. In order to study these tensions a frame must be created which mobilizes such tensions from the outset. In part this frame is created by the very definition of the task, since as Bob Gosling puts it with characteristic bluntness “setting up a group that studies its own tensions is a rather peculiar social experience”. This peculiarity is in turn considerably compounded by the combination of under and over determination that, appropriately enough, characterizes the organisation and structure of the Conference and correspondingly the behaviour of staff in their work roles. 

Undue obtrusion of the basic group is precisely what the design of such conferences seeks to sustain and hence make available for exploration. Inevitably, then, attention tends to focus on this level of mental functioning. Correspondingly the part played by work group mentality in shaping the tensions that are being experienced can slip out of view. It operates often I think as a silent factor, expressed in members’ readiness to stay in the field of what can be an extraordinarily unsettling experience and in the ways in which staff: their motives, values and competences, are continually being tested, including the nature of the of authority they exercise and draw on. (I am reminded of Bion’s comment, offered in the course of a critique of Freud’s views on leadership, that 

“for reasons I have given, the work group leader is either harmless through lack of influence with the group or else a man whose grasp of reality is such that it carries authority”(Bion, op cit, p178)

It is in so far as staff become aware of doubting their own grasp of reality in this way that they may find evidence of the members’ uneasy, ambivalent but inescapable commitment to development).

Why then should this matter? In what sense is this aspect of Group Relations conferences a limitation? Within the confines of such conferences perhaps not much. It is rather outside these confines, in the application of learning to the dilemmas and challenges of ordinary organisational life that there are I think grounds for caution.

Pierre Turquet used to refer I believe, talking about the reflective work of staff in Group Relations events, to “looking for the why clause” What he meant I think was to draw a distinction between a formulation of what was happening and an interpretation of why it was happening. One might think of Bion’s discovery of the basic assumptions as derived from his ability and readiness to move from ‘what is it I am feeling here and now to why am I feeling it’ – a move incidentally in which he had, as it were, to problematise what he found himself feeling. Is this feeling something about me that I am importing into this situation, or is it something I am in some way being made to feel? Anyone who has taken staff roles in conferences will be familiar with this move and the difficulties and dangers of making it.

But over and beyond this interpretative act there is for us, as perhaps too knowing followers in Bion’s footsteps, another question lying in waiting. Why is this particular dynamic configuration happening now? What is driving the emotional state I am both registering in myself and hypothesizing as factor in and a function of the group. 

To answer this question I believe one has to dig into and as it were interrogate the particular quality that attaches to the work group function: not just the nature of its task but the psychic meaning or meanings that attach to this task and the particular anxieties that this meaning or meanings can arouse. This of course is the move that Isabel Menzies Lyth made in her seminal paper on the nursing service of a general hospital, where she showed that the tensions nurses were experiencing in their work arose out of the evolution of an organisational culture in the service of defense against anxieties intrinsic to the nursing task and its psychic meaning, which then as it were robbed nursing staff of the developmental opportunities that task itself afforded, (Menzies Lyth 1960). 

Isabel has always acknowledged her debt to Bion’s work and she was herself closely associated with the development of the Group Relations conference model. But I think she also, in this paper, opened up a vein of thinking that both particularizes and also extends our understanding of the interplay between work group and basic group phenomena.

To put this at its sharpest, I would say that in the consultancy work informed by Bion’s original differentiation of the two levels of mental functioning, it is the perspective afforded by Isobel’s approach that has tended to drive and advance our thinking. That is, in becoming alert to basic group processes in organisational settings, we have read these and need to read these as both an expression and as a signal of something unformulated, feared or evaded that is intrinsic to the nature of the work and its developmental challenges and the resonances these evoke in the inner world.

Or to the nature of the relation between that work and its surrounding context. ( I am thinking here of the territory which increasingly my own service finds itself in, working with clients who are wrestling with the challenges and fears, both for survival and identity, aroused by the nature and pace of change.)

I believe that it is in these applied situations that we can best test out the practical significance and value of the Group Relations perspective. Group Relations conferences are not an end in themselves, however valuable and deepening we find the experience to be. They are a prelude to application except that I am not sure ‘application’ is the right word. Perhaps ‘extension’ might be more appropriate.

But the point I want to make here and which lies behind this suggestion is that when we move outside the Conference territory we find ourselves, or perhaps I should say, we need to find ourselves asking questions, thinking about questions which the Conference itself can seem to bracket out. I mean that we do not often ask ourselves, ‘what is the nature of the work group function in Conferences; what is its meaning in psychic reality; what fantasies or fears does it arouse in us and how do these fantasies and fears inform the patterning of basic assumption

(or basic realm) phenomena, moment by moment.

Should we? And why don’t we? And then if we shouldn’t or don’t what are the implications for the ways in which we think about and build from the conference experiences and is this gathering itself and the work you are in the midst of one such implication.

I look forward to your answers.


Bion, W.R., (1961) Experiences in Groups, London Tavistock Publications

Trist, E. L., (1985) ‘Working with Bion in the 1940’s , in Malcolm Parlett (ed), Bion and Group Psychotherapy, London, Routledge

Menzies Lyth, I (1960) Social Systems as a Defense Against Anxiety: on empirical study of the nursing service of a general hospital, Human Relations, 13:95-121. This, together with related papers is also available on Menzies Lyth, I (1988), Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, Free Association Books, London. 

© The Author

Address for correspondence: Tavistock Centre Consultancy Service, Tavistock Centre: 120 Belsize Lane, London NW3