BEYOND BION'S 'EXPERIENCES IN GROUPS': GROUP RELATIONS RESEARCH AND LEARNING

Robert M. Lipgar

The University of Chicago Medical Center

Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and Organizations (CCSGO)

of the A.K. Rice Institute

Abstract

This paper reviews some of Bion's influence on experiential and empirical studies of group dynamics, leadership and group relations in the Chicago area, beginning in the 50's with the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago led by Herbert A. Thelen and including the current work by the Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and Organizations of the A.K. Rice Institute, Northwestern University Department of Education and Social Policy and the University of Chicago Department of Psychiatry. Objective and quantified inquiry is presented as a strategy to augment and clarify 'learning from experience,' compatible with Bion's values and the Tavistock tradition. Q-methodology, one such quantified inquiry, and its originator, William Stephenson, are introduced, and their particular relevance to group relations research is discussed with examples from recent studies.

 

Experiences in Groups: Notes in Retrospect

Although Wilfred Bion's collection of papers, Experiences In Groups (1961) is considered by many, and perhaps by Bion himself, to contain only sketches for a theory about group relations, it is seminal work and is of enduring importance. We were first introduced to these papers at the University of Chicago in the early 50's by Herbert A. Thelen (1954, 1984). We were a lively group of graduate students who gathered around Herbert A. Thelen (1954) to study how people worked and learned in groups and how groups influenced how people worked and learned. We were particularly interested in demonstrating scientifically the advantages of democratic leadership. In our zeal, we were inspired not only by Thelen but also by the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Wilfred Bion.

For those of us who sought relief at that time from the rigidities of logical positivism and the seeming sterility of behaviorism, Bion's attention to states of emotionality, covert processes, and the group as an organism was refreshing. For those of us who were concerned -- more than a little apprehensive -- about man's capacity for inhumanity to man, Bion's sensitive examination of the individual in relationship to the social context was especially meaningful. The idea of a 'group mentality' as a 'pool for anonymous contributions' gave us new ways to think about our group experiences. The fact that silence gave consent, resonated deeply with our post-WWII mentality. Bion's attention to, and respect for affect combined with his commanding intelligence, assured him a special place among us.

 

Key Elements of Bion's 'Experiences in Groups'

Here are elements of Bion's thoughts on groups which continue to be instructive and thought-provoking:

1. ". . .group mental life is essential to the full life of the individual, quite apart from any temporary or specific need, and that satisfaction of this has to be sought through membership of a group" (1961, p. 54).

2. Learning from experience, required for development, entails psychological transformations or changes so profound and the surmounting of resistances so strong, that Bion posited a hatred of learning.

3. ". . . it takes some time before individuals cease to be dominated by the feeling that adherence to the group is an end in itself" (p. 63). "[This feeling that belonging is an end in itself] . . . conflicts very sharply with the idea of a group met together to do a creative job, especially with the idea of a group met together to deal with the psychological difficulties of its members" (p. 64).

4. Groups can be observed to be engaged in two kinds of mental activity simultaneously: the work group (W) and the basic assumption group (ba). Following Freud's basic insight concerning primary and secondary process, Bion did not believe that the emotional, non-rational state (ba) was random or unlawful.

5. Bion assumed human behavior in groups to be organized in part to adapt to reality requirements and in part to ward off or manage fear of fragmentation and terror of annihilation, psychotic-like anxieties.

6. As a "group-animal," the human being finds himself to be in dual dilemmas of needing to relate to reality demands without benefit of knowledge of consequences sufficient to make action rational while also needing to engage with one's group without losing one's ability to think and act in responsible ways.

7. Bion conceptualized a group mentality: ". . . the pool to which the anonymous contributions are made, and through which the impulses and desires implicit in these contributions are gratified." (p. 50)

8. Through silence, and often without awareness, we give support to various initiatives, thereby colluding anonymously: " . . . there is no way in which the individual can, in a group, 'do nothing' -- not even by doing nothing." (p. 58) " . . . all members of a group are responsible for the behaviour of the group." ( p. 118)

9. Bion found these anonymous collusions to occur in patterns associated with particular clusters of emotions and implicit assumptions toward leadership and authority. He identified three of these patterns: baDependency, baFight/Flight, and baPairing.

10. Bion conceived of group culture as resulting from the conflict between the desires of the individual and group mentality.

11. The sophisticated group is one in which members are able to manage the human need to belong, to express their "groupishness," in ways that enable them also to advance the group's realistic and adaptive work. "Action inevitably means contact with reality, and contact with reality compels regard for truth and therefore imposes scientific method, and hence, the evocation of the work group." (p. 135-136) Here Bion links sophisticated work in groups, learning from experience, with seeking truth and the scientific method.

12. Bion reserved the word cooperation for "conscious or unconscious working with the rest of the group in work . . ." (p. 116). For the ". . . capacity for spontaneous instinctive co-operation in the basic assumptions," he used the word valency which he saw as "more analogous to tropism in plants than to purposive behavior . . ." (p.116-117).

13. Emotional Oscillations and Schisms occur when the ambivalence in the group toward its leader is so severe that it spreads to surrounding groups or splits the group into opposing sub-groups.

There are implications here for how to contribute effectively in groups and organizations whether one is in a designated formal position of leadership and authority or in roles less clearly authorized for leadership. Group relations conferences in the A. K. Rice/Tavistock tradition, deeply influenced by Bion's thinking, have become for me a most important venue for investigating group and organizational life, authority and leadership. I have participated as director and/or consultant in more than 20 group relations conferences and participated as a member in five residential conferences.

By studying groups and organizations in carefully bounded working conferences derived from the model developed at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, it is possible to increase one's awareness and understanding of how the need for group belonging and one's personal valency may compete and interact with the group's adaptive tasks and other members' valencies, values, and attitudes toward authority. Bion's insights are still profoundly relevant to those of us who have immersed ourselves in learning about groups from our own experiences as members and staff in working conferences.

Bion's 'experiences in groups,' however, leaves many questions unanswered and many experiences uncharted: What consultative/leadership stance? What kind of leadership enables a group to manage its ba activity and productively transform these energies on behalf of task achievements, adaptation and the accomplishment of sophisticated learning? What forces move a group from one basic assumption mode to another? Are other distinct clusters of affects and influences operative as other ba activities?

Bion offers examples of interventions as well as a number of guidelines (Lipgar, 1993a). He states explicitly that 'interpretation,' is primary and strongest contribution the analyst/consultant makes to the group's ability to work. With regard to timing an interpretation, he offers the observation that he speaks up when something appears to be obvious in the group but unspoken. His 'experiences in groups,' however, hardly address a myriad of technical questions that arise with regard to effective performance in the consultant/leader's role. There are subtleties in the timing of an interpretation, as well as in choosing among other interventions -- e.g., whether and when to express, acknowledge or reference one's own feelings and behavior in role as part of an interpretation, how to assess the impact of different interpretive styles -- e.g., choice of phenomena to be attended to, use of metaphors and humor, length of the comment, the citation of data upon which interpretations are based, and tone of voice. In order to advance our competence in these and other areas of critical concern, as well as advance our theoretical understanding of group life, empirical and quantifiable research as well as learning from experience is, in my opinion, required.

Bion's Concept of Leadership: the 'Quality of Contact'

J. D. Sutherland reports that when, during WWII, he and Trist were working with Bion on the task of selecting candidates for officer training, Bion often remarked "on the need to judge the 'quality of contact' the candidate had with others" (1985, p. 49). They felt many different personalities could make good officers, but Bion sought that "crucial quality, which . . . [is] 'a man's capacity for maintaining personal relationships in a situation of strain that tempted him to disregard the interest of his fellows for the sake of his own'." (op. cit.)

In different situations and under different circumstances, this rather simple phrase refers to a variety of abilities, such as the ability to: reflect and review; sense one's impact on others and effects on you; adjust that which Eric Miller (1985) refers to (giving credit to Andrew Szmidla) as the "in-line" of one's understanding of self and the "out-line" which is defined and controlled by others; restrain one's self from action; overcome ambivalence and conflict in order to take action; contain anxiety; manage boundaries between past and present, fantasy and fact, feelings and reason, needs and wants, time to mourn and time to want. All these and more, such as the ability to maintain an empathic attunement with others while engaging as well with the requirements of the task -- to maintain "personal relationships in a situation of strain that tempted him to disregard the interest of his fellows for the sake of his own." (op. cit.)

Bion's contributions have implications for leadership selection, development and training which are in sharp contrast to those approaches which focus on traits, skills and techniques. Bion leads us to think about leadership in a more interactional and contextual way, or as Morris Stein (1996) recently put it, "'effective' leadership depends on the type of person involved and the type of situation involved." Rather than seek particular leadership traits and skills, we are directed to assess such matters as a person's ability to manage one's self in a variety of challenging circumstances and cope with ambiguity, anxiety, and floods of feelings, possibly irrational or non-rational influences from within and without.

Work in group relations conferences enables us to exercise our capabilities for maintaining the 'quality of contact,' and to develop hypotheses about the dynamics of leadership and followership, the exercise of authority, the conflicting desires of individuals and the 'group mentality,' collusion with 'a pool of anonymous contributions,' as well as many as yet unnamed group phenomena. Testing hypotheses, however, in ways that contribute to a body of knowledge, public and reliable requires the disciplined case studies and quantifiable, reproducible research which meet the requirements of the scientific method. In this way, we would extend Bion's concept of 'binocular vision' to include another duality; not only would we study the individual and the group in depth but also we would examine our experiences of both with more sophisticated qualitative and quantitative methods.

William Stephenson and Q-Methodology

As a graduate student, I was devoted to learning from experience (my own) and to engaging others in such learning and I still am. I have also been dedicated to the value of objective, quantifiable and repeatable investigations of reality. I look to the scientific method as an antidote to, or substitute for politics, as the best way to resolve conflicts and choose among rival hypotheses. As a graduate student, I wanted to understand values, attitudes, feelings and fantasies as well as decision-making, problem-solving, and other behaviors. I wanted to understand the relationship between the phenomenology of inner experiences and outer appearances, and also search for the lawfulness of psychological determinants of such experiences, appearances, and behaviors. I believe in a reality beyond consensual reality. These were my interests then and remain so today.

Fortunately, in my formative years as a psychologist, one of my professors was William Stephenson, a British psychologist from Oxford with an unusual educational, practical and academic background and unusual range and combination of professional interests and vision. As the originator of Q-methodology (1958), he provided us with a flexible yet powerful method for investigating the interior life of individuals, making the objective and quantifiable study of subjective mental activity possible (Brown, 1984, 1993) (McKeown and Thomas, 1988).

At the time I began learning about Q-methodology from Stephenson, I was unaware of how much he and Bion had in common. Both had extensive training in more than one field: Bion in history, philosophy and psychiatry; Stephenson in physics and psychology. Both had made contributions to the assessment and selection of British military personnel during WWII. Both valued getting things done; 'work' and 'task' being anchors for Bion and 'getting on with it' being a favorite exhortation of Stephenson's. Both were intensely interested in how knowledge was gained and shared, and both valued subjectivity as well as the tests of science. Both read widely, covering many fields with a special appreciation for literature, James Joyce in particular. I learned only recently that they both had had analyses with Melanie Klein. There are, of course, important differences but examining these is beyond my aims for this paper.

What is at issue here is that in Q-methodology, we have a set of empirical techniques as well as an approach to scientific inquiry which is especially compatible with the systematic experiential study of groups pioneered by Bion, A. K. Rice (1965) , Eric Miller (1985) and others, and continuing now in the United States by the A.K. Rice Institute (AKRI) founded by Margaret Rioch. This methodology can be adapted to serve case study research and theory building, hypothesis formation and testing, about individual personality systems as well as group and organizational social systems.

Group Relations Research in Chicago

Both Cytrynbaum and I had been exploring group relations independently since the 60's. In 1988, together with a small number of other colleagues and students, we formed the Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and Organizations (CCSGO) in 1988 and affiliated with the national A.K. Rice Institute in 1990. To deepen our own 'learning from experience' and to promote scholarship and research about group life, we have collected and analyzed data from more than fifteen group relations conferences over a twenty-year period. During these years, extensive data including audio-tape recordings have been collected on small study groups and large study groups, member-reports of conference experiences, member- evaluations of their learning and of particular aspects of the conference, member and staff views of leadership, and staff views of the consulting role (Lipgar, 1989). Many analyses of these data have already been reported (Bair, 1990) (Bradley, 1987) (Cytrynbaum, 1993, 1995) (Culver, 1995) (Granda, 1992) (Lipgar, 1993b, 1995) (Lipgar & Bair, 1997) (McGarrigle, 1992).

These efforts, I believe, are extensions of Bion's own commitment to science. Bion's Grid and his other efforts to codify and communicate the unique work of psychoanalysis (1962) is illustrative of his valuing the methods of science as the way to make knowledge public and responsible. More recently, Edelson (1988) addresses issues of a science of psychoanalysis, delineates the discipline required to use case studies scientifically, and cites the appropriateness of Q-methodology to the scientific inquiry of psychoanalytic hypotheses (Edelson, 1989).

Bion's concepts have been used by other group researchers (Stock and Thelen, 1958) (Karterud, 1989). What is distinctive about our research work now is that the data are collected as an integral part of the 'working conference' and the integrity of the conference's primary task, design, and methods remain essentially intact. Analyses based on these data shed additional light on the life of particular group relations conferences and enable us to make case studies in depth of the structure and process, as well as seek normative data. By using Q-technique together with factor analyses of the person-to- person correlational matrices composed of members and staff from more than ten conferences, we have been able to add to our understanding of a number of important aspects of the staff culture, member culture, and staff and member learning.

The first factoring of the staff views of the role of the small study group consultant (Bradley, 1987) (Lipgar, 1993) produced an interesting grid, or set of dimensions with which to think about what we were doing and how we might do it better. We identified four basic approaches to the role: Factor I, 'group interpretive analyst;' Factor II, 'group facilitator;' Factor III, 'collaborative analyst;' and Factor IV, 'protective manager.' We also found that each factor corresponded quite nicely with each of Bion's famous categories: 'work,' 'baD,' 'baP,' and 'baF/F,' respectively. This opens up fascinating possibilities for exploring the interplay between the consultant/leader's orientation, the group;'' composition in terms of member-valencies, and learning outcomes.

Since these dimensions continued to emerge as major orientations, defining differences among subsequent conference staffs even though the personnel of other staffs changed by 40 to 70%, these four dimensions require further consideration as building blocks of any theory of consultancy and leadership. Although additional clusters of opinion were found, these four basic orientations continued to define differences among us. We also found that the dominant orientation, that of the 'group interpretive analyst' was represented by the conference directors, consultants with more training and experience, and those who took up leadership roles in subsequent conference staffs. Over a four-year period, we found that the dominance of this orientation gave way to more faciliatative (Factor II) and collaborative (Factor III) views, in the sense that in subsequent years these other two factors were represented by more staff. This finding is congruent with trends within A.K. Rice and within the culture at large as more and more emphasis is being given to collaborative and facilitative leadership models.

When we examined the matrices of correlations for gender differences, we found that the more nurturing and collaborative stance had more dominance among the women than among the men on staff, i.e., more women loaded on Factors II and III and more men loaded on Factors I and IV. McGarrigle (1992) and Culver (1995) investigated these four basic orientations further by examining in detail the actual interventions made by consultants with different orientations and their impact on the group process and member-learning. More such follow-up research is needed to develop further our understanding of consultancy, the requisite competencies, and of the relationship among values/orientations, behavior, and impact.

Recently, we have completed another kind of study using Q-methodology. We have compared member and staff views of leadership before and after two conferences, 1995 and 1996. We wanted to find evidence of change and to see whether the change among the membership was in a direction of understanding and internalization of staff values. We also looked for changes among staff as these might result from their interactions with members and each other. We also considered whether we had objective evidence that one conference was more effective than another in terms of effecting changes in member and staff learning. Having this information, we can then review our work in the conference in our various management and consulting roles with more objectivity.

The factor analysis findings are dramatic: in the 1995 conference, seven out of ten members' orientation toward leadership changed in the direction of staff views of leadership. This was true for both men and women that year. Closer review of each sub-group (the one that identified with staff and the smaller one that did not) permits learning about the complex interactions of variables that may have effected these outcomes. By combining the Q-findings with peer and research observer ratings of staff performance, as well as member-evaluations of their own experiences, a wide range of hypotheses about staff and conference functioning and effectiveness can be systematically examined. (Lipgar & Bair, 1997).

For instance, in the examination of the findings for the 1996 conference, there is clear evidence that the small study group consultant whose leadership orientation places him on the same factor as the conference director is also the one whose small group members questionnaire ratings of their conference experience is higher than the norm for this conference. Of the five factors found, the staff were represented on three and of these three, only this small study group consultant and the director held this orientation both before and after the conference. Of the five factors, this was the one most clearly combining Bion's dual emphasis on head and heart, task and belonging, authority and participatory presence (being fully present), and responsibility and independence.

Whereas such findings may technically be considered only as trends and not as rigorous tests, they are definitely encouraging and intriguing. They hold the promise of not only distinguishing the different kinds of learning that may be promoted by different leadership, but also of demonstrating the relative merits of different orientations. Linking particular outcomes to particular orientations would strengthen as well as give direction to our staff training efforts and to our ability to mount more effective educational experiences for others.

Toward the Future

There is yet another important aspect of Q-methodology, which is the power of factor analysis. Given that the matrix of correlation coefficients (each individuals subjective view recorded with Q-technique compared statistically with every other individual's view in a particular set or sub-set of a population) can be mathematically reduced in terms of the maximum number of independent points of view (number of factors), it becomes possible to uncover a psycho-social structure within a conference culture and identify sub-groups of values and attitudes which were not otherwise apparent. Steven Brown at Kent State University has reported a subtle study of the developments in a single small study group (1994) which demonstrates the flexibility of Q-methodology and its suitability in testing theoretical assumptions about group structure and changes that occur during a small study group process.

We face now the challenge of integrating powerful methods of quantified inquiry for objectifying the subjective with our educational aims. As a group relations conference director, I plan to revise the conference design in ways that will bring research findings to the staff and the membership and make it part of the learning process. Computer technology makes this possible; statistical analyses can be available within hours. It is, I believe, incumbent upon us to find ways to bring research findings and 'learning from experience' together.

The Tavistock model of 'working conferences' continues to be a most powerful way to learn about authority, leadership, responsibility, power and influence. By employing additional technologies, even more can be learned about how personal, often private and sometimes unconscious, feelings and fantasies are inter-related with the functioning and behavior of social systems. It is of critical importance to the maintenance of a humane society that we know more about the inter-play between the private and personal and the social and public. Without such awareness and reliable knowledge, we cannot manage the boundaries intelligently, nor distribute responsibilities appropriately. Bion instructs us that we neglect these 'group' issues at our peril.

Searching for more sophisticated ways to understand and communicate what we learn from our 'experiences in groups,' continues, after all, for us as practitioners, consultants, clinicians, teachers and leaders, our common task and responsibility. In this pursuit, we extend Bion's work, his inspiration and legacy into the 21st century. We stand at a threshold looking beyond the methods and procedures of the past, seeking to test hypotheses as yet unformed and illuminate knowledge yet to be born.

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