The Psychodynamics of Groups 
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A study of leader – follower relationships necessarily addresses the psychology of groups. The psychiatrist Wilfred Bion identified three basic assumptions to be studied in group situations, a trio that has become a cornerstone of the study of organizational dynamics (Bion, 1959). These basic assumptions — which take place at an unconscious level — create a group dynamic that makes it much harder for people to work together productively. They deflect people from the principal tasks that have to be performed in the organization, because they result in pathological regressive processes that lead to more archaic (that is, primitive) patterns of functioning. Freed from the constraints of conventional thinking, groups subject to such regressive processes retreat into a world of their own. The result is often delusional ideation — in other words, ideas completely detached from reality — which is fertile soil for the proliferation of rigid ideological patterns of decision-making. 

Basic Group Assumptions 

Let’s look now at each of Bion’s three assumptions: dependency, fight – flight, and pairing. 


People often assume, at an unconscious level, that the leader or organization can and should offer protection and guidance similar to that offered in earlier years by parents. Groups subject to the dependency assumption are looking for a strong, charismatic leader to lead the way. The members of such groups are united by common feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, neediness, and fear of the outside world. They perceive the leader as omnipotent and readily give up their autonomy when they perceive help at hand. Remarks typical of groups subject to this process include, ‘What do you want me/us to do?’ and ‘I can’t take this kind of decision; you’ll have to talk to my boss.’ Such comments reflect the employees’ anxiety, insecurity, and professional and emotional immaturity. While unquestioning faith in a leader contributes to goal-directedness and cohesiveness, it also impairs followers’ critical judgment and leaves them unwilling to take initiative. Though they are willing to carry out their leader’s directives, they require him or her to take all the initiative, do all the thinking, be the major catalyst. And once a leader whom followers leaned heavily on is gone, bureaucratic inertia may take hold. People may be frozen in the past, wondering what their leader — if he or she were still around — would have done. 

Fight – Flight 

Another common unconscious assumption is that the organizational world is a dangerous place and organizational participants must use fight or flight as defense mechanisms. In groups subject to the fight – flight assumption, an outlook of avoidance or attack predominates. When the fight – flight mechanism takes hold, there is a tendency to split the world into camps of friends and enemies. Fight reactions manifest themselves in aggression against the self, peers (in the form of envy, jealousy, competition, elimination, boycotting, sibling rivalry, fighting for a position in the group, and privileged relationships with authority figures), or authority itself. Flight reactions include avoidance of others, absenteeism, and resignation in the sense of giving up. Remarks typical of people in a fight – flight situation include, ‘Let’s not give those updated figures to the contracts department; they’ll just try to take all the credit,’ and ‘This company would be in good shape if it weren’t for the so-and-sos who run the place.’ Us-versus-them language is common. Taking personal responsibility for problems is unheard of; instead, blame is routinely (and vindictively) assigned elsewhere. Subscribing to a rigid, bipolar view of the world, these groups possess a strong desire for protection from and conquest of ‘the enemy,’ in all its varied manifestations. 

Because conspiracies and enemies already populate their inner world, leaders that fall victim to the fight – flight assumption encourage the group tendency toward splitting. Externalizing their internal problems, they inflame their followers against real and/or imagined enemies, using the in-group/out-group division to motivate people and to channel emerging anxiety outward. The shared search for and fight against enemies results in a strong (but rigid) conviction among participants of the correctness and Like every person, every organization has a history righteousness of their cause, and it energizes them to pursue that cause. It also enforces the group’s identity (Lasswell, 1960; Volcan, 1988). Leaders who encourage fight – flight mechanisms by radiating certainty and conviction create meaning for followers who feel lost. The resulting sense of unity is highly reassuring. As followers eliminate doubters and applaud converts, they become increasingly dependent on their leader. 


Bion’s third unconscious assumption is that pairing up with a person or group perceived as powerful will help a person cope with anxiety, alienation, and loneliness. Wanting to feel secure but also to be creative, people experiencing the pairing assumption fantasize that the most effective creation will take place in groups of pairs. Unfortunately, pairing also implies splitting up. The inevitable diversity within groups may result in intra- and inter-group conflict, which in turn may prompt individuals or groups to split up the group and build a smaller system — one in which a person can belong and feel secure. This assumption also manifests itself in ganging up against the perceived aggressor or authority figure. In the pairing mode, often seen in high-tech companies, grandiose, unrealistic ideas about innovation may become more important than practicality and profitability. Remarks typical within an organization subject to the pairing assumption include, ‘Leave it to the two of us, we can solve this problem,’ and ‘if only the CEO and COO have better relationship our company would be in really good shape.’ 

Basic Social Defenses 

The basic assumptions discussed above all reveal underlying anxiety about the world and one’s place in it. When these assumptions prevail in the workplace, they offer strong proof that the organization’s leadership is not dealing adequately with the emerging anxiety of working in a social setting (Menzies, 1960; Jaques, 1974). When the level of anxiety rises in an organization, executives typically rely on existing structures (such as rules, regulations, procedures, organization charts, job descriptions, and organization-specific ways of solving problems) to ‘contain’ that anxiety. When those structures offer insufficient ‘containment’ — that is, when there are no opportunities to discuss and work through emerging concerns — people in organizations engage in regressive defenses such as splitting, projection, displacement, denial, and other defensive routines. 

When such defenses are adopted organization-wide, we call them social defenses. They can be viewed as new structures, new systems of relationships within the social structure, constructed to help people deal with anxiety. The purpose of social defenses is to transform and neutralize strong tensions and affects such as anxiety, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, rage, sexual frustration, and low self-esteem. They function like individual defenses but are woven into the fabric of an organization in an effort to assure organizational participants that the workplace is really safe and accepting. When these ways of dealing with the angst and unpredictability of life in organizations become the dominant mode of operation (rather than an occasional stopgap measure), they become dysfunctional for the organization as a whole. They may still serve a purpose (albeit not necessarily a constructive one), but they have become bureaucratic obstacles. These bureaucratic routines and pseudorational activities gradually obscure personal and organizational realities, allowing people to detach themselves from their inner experience. Task forces, administrative procedures, rationalization, intellectualization, and other structures and processes are used to keep people emotionally uninvolved and to help them feel safe and in control. While these processes do in fact reduce anxiety—the original goal—they also replace compassion, empathy, awareness, and meaning with control and impersonality.

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MANFRED KETS DE VRIES, INSEAD, Boulevard de Constance, Fontainebleau 71305, Cedex, France. E-mail: manfred.kets.de.vries@insead.edu

Manfred Kets de Vries is Raoul de Vitry d’Avancourt Clinical Professor of Leadership Development at INSEAD. A prolific author, his specific interests include leadership, career dynamics, executive stress, entrepreneurship, family business, cross-cultural management team building, and the dynamics of corporate transformation and change.

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