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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

In sickness and in health: Using Bion

Although it is clear that failure in organizations - large-scale or small, and at whatever level it may occur - causes disruption, success is not often thought of in the same way. However, success also tends to have a dis-integrating impact on organizational life and therefore also needs containment. Greiner's life-cycle approach, for example, indicates how at each new stage there is a crisis of leadership (Greiner, 1972), bringing with it new issues and challenges in relation to authority and dependency. As both success and failure involve change, they also evoke strong emotions and, as a result, create just the conditions for the emergence of what Bion called basic-assumption mentality and activity (Bion, 1961). When basic-assumption mentality dominates a group or organization, members lose sight of the purpose for which the group or organization exists and become involved in a variety of avoidance activities, dispersing their energies and losing the capacity for clear thought. Underneath this variety of behaviours, Bion identified three key patterns, which he called dependence, pairing, and fight or flight. Although Bion himself, and most subsequent commentators on his ideas, have focussed on the identification and elaboration of the basic assumptions (e.g. Hopper, 2003; Lawrence, Bain and Gould, 1996; Turquet, 1974), Bion also wrote about the 'work group'. Work-group mentality is a state of mind where thought predominates, not avoidance, and group or organizational members are open to development, accept and can work with difference and the conflict it can cause, and have the capacity to learn from experience. Bion's descriptions of the nature of work-group mentality remain rather obscure and relatively under-developed in Experiences in Groups, as his main interest lay in identifying and understanding the disruptions to work-group mentality expressed in the basic assumptions. Nonetheless, he does offer pointers and suggestions about the relationship between basic-assumption and work-group mentalities.In French and Simpson's extension of Bion's framework, they highlight the relationship between the two mentalities and the creative possibilities that can arise from working across them. They suggest that each basic assumption may have a 'twin' - work-group dependence, work-group pairing and work-group fight or flight. Using this framework, we will offer examples from our practice of the ways in which the relationship between basic-assumption and work-group mentality can be used to contain the dis-integrative effects that can be caused by the experiences of success and failure. This amounts to a method of shifting groups and organizations away from basic-assumption mentality and towards work-group functioning. It offers a way of thinking about experience in organizations, whether as participant or consultant, which may allow fresh thinking even when, in basic-assumption mentality, it is precisely thinking which is under attack.