Lesson Six: Getting people working together: managing teams, departments, schools.

“…that meeting was such a waste of time. Nobody ever says anything! I mean what’s the point? If they want us to do something then just put it in an email..” Racheal, Drama Teacher

What Happens in Groups?

What makes a group work?

What makes a group work?

This is the final session of the six.  It serves as an ending to the ‘course’ in school. Interestingly, it is often not as well attended as other sessions and although excuses have been sent for absenses in previous weeks, excuses for absenteeism is less forthcoming in this session. There could be many explanations for this, perhaps people feel as though they have had what they need from the sessions and have other things that are more pressing.

Perhaps they do not see the relevance in looking at Groups, although none of them know what aspects of Groups we will be looking at and analysing. All of these reasons, I’m sure, have weight.  However, there is something about ‘Endings’ that individuals who have been part of a group experience find challenging.  It brings up emotions that are related to loss, and, if we are to believe and follow pychodynamic thinking, then some of these feelings are connected to experiences we had in our earliest childhood. Any group, particularly one which holds the attention of members over time, becomes like a family group, even if these ties are not referred to, they are felt by members, whether they want to feel them or not.

Our expereince of groups is based on our expereince of our 'family' group...

In fact, in psychodynamic terms, all of our experiences of groups are based on our earliest experiences of groups, i.e. the family group and our place within that group.  That is not to say that we don’t evolve and develop ways of working within group environments, of course we do, but in the same way we relate to family members on an emotional level, where we have a place in the hierarchy and a role that we often play within that group, so we look for a similar experience in any group we belong to.

Teacher Group/Family Group
Teacher Group/Family Group

It is not so surprising then that endings will evoke a sense of loss, a sense of helplessness, be it small in the broader scheme of things, and that some members of the group will choose to deal with the anxiety that engenders by not showing up.  It is easy to see how this has been the key lesson in all of the sessions.  Anxiety drives behavior, how you deal with that anxiety is key and in the end do you choose to ‘show up’.  This is by no means a judgement on those who did not come to the final session. As I said, this is typical of endings and only serves as a helpful illustrative metaphor.  Like family groups, all groups are in a permanent state of flux where anxiety comes and goes, rises and falls according a multitude of factors. The key perhaps to a successful family group is the ability to deal with the anxieties in a way that is ‘good enough’ so that the group can continue to thrive.  We have seen in earlier lessons, that making a space to make anxieties available for thought is one way of making sure they do not lead to projections.

From classroom to staffroom to meeting room – groups in school

As teachers we are part of many groups; some more effective than others.  In the classroom there are many different sections or groups within the classroom group and we know when some groups work better than others.

What is key to our understanding of groups is that we see that a group is like an organism.  It has parts that work together to produce a ‘whole’ and for the organism to thrive the parts must work together in a way which is ‘good enough for ‘growth’ or ‘effectiveness’.

The purpose of any group is to come together in the service of something no single member could achieve alone. He called this “The Primary Task”.  It is the ‘job’ the group is there to achieve.  So, for example, what is the praying for coffee breakPrimary Task of a school? What about an English faculty meeting or a whole school assembly? What about a group meeting to discuss Psychodynamics?  How could these groups not achieve their tasks on their own?  The answer of course is very straightforward and we accept that we need to attend these groups experiences and we try to be effective in them. However, who of us has not sat in a meeting desperate for the meeting to be over so that we can be free to ‘get on with it’.  How many of us have sat listening to a member of a group droning on about something they always drone on about in that voice that gets under our skin? How many of us have been in whole school CPD sessions praying for the coffee break?

Why?  What’s the problem?
We accept for the most part that the groups are needed and that we need to attend so why do so many of us see these experiences as difficult and threatening.  And what do we do when we feel threatened or ‘unsafe’? Well, earlier sessions have shown us that we begin blaming or ‘projecting’.  We try to get rid of our anxieties by throwing them onto or into someone else.  We might look at someone who is leading the meeting or expressing an opinion and bored mandecide that they are ‘boring’ or we might look at someone who is fluently describing a complex problem and decide that we are not ‘as clever’ as they are and so excuse ourselves of the necessity of speaking.  Or we might look at someone who is as quiet as we are and decide that they are thinking the same as us and so justify that we are right to be disengaged.  We may begin playing infantile games with our neighbor or doodling or looking at the paintwork in the room or the plaques on the wall or the wall displays. Anything, to get us ‘out’ of the group experience.  And there are lots of other ways that anxiety reveals itself in groups.  The leader of the group maybored woman set up the meeting as a discussion and then end up monologuing about the problem. He or she may get agreement from one other person – perhaps a close colleague.  Other members of the group are effectively excluded.  If this is an expression of an anxiety, what might it be?  Well, they may be afraid that they will in fact get disagreement or that the ‘discussion’ will not lead to the preordained conclusion that is already alive in the leaders mind and has perhaps being implemented anyway.

What about the person who always has to say the thing about year 9 or the person who says nothing at all or the person who is always talking or the person who never quite understands the agenda or the person who hasn’t managed to carry out any of the agreements from the last meeting.  All of these can be seen as manifestations of the anxiety that groups evoke in individuals. And we need to understand that they are linked to primary anxieties about safety and warmth and feeding.

The False Task…

The problem is that with all of this anxiety that is ‘uncontained’, the group task becomes difficult and often impossible to achieve. Rather that do what they are there to do, groups fall into what Bion described as ‘The false task’.  In other words members begin to invent a task of their own – a task that will reduce anxiety and so give them as easier ride.  It is important to realise that this is not done ‘on purpose’.

Few people set out to undermine or attack a meeting when they go into it. These false tasks are a way of group members dealing with anxiety – and, as we have discovered , unless a group makes space to think about the anxiety the group experience may evoke and takes steps to deal with it, then the task will always be hijacked by the anxiety surrounding the task.

Think back to the classroom anxieties we covered in lesson 2.  By making space to think about those anxieties we discovered that they were not just ours alone.  By realizing and understanding that similar anxieties existed for every member of the classroom, we were able to make our teaching experience more empathetic. Instead of the anxiety overwhelming us and our students, we were able to think about it and in effect find a place for it.

Group Task…

In the final session of the six sessions in school I set group members a simple task.  They are to come up with the 5 things they have valued the most about the sessions.  The task is that they agree on the final five.  I give them about 10 minutes to do the task.  I have yet to end up with a precise list and this is because the task is quite anxiety provoking.  The group often lapse into talking about parts of the ‘course’ that they found most useful and effective.  This is easier than coming to an agreement about parts of the course they could agree were useful because individuals talking about their ‘favorite’ bit is not the same as having to say why one was more effective that another and perhaps having to disagree with another member of the group.

Sometimes when certain other members try to move the task on, other members will become angry because they have not yet said their favorite bit of the course.  They need to be heard. Other members act as peace brokers, not expressing an opinion of their own but ensuring that other members of the group remain reasonable with one another. The false task becomes what is easiest for the group to achieve and has never resulted in a definitive list.   This is not ‘wrong’, it is just how groups often operate.  In fact, what is really happening, according to Bion, is that each member of the group is trying to make the group into a space where they feel comfortable, safe, warm and fed and in order to do that they are dealing with a lot their own projections, they are taking on the projections of others.  A lot of their intellectual capacity is being used to deal with their emotions.  They are processing their emotions before they are able to use their intellect to solve or contribute to the primary task.

What happens in groups is that members can take up ‘positions’ and often these positions will be related to positions they occupied in childhood, in family groups and the experiences they had in those groups.  As we saw with the session on Authority, it is often very challenging for a teacher to overcome childhood influences on their perception of authority figures and as such they may continue to behave in counter-productive ways in the classroom due to their unGroup membersconscious reaction to situations that require someone to take charge.  Or they may try to take charge in a way that is partly or wholly inappropriate yet have no other ‘tools’ to use because that is how ‘they have always done it’.

In the same way members of groups take up certain positions. As we saw earlier; the one who doesn’t quite understand; the one who talks all the time; the one that says nothing; the one that doodles or is secretly marking homework.  These ‘roles’ are part of a defense strategy for individuals but these roles, according to Bion, can have a function for the whole group.  To use these examples. Who of us wouldn’t rather be marking homework than be in a ‘pointless’ meeting. Also who of us can remember everything from week to week without a sea of notes or reminders and who of us would not rather be ‘somewhere else’ that doodling provides.

What is interesting is that everybody isn’t doodling and that everybody isn’t saying they don’t understand or that everyone isn’t marking.  It seems the group invests certain people with certain qualities and those individuals carry out those functions for the whole group.doodling

But what happens to the primary task?  What actually gets done and who decides? There may of course be an investment in the leadership of any group that the group be ineffective. Decisions are ‘easier’ that way. Even if they are the same decisions they made last time or last year the attendant anxiety may be easier to deal with even if the decisions are overall less effective.

When does this become problematic?scapegoat

Individuals and groups can become so determined not to deal with the anxiety that a set of circumstances evokes that they can project all of the anxiety into other members or other groups. So, in a classroom, all of the anxiety can be thrown at the teacher. If the teacher is unable to contain the anxiety then the classroom can become unsafe and chaotic. If the teacher then blames him or herself for the anxiety, in other words, takes on the projections as though they are true, then that teacher can at best have an unhappy time at school and at worse become physically or mentally ill.

What we recognise when we look at group behaviour is that dysfunctional or what Bion called Basic Assumptions groups look for scapegoats.  Because they cannot or are unwilling to face and solve the real problems of the primary task they find ways of making the task someone else’s problem.  This can be done within the group and lead to phrases like “If only they were doing their part, this whole thing would be easier”.  This can be translated into whole school scapegoating “If only science were better then the whole school would improve”. You can recognise this at a national or cultural level “If education were better then we wouldn’t be having these problems”.   The inverse is also seen “This task is impossible. If you gave us an easier task we could do that but THIS task is wrong” or “This task is unfair.  If Ofsted were fairer then we could do this task easier”.

The key thing to understand here is that in dysfunctional groups, the group becomes ‘split’, they split off the part that is most difficult and project a version of it into members within the group or groups or individuals outside the group.

So what’s the point?

On a fundamental level it is important and very useful to understand that groups behave like individuals and that when they are under pressure, when anxieties are rife, then they are more likely to split off parts of that anxiety and project those anxieties into others; be it teachers, SLT members, Ofsted,students, years groups, the government etc.

As with the other sessions, it is important to realise our own part in these theatres of splits and projections.

  • How much of your thinking is your thinking and how much is dominated by the dynamic of what the group demands of you?
  • Similarly, if certain students, year groups, SLT members, departments are being vilified or scapegoated, ask your self what might be in that behaviour for the group.
  • What function does that serve both the primary task and the anxiety that task provokes.


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Steve Carr

Good Relationships equal Great Progress When students (and teachers) feel safe they will risk everything in the service of their education. These ideas and theories are grounded in 6 great years of MA research into the link between child development and life-long learning and many years creating great relationships with literally thousands of students. The greatest complement I ever heard from many of those students was that my classrooms were the 'safest place to be'. I now run accredited professional development workshops for teachers, teams and school leaders to help them create safety and put the power of positive human relationships at the heart of progress. To find out more email: steve@stevecarrtraining.com or subscribe to this blog

One Comment

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