Being in a great team is an uplifting experience. And yet so many teams squabble, scapegoat, avoid and destruct. Why?

Using the work of noted psychoanalysts Wilfred Bion and Christine Thornton, I hope to offer a fresh lens on common behaviours that people find ‘strange’ or hard to understand. One of Bion’s pivotal ideas was that ‘groups create defences against anxiety’. If there is something hard to navigate or manage in the team and its’ system – say technological change requiring restructuring or shifting ways of working from Covid – the group may unconsciously find behaviours to avoid addressing the individual and collective anxieties felt facing such challenges. Anxiety is hard for us to bear; witness the distraction behaviours and addictions people use to avoid feeling it!

Squabbling and scapegoating

“We have some negative voices in this team; most problems seem to stem from them.” So ran the leader’s diagnosis. I felt tempted to agree; certain people had done quite a bit of complaining in the session. However, delving into the wider firm’s culture revealed they weren’t the only team playing out hostility, envy and tension. Clients and management were demanding; praise was sparse, reflection low and pressure high. Viewed in Bion’s light, the leader is scapegoating ‘the complainers’ as a common cultural behaviour: do what we need or you become ‘the problem’. Rather than addressing what is broken or damaged in the system, the leader thinks they can root out some problem individuals and, once silenced or removed, all will somehow become peaceful and harmonious. Unfortunately, this is often expensive and ineffective; the systemic issues remain long after the faces change. However, if the leader were to reframe the ‘complainers’ to being people with an important message – in this case that the team is burnt out, underappreciated and unclear on objectives – the dialogue between them might take on a very different tone. One of curiosity rather than judgement; a collective inquiry into managing the complex demands of their environment; leaders keen to learn more effective ways to support their people.

Fighting ‘them out there’

Working with a police force, almost every group session started the same: complaining about common enemies (the Home Secretary, their ‘ivory tower’ bosses, the ‘difficult’ external agencies they had to deal with, etc). One of Bion’s key observed defences was groups creating ‘fight or flight’ behaviours and that ‘uniting’ against external forces often had an initially positive emotional payoff through engendering a sense of collective unity. Policing is a high anxiety profession: fear of personal injury, witnessing trauma, stringent professional codes and high public scrutiny. There is still little cultural permission to talk about such concerns; you just have to ‘get on with the job’. As such, we could hypothesise that these groups were (unconsciously) choosing to ‘unify’ against ‘common enemies’ to avoid the collective anxieties they brought into these rooms. Talking about ‘them out there’ is a way to externalise such feelings; much less personally vulnerable than sharing about ‘I in here’. Unfortunately ‘them out there’ rarely makes any progress as a conversation; it mainly reinforces powerlessness, anger and destructive feelings. Next time you’re with a team in a ‘them out there’ conversation, you might respectfully find a way to move the conversation to an ‘I in here’, perhaps by asking: what are our anxieties and how can we attend to them?

Puzzling passivity

“What’s the matter with them? They’re meant to be leaders, but no-one takes any responsibility!” A familiar refrain from clients chairing or leading management teams. If I were to collude, we might explore what’s ‘wrong’ with their executives or plan how to give them a stirring and likely patronising pep talk. However, investigating the roots of avoidant behaviour with such teams has revealed:

  • A previous leaders’ excessively dominant style that conditioned the team to be ‘obedient’
  • Leaders so burdened with demands that exec meetings become about avoiding more tasks being thrust onto them
  • Lack of clarity around exec team purpose meaning members shirk responsibility to avoid being ‘in the firing line’

Unlike open conflict, passive behaviour is often harder to name as it’s characterised by withdrawal: silent or stilted meetings, lateness, circular conversations with no real action points. Creating space to share uncertainty and ambiguity is critical here; there may be important messages for the team in this.

We’re holding on for a hero

Barely a week goes by without a male leader named for ‘toxic’ behaviour, with narcissism, arrogance and aggression amongst the most frequent accusations. It’s real progress such behaviours are being called out in ways they weren’t before. But if we really want to create healthier male leadership, we need to improve our understanding: why do they (and I) do this?

Another ‘defence against anxiety’ Bion noted was teams and groups seeking salvation in a singular leader; a saviour to alleviate all trials and tribulations. Many men (including me) grow up hearing heroic archetypes: sporting winners, ‘great men’ of history, superhero action stars to save everyone from danger. When something is going wrong, we need to be ‘strong’, ‘protective’, ‘brave’. When organisations come under pressure, I suspect many men in leadership positions internally default to playing the ‘saviour’. As Thornton observes, “The leader’s role is the most exposed and loneliest in the team”; this sense of aloneness making it more likely they will choose individualistic ways to handle the pressure. In this they may believe they have to fix everything themselves (arrogance), fight perceived blockers to ‘safety’ (using aggression) and seek reinforcement for their actions (narcissism). If self-awareness is lacking they will perpetrate outward, angry with ‘failing’ team members, making decisions without consultation, avoiding vulnerability. I am starting a research project into ‘healthy male leadership’ so hopefully have more reflections to share in the coming months. If you’re a male executive open to being interviewed (anonymously) for this then please DM me.

In summary: modern organisations are complex and often chaotic places to work. This produces uncertainty and anxiety in us. ‘Strange’ behaviours are an attempt to cope with and mitigate these feelings. Finding ways to help teams and executives discuss tension and anxiety, create space for reflection and explore group relationship dynamics will go a long way to building healthier places to work and create together.

Wilfred Bion, ‘Experiences in Groups’, 1998 (Routledge, 1st ed.)

Christine Thornton, ‘The Secret Life of Groups’, 2016 (Routledge, 2nd ed.)

Bonnie Tyler, ‘Holding on for a Hero’, 1984

Duncan Lewin