When people get together in groups all sorts of things can happen. They may behave in their usual individual ways. So if a person is an extrovert, they would carry on being friendly and outgoing. If they are one of those people who want to get on with the job, they make sure it happens.
But when people get together in a group, they can act outside their ‘normal’ patterns of behaviour. They may be influenced by the group and start to act in ways that are completely unfamiliar, that can even shock them. It’s as if a group takes on properties of its own. This shows us that unconscious forces might be at work.
When Wilfred Bion studied group behaviours in the late 1940s, he noticed that groups often operate at two levels at once. (Bion watching a group which then splits off to exhibit all different behaviours). First they are ‘on task’ (called ‘work-group mentality mode) – functioning well, managing tensions and paying attention to the job in hand. Second, groups can be taken over by strong emotions and collectively act out anxieties about their work which make it hard for them to complete tasks. They work in ’basic assumption mentality’ mode.
In fact, groups can behave in many different ways. Other people built on Bion’s work and these days it is generally recognised there are five categories of groupishness.
In one type, individual members become dependent on a single person, who they think knows all the answers to lead the group. In another, hopeful expectation develops that a powerful pair will save the group from itself (and do all the work). A different kind of group might also avoid work altogether by plotting and arguing or chatting, or developing an ‘us and them’ mentality. Individuals in a group might even act as if they are all the same and not share expertise, they want to lose themselves in the group mentality. And in stark contrast, they may forget they are in a group at all, become quite selfish and work totally on their own, protecting their boundaries.