In the late 1940s Western society faced serious challenges: rationing, economic uncertainty, and the reassembling of family and social life after prolonged upheaval.

(Now that sounds familiar as I edit this blog in early 2021 …)

Working primarily with traumatised ex-servicemen at this time, Wilfred Bion and others at the Tavistock Clinic in London experimented with novel approaches in psychotherapy, particularly in group settings.

Bion was a psychoanalyst who had been decorated for bravery in the Great War and one of whose patients was the playwright Samuel Beckett. 

While Beckett was articulating his sense of futility and absurdity in the wake of war in plays such as Waiting for Godot, Bion and his colleagues grappled with the principles underlying social anxiety.

He observed how groups form, interact and develop as their common purpose emerged.

He held that once a group had formed, its primary task was survival.

He contrasted ‘working’ groups with ‘basic assumption’ groups.

A ‘working’ group was one in which members predominantly cooperated in working towards the group’s aims and objectives.

A ‘basic assumption’ group was one in which the hidden agendas and anxieties of the members interfered with and hindered the group purpose and were diverted to fulfilling the members’ own aims and calming their own anxieties.

‘Basic’ refers to the group’s need for survival; ‘assumption’ relates to the instinctive ways of attempting to calm group anxieties [1].

Bion developed his theories over a decade, working with men who had experienced horrific war trauma and observing their interactions within therapy groups. 

He refined his findings and outlined three ‘basic assumptions’ that are seen in unhealthy groups, namely dependency, fight/flight and pairing.

We see the assumption of dependency playing out where group members consciously or unconsciously allow one individual to make decisions and take the strategic lead. By default, the group behaves as if it is incompetent and can eventually allow the dominant individual to fail.

Fight/flight can be seen in individuals scapegoating and victimising within the group or withdrawing from the task in hand, becoming passive, avoiding warnings or dwelling on past history.

Pairing involves individuals joining forces, creating cliques and factions and redirecting the group’s collective goals.

In all, there can be an unrealistic optimism that the group will be rescued and in this way its objective is avoided. 

An organisational analyst, looking at the way that Beth’s department was and was not functioning, might flag up the way in which the group was operating on a fight and flight assumption.

Recognising that group anxieties such as rivalry, humiliation, implied rejection, or maybe the risk of a P45 were feeding into its way of defending itself – by trying to escape from the anxiety by means of inner conflict and displacement of the anxiety by scapegoating Beth (through complicity with Steve’s bullying behaviour) -the group was not performing as a ‘working’ group but as a ‘basic assumption’ group.

Whilst remaining productive overall and ‘working’ in the sense of completing deadlines and time recording requirements and keeping clients happy, the group was operating dysfunctionally at the considerable expense of its members’ mental health.

More recently Larry Hirschhorn has proposed additions to Bion’s three basic assumptions including the notions of ‘covert coalitions’ and ‘organisational rituals’ [2].

By their silence at the way Beth was treated by Steve, other members of the group created a covert coalition which allowed the scapegoating to continue. 

Essentially, the group used Beth as a dumping ground for their own hidden anxieties.

And this is the essence of bullying … 




[1] Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups and other papers. London: Tavistock

[2] Hirschhorn, L. (1988) The Workplace Within: The Psychodynamics of Organizational Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT (p. 63).


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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