The last few decades have been characterised by many as disruptive. The rate of discovery and inventions accelerated bringing with it fast pace advances in many fields because of the technological changes in IT, robotics and automation. It brought changes that were disruptive not only economically, but also in all spheres of human activity such as in social networks and politics. One of the most significant results is that whole businesses, even whole industries disappeared, and our way of life was irrevocably altered in more ways than one.

As individuals, we have to cope with this fast pace of change and displacement. Our jobs, our way of life are disrupted. New ways of relating are made possible by new technology such as social media has redefined our support networks. In fact, witness the growth of social media and how it has replaced a lot of channels for interpersonal communication. Witness the sight of jobs disappearing, and new jobs appearing made possible by developments for which only the young or those who are prepared are able to handle. These are troubled times indeed for older individuals, many of whom are hapless to cope.

But what about organizations? Organizations are obviously affected as well. They are organizations that have disappeared in their entirety especially during those financial crises of 2008 and the earlier Asian financial crisis 10 years earlier. If they did not disappear, do they showed any signs of stress as individuals do?

Of course, they do and experts who studied social organizations, have noted the pattern of social behaviour as organizations. I have earlier on reviewed  a collection of essays edited by Earl Hopper (Hopper, 2012) in the article entitled: “Book Review: Trauma and Organization”  (Kong, 2016) This is a collection of essays describing the social patterns of reaction as organizations confronted with traumatic stress struggled with the need to survive intact. This earlier article was somewhat technical and I venture to once again outline the organizational reactions when an organization is confronted with disruptive change and stress.

The social behaviour of groups

Under normal circumstances, groups or organizations are formed for specific purposes. Economic groups and business organizations are organized for profit. Other organizations are organized with objectives that may be altruistic or serve a common purpose subscribed to by members.

Whatever it is, such groups are formed by rational mature human beings for specified purposes. Members of the group are able to subordinate their own feelings and impulses in the group and cooperate with other members to pursue their mutual objectives which they had agreed upon at the onset. This is the Work group mentality and the group is called a work group as it works to fulfil its objectives. (Bionian terminology, see my earlier article cited above)

There is another mentality that operates in groups, according to WR Bion a psychoanalytic writer who investigates the functioning of normal functioning groups composed of healthy adults. This other mentality is called a Basic Assumption mentality and the result is a basic assumption group or “ba group” for short.

By definition, a ba group is one dominated by the unconscious fears, desires and anxieties of its members. Defending against anxieties and dread, members exhibiting ba characteristics can show paranoid, defensive, hostile behaviours and can be aggressive, abusive, and/or attacking real or imagined enemies and are the basis of misunderstandings, quarrels and conflicts within a group. This is seen in groups where rival factions can arise and be in conflicts, leaders of factions can lead the attack against individual members or a group of members. Individuals with hidden agendas can hijack the group’s purpose and subvert them to their own selfish purposes.

At its worse,  ba groups are in a state of disempowerment and helplessness looking for a messianic or powerful leader who can lead the group out of distress and into the “promised land”. This is what happened when a group, community or society is under intense stress from environmental change and threat.

In real life, while most work groups predominantly harbour a work group mentality, the presence of subtle ba group mentality is ever present and lying just below the surface.  You see this in work groups having cliques and factions, hidden agendas, vested interests, disagreements which occasionally lead to conflicts arising spontaneously from whatever motivation that may be conceivable to the most inconceivable.

The existence of such ba group mentality will necessitate resources such as leaders, mediators and coaches to work at resolving such differences. The role of such mediators and professionals is to ensure that such differences are resolved and allowing the group to function normally again. Hence the presence of ba group mentality consumes much-needed resources.  It has a cost as in that time is wasted and deplete other scarce resources in working out a solution to the interpersonal relationships issues arising from affected individuals’ needs and wants.

It is generally agreed among those who worked with groups that as long as ba group mentality effects do not take up more than 20% of time and other resources, the work group is manageable and able to fulfil its stated function. Certainly, with no environmental pressures on the group to threaten the integrity of the group, this will be true. Indeed, a work group is normally able to manage its tasks as well as its dynamics and relationships.

The organization under stress

But what if the group is under threat? What if disruption and changing environmental conditions threaten the very existence of the organization and group? What patterns of behaviour can be seen?

Under such circumstances, practically all members in the group face the same existential threat of the potential loss of the familiar and confronted with the uncertain future. Preoccupied with such losses, anxieties and fears, it would be the case that attentional focus will be less on the much-needed tasks of attending to the usual work to meet organizational objectives and instead more time will be spent coping with the negative emotions that are or will be arising in due course.

When individuals of a group or organization are under the stress of a threat to their existence, the organization/group as a whole exhibits a basic assumption mentality. Bion described three basic assumption mentalities, dependencies, fight/flight reaction and pairing. Since then other authorities had described other basic assumptions which I find unconvincing as they were theoretical constructs except for that of Hopper who described a 4th basic assumption and named it Incohesion which can assume 2 forms: Aggregation and Massification, note that these are descriptive in nature.

In Dependency, members of the group seek to attain security by looking for a leader. The perceived leader is then invested with supernatural powers to meet the needs of the immature and passive members. Obviously, the leader will fail because of the insecurities and resentment of the members, and another leader would be found to take the failed leader’s place and the process then repeats itself.

In the Fight/flight ba mentality, the group members behave as if it has to preserve the group at all costs, and this can only be done by running away from someone or something or fighting someone or something. Aggressiveness and outright hostility are manifested in a fight reaction, while avoidance reactions can be seen in flight reaction, and this includes chatting away aimlessly, telling stories, being late, in fact, any activity that will allow members to avoid addressing the task that they have to do. The fight/flight group will be led by a leader who can mobilize the group to attack someone or something or else to escape from someone or something.

In pairing, psychological defences of denial and repression are in operation, although the mood of the group is hopeful. This hopefulness stems from the existence of 2 leaders, who are invested with reproductive and creative powers as they set about the work of leading the group. The group’s purpose is to produce a leader and the 2 leaders are supposed to be producing it. Note the underlying sexual theme. Yet the 2 leaders invested with such energies regardless of sex will carry out the wishes of the group and thus save it.  While there is erotization, pairing is not essentially erotic as the energies are mostly creative with positive expectations of the group’s survival.

In extreme traumatic stress affecting organizations, as in the Jewish holocaust and the complete shutting down of an organization (which had happened many times over), individual members behaved rather aimlessly and helplessly and move amoeba-like seeking for relief. This result in psychological Incohesion, which can exist in 2 poles. Aggregation referred to the “clumping” of such members together within the same space, yet the members, each one of them are isolated from the rest like individual rocks or stones together but not connected. Massification, on the other hand, refers to the “mass-like” or “horde-like” behaviours with the characteristic of one large body with no differentiation of individual selves. (You can see these reactions in large populations where there is a total collapse of social and communal structures. This account is the formulation of Earl Hopper’s fourth basic assumption, which is an improvement of the one proposed by an earlier writer, Pierre Turquet. (Lawrence, 1999)

In real life, organizations, societies, communities and groups are able to function as a work group. This is because members are mature adults who are able to manage their shared tensions, anxieties and relationships in order to function effectively. This leads to a capacity for realistic hard work. (French & Simpson 2010) However, lurking beneath the surface, are hidden thoughts, fears and insecurity together with unconscious anxieties and other affect that breakthrough in subgroups of the main group. Again the group at large are still able to handle that until the threat to the survival of the group and its members reach a stage where anxieties overwhelm normal work group mentalities. This is when the organization or group is traumatized by the environmental threat with the ever-constant fear of annihilation.

As described above, in such a state, members look to leaders, and it is leaders who will make a crucial difference to the body-life of the group. In reality, no one is prepared for psychological trauma or a severe crisis, no matter how prepared we are.

The Role of Leadership in Organizational Trauma

Both the group and the leader needs help to restore equilibrium again. This really is disaster management. The physical needs of safety and security needed to be attended to first, then medical needs and lastly, but just as important, the psychological needs. This last category will be most problematic and exact a heavy toll in both personal and group costs if attended to inadequately.

The leader probably needs all the help he would need for most of the stress would fall on him. In stress that affects whole communities and groups, the fight/flight paradigm does not hold true anymore, and the principle that is operative here is for the leader to “tend and befriend”. This place the leader in the unenviable position of shouldering the stress so that members of the community can feel safe.

That’s why the leaders need the most help and must have their needs met. The ideal support for the leader is to have working with him, a therapist/counsellor/coach particularly one knowledgeable about helping traumatic organizations. These supports will help the leader to function and bring the group to confront the fears, the grieves, and the pain of losing the familiar and able to confront the hopelessness of the past and perhaps the present so that they can look to the new life ahead. The leader(s) need to communicate hope in the midst of despair.

The leader(s) also needs technical and specialised support. These supports will help him work out the road map ahead for the community. He needs to redefine the work for the community to give it new meaning and a place to go once they have decided to leave the familiar past.

This is no easy task, as in the age of disruption nowadays, the going is tough, the future is uncertain, even what will work in the future is probably unknown. Thus, he needs the support of others who form his leadership team to forge consensus, to decide on behalf of the community and eventually to strike forth with hope and courage, leading the community to embracing the future and survive.

The major issue is this: is there enough support out there to see not just one, but the many organizations that appear to be at the threshold of some major, drastic change? Time will tell.

  1. Hopper, Earl, ed(2012) Trauma and Organisation. Karnac books
  2. Douglas Kong (2016); Book Review: Trauma and Organizations.
  3. Lawrence, W. Gordon ed.(1999) Exploring Individual and Organizational Boundaries: A Tavistock Open Systems Approach. Karnac Books.
  4. French RB, Simpson P, (2010) The ‘work group’: Redressing the balance in Bion’s Experiences in Groups Human Relations, 63(12), 1859–1878.