Making something happen, together

Thank you all for your comments on Fish and Fowl.  Food for thought….  A rock, an elephant, a fish, specifically a Manta Ray, a seagull, an albatross, a bird of prey, a cat, a dog, and finally, appropriately positioned as last in the menagerie – a human being.
Interesting reasons too – freedom, wandering, soaring, vision, all associated with the bird; fluidity, perhaps also mobility and agility with the fish.  The elephant links with health, wealth and good fortune and also solidity, stability – perhaps the rock comes in here too?  Certainly the rock is associated with song lyrics, with creativity, and the albatross perhaps with poetry too.  The cat and dog are there for an easy life.  Only the human remains – perhaps there for the challenge of being who we are and who we are meant to be.
Yet my question – my question! – remains unanswered.  Just to remind you, my question was and still is: ‘what group would you rather be in?’
For me the important word is ‘group‘.
I am fascinated by groups.  Throughout my entire life I have wrestled with groups – perhaps the heritage of being an only child.  I have always had an ambivalent relationship with, and an indeterminate presence in, groups – since whenever.  Maybe this is because I found myself in a group of adults from way back when; and at the same time my mother was keen to be in a group with the children, me and my friends, also from year dot.  So there was a bit of confusion about group boundaries from the beginning, who was in and out etc.  When I did my counselling skills training I was the shadow of the group – I said all the hard stuff that no one else in the group was prepared to say.  When I attended a week-long course on Group Relations I broke the rules of the group and the lead facilitator told me to forget the week as soon as I could (I have never forgotten it). 

But this post is not intended to be about me.

I posed my question to explore the power and nature of groups.  Different groups look different, move differently, have different relationships with each other and so on.  To me the fish look swirling, fluid and flexible; they are moving in circles and spirals.  They are dancing in water.  They are spontaneous yet purposive.  The birds on the tree are still in that moment, they are positioned hierarchically, and there is an angular and static feel to that picture.  There is a lot in the contrast for me about how members of a group can choose to relate to each other.
I have seen groups disable themselves for many years – and, very occasionally, be self-enabling.  Wilfrid Bion, one of the most unreadable authors I’ve come across, talked about the power of groups to paralyse themselves in the name of Making Things Happen.  Wikipedia helpfully summarises his thinking as follows:
Bion argues that in every group, two groups are actually present: the work group, and the basic assumption group. The work group is that aspect of group functioning which has to do with the primary task of the group – what the group has formed to accomplish; will ‘keep the group anchored to a sophisticated and rational level of behaviour’. The basic assumption group describes the tacit underlying assumptions on which the behaviour of the group is based. Bion specifically identified three basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, and pairing.When a group adopts any one of these basic assumptions, it interferes with the task the group is attempting to accomplish.’
In my experience most groups adopt at least one of these basic assumptions, and so there is an unrecognised, unacknowledged, below-the-surface conflict between what they say they are there to do and what they are really doing.  My role is usually to help them achieve what they say they are there to do.  And that requires surfacing what they are really doing since this is so often at least part of the reason they are not doing what they say they are there to do.  Individuals and groups have such a battery of sophisticated defences to prevent themselves from delivering their espoused purpose – at least 40 defences by my recent count, and I am indebted to the great thinker and wise observer of human nature, Will Schutz, for this nearly exhaustive list.

Many psychologists and observers of human and group behaviour have described the different stages of group behaviour, and a common model moves from dependence through independence finally to interdependence.   For me the birds in the picture represent independence, the fish the possibility of interdependence.  There is a sense of nearly visible order in the swirling of the fish, as one discovers with ants or bees in motion, and a common enterprise.  The birds ended up on the branches, maybe they are travelling together but one senses it’s a pit stop, perhaps a pause in the fight-flight journey or a stage in pairing as they check each other out to pick the likeliest and most attractive partners.   The fish are going somewhere together – even if it is to a shared death, to be the snack of something larger in the food chain.  In their terms, they are making something happen, together. 
At the moment I am working with a group who have been stuck in fight-flight mode since I met them.  This group had a recent breakthrough.  I asked them how they could now take responsibility for serving themselves, and they inched their chairs metaphorically away from each other again and back towards me, falling back beyond fight-flight into dependency.  I wait with interest to see what happens.    I was with another group this week who are split in two, uncomfortable in their fight-flight shared enterprise, the more senior members at odds with the less senior – hierarchy always offers that opportunity.  I had frank and separate discussions with each half.  Will they be able to not glue but seamlessly transcend their split?  Time will tell.
Too many groups are like the fowl – a bunch of birds on a tree, an apparent organisation structure, with a different bird at the top.  They’re kind of working together but really they’re not.  No shared vision, just co-located.  Where are the connections?  You can draw a picture, an organogram, but it’s hard to make meaning out of it.  Maybe that’s why so many organisations have given up, abandoning their organograms and job descriptions and just getting on with things.  But this rarely works because they carry the unconstructive habits of mind and behaviour with them into this new world of liberated disorder.  They are not making things happen, together. 

I’ve had the fascinating experience of being part of a group recently myself, a member not the facilitator; and that’s given me huge insights.    How difficult it is to be one of those fish – I’d rather be a bird on the tree.  We in the West are so individualistic and I’m no exception.  Maybe I’m not a team player – but I love to play with teams!
And then there are virtual groups, a growing phenomenon in our time.  I wonder what Bion would have to say about these.  Maybe being part of a virtual group is an easier option than being part of a real group – safe in a room, hiding behind a pc.  I’m drawn back to the lyrics of ‘I am a rock’:

‘I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.’

Well, that’s what Simon and Garfunkel said, presumably in response to John Donne who held a different view:

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Even if I feel like Simon and Garfunkel, I know I am really as Donne says – we are all connected and I can choose to be and feel independent but ultimately I feel that is irresponsible and interdependence is not a choice, it is a fact of life.  But the behaviours of interdependence, responsibility, care, concern, community – these are all choices.  I know I don’t always make them, being a flawed and immature human being.  Do the fish make them?  No idea!

I was enchanted by this video which was recently drawn to my attention (soon after I joined Facebook, ironically) – Do Re Mi in a Belgian train station:

People coming together, from all walks of life – meeting in a train station, a crossroads, a melting pot.  Arriving there for a purpose and gradually coming together in synchrony, in delight, a vision realised.  People choosing to be in formation, nothing forced about it.  Breaking the norm and getting strange looks from others – and not caring.  And then the gradual dawning of incredulity, huge energy, participation and support. 
Making something happen, together – isn’t that what life is all about?  What stops us but ourselves?  I happened to read a great post by Glenn Berger when I was writing this earlier today and he talks in it about tuning in to the artistic sensibility:

‘What is this elusive artistic sensibility that I speak of? It is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a sensitivity and responsiveness to the highest levels of quality and feeling. It is an approach to life and work that involves aspiring to the most penetrating insight into truth. It demands that we be willing to put all of ourselves into everything we do with total passion. Simply being in the presence of that approach to living and work inspired me and taught me how to be.’ 

We have this resource in us, each of us – whether fish, fowl or human – perhaps even a rock does.  All we have to do is tune into it.  Ruth Sofia also sent me an interesting blog post by Rick Hanson about embracing fragility which ended with these words from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:

‘Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in’

What a beautiful image and what a great message – it’s the cracks that let the structure breathe.  So teams and groups and individuals that can welcome and own their own fragility, their vulnerability, their weakness, integrating their shadows – these are the strong ones, the ones that can make something happen, together, and inspire others to make things happen too.

Tree and shadows, Abington Park - Photo by Chris Hill

This entry was posted in connections, groups, organisational life. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Making something happen, together

  1. Viv says:

    “But a rock feels no pain and an Island never cries.”
    You missed out the final punch of that song. Oh and rocks have communities. They’re called rockeries.
    Joking aside, I shall get back to you with more thoughts.
    I dislike groups, and always have, but have belonged to and worked with many. What I find most difficult is the clear herd mentality of so many.

  2. Karin says:

    Thanks Viv – I must confess I’d forgotten about rockeries. I’d never thought of them as a community before – interesting concept…I look forward to your further thoughts.

  3. Viv says:

    Also, a real Zen gardener understands rocks and how rocks wish to be placed, and wacky as this sounds, rocks have a form of consciousness. They’re usually slower than trees and take longer to trust you.
    Have you ever watched a master drystone waller at work? Each rock is perfectly placed.

  4. Viv says:

    Check out this natural community of rocks; they were rolled here by a glacier.

  5. Karin says:

    Viv, I love rocks (tors for example) and they can create a really special feel in a natural landscape as well as in a garden. There is something very static and arranged about a Zen garden yet there is also a huge feeling of energy and relationship in the placements. I guess what I am most interested in is the energy of groups and group dynamics.

  6. Brilliant post Karin – I really love it. I had no hesitation in saying I was a fish but like you I think I’m not a team player but I love to play with teams. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences of groups – being at boarding school for 6 years was one – then about 15 years ago I had a very good group experience. The facilitator of the good group experience was excellent at managing conflict within the group, so I felt safe (enough) and that changed everything for me from then on.

    In the past I’ve practised Contact Improvisation – I learned a lot about myself in those groups even though there were no words – like assuming no one wanted to play with me much and finding out it was the opposite!

    I wish you weren’t so far away Karin – would love to have discussions in person. x

  7. Karin says:

    Thanks for your comment, Amanda. Like you it sounds, I had a lot of difficult, uncomfortable experiences in groups when I was a child and younger – probably all started out when I had a kindergarten teacher who used to humiliate me in front of the other children because I could read. She would make me read aloud and then basically mock me, implying I couldn’t really read and I was pretending or else say things which made it look like I was showing off. Or that’s what I remember anyway. She did all sorts of nasty things to other kids and eventually was fired – long after I’d left her class. I like to think that’s where my issues with ‘having a voice’ in groups came from.

    A few influential group experiences over many years have helped me to feel very different as a group member. I had a teacher who used to get frustrated when I volunteered insights after the group discussions but never in them. I would get so terrified of speaking in the sessions……but the counselling course and other groupwork have led me to really enjoy being in a structured group where I can voice my views. I still find unstructured groups, where that kind of exchange isn’t part of the primary task, really frustrating for oh, so many reasons. Partly I think, I like to challenge, and that’s not really very acceptable in most groups. And I am used to facilitating groups which is, of course, a position of relative power – as some readers will know! But I love groups, I always learn so much in and around them, during and afterwards. And I really like being put on the spot in a group, no matter what role I’m in, because there’s always a surprise and a discovery.

    I’ve had diluted experiences of ‘contact improvisation’. I think I’m more comfortable with a verbal version of it, but with the right teacher and right person to work with, it can be great.

    It would be good to talk, in the meantime I enjoy our online exchanges hugely!

  8. Chris says:

    Before I get on to the more esoteric aspects of groups I’d like to put in a word for the birds. I’m not sure all of them are so isolated from the others. What about when you see, at a rookery for instance, the one or two left on guard while others are away doing their birdy thing? And the ones who keep an eye to sound a common alarm at feeding sites? And how about the habit of sharing the pressure of leading migrations or smaller group journeys? Think of the v-shape of a skein of geese, with the leader constantly changing to share the load and the others spreading back in the best way to slipstream and save energy until it is again their turn to lead. I rest my case.

    I was a solitary child drawn into groups by a more outgoing older brother. But I’ve never really got the hang of groups. I seem to be at my most comfortable in them when I am either the leader (that power thing again) or maybe the trusted 2-i-c but in others I delight in being the clown. I have always been amazed and oh so disappointed to experience the contributions people make in a group while it is “being the group” and how much more sense you get from people when they say what they really feel as you gather your belongings together to leave.

    Maybe groups too often come together to do non-essential things – to be seen to be doing something defined by someone outside the group. Maybe we fear the power we grant if we leave an individual to get on with things but in guarding against abuse of that power by creating a group we actually diminish the chances of getting a good result.

    I have the great fortune to have been raised in a warm and loving family that has managed to pass that characteristic down through the generations. When we come together at birthdays or other family events (too often funerals these days!) an ideal group dynamic clicks into place without anyone defining our purpose – everyone of whatever age just looks round, sees what needs to be done and gets on with it. Due allowance is automatically made for age or disability and there’s always a helping hand nearby. Occasionally someone will ask a question or offer a warning or a word of advice but that’s the extent of it. If we could only bottle that and sell it we’d be millionaires.

    • Karin says:

      Rockeries and rookeries – ah, these comments are taking me all over the place!

      On people expressing their real views in the interstices of meetings – this is such a frequent phenomenon and is all about trust and fear of conflict. Until we get over our fear of disagreeing (which is after all when interesting things happen) and learn the skills to both disagree congenially and receive criticism with interest even as we may feel the initial hot rush of blood to the head and heart, we have no hope of being productive in a group as small as two. I could write a book on this….

      I agree with this paragraph: ‘Maybe groups too often come together to do non-essential things – to be seen to be doing something defined by someone outside the group. Maybe we fear the power we grant if we leave an individual to get on with things but in guarding against abuse of that power by creating a group we actually diminish the chances of getting a good result.’ I agree about point one. Your comment about fearing the power we may grant to an individual is fasciniating. The popular philosophy of today is that groups are more effective than individuals. But this can lead to gross inefficiency in some cases, especially as those groups get ever larger.

      Thanks for your comments, Chris – much to think about here!

  9. JOHN NEILSON says:

    Gosh Karin – where to start …!?

    Rather than attempt a coherent response I’ll just list a few reactions.

    I have next to no knowledge of either anthropology or zoology but I would be wary of pushing analogies with the animal kingdom too far – ultimately animals do the same thing over and over again … with a view to survival and reproduction. At the very least, do not we humans learn more readily and rapidly; and have greater capacity for innovation … and OK self destruction? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also comes to mind.

    I want to know more of Bion’s basic assumptions – will look him up. But I do recognise the point re espoused purpose and actual behaviours.

    In my organizational experience I was a member of several groups simulataneously within the same organization. I led a professional grouping, providing services to the rest of the organization. I was also a member of the top team of managers of the organization.

    There were many different views of the purpose of my group and how we should achieve it – both from within and without the group. The behaviours of the group were shaped by years of history, my vision as leader and each individual’ s own perception of what they saw as their role and responsibility, their ambition and their commitment to the organization, each other and me.

    So humans I would say are much more individualistic and wilful than animals.

    How to inspire and/or impose a set of values and hence behaviours on a group? I was the nominal boss … did that mean I achieved my aims? No. Why not? Because as Karin
    says people find a host of ways to do their own thing. I viewed a recent talk on the TED website by Stanley McCrystal recently – interesting comment from a viewer on there about the impact of a strong command and control culture on a group.

    It is a huge challenge to find the right triggers or hooks or language for each and every member of a group that will make sense to that individual in their day to day work that will align them to the vision, values and ‘espoused purpose’ of the group. This is far more complex than the simple ‘flocking rules’ that each and every bird in a flock follows – ensuring each bird is at all times a set distance away from its neighbour. But a successful group does need something equivalent to those flocking rules…

    There is massive inertia in humans – it is a cliche but there really does need to be a massive incentive for change for it to happen. The Leaders simply asserting and rationally arguing for change just doesn’t work – unless perhaps there is a very strong command and control culture in place.

    But even if successful that approach loses ideas and insights from members of the group – so how to create a safe environment in which those will come forward? Even a benign well intentioned leader can inhibit that simply by demonstrating expertise and competence … a Catch 22 situation.

    And I have recent experience of an apparently ‘strong’ leader attempting a command and control approach allied to an alienating or an inclusive approach depending whether one was in favour or not … such a frustrating and unsatisfying approach and ultimately will be unsuccessful.

    I am taken by Charles Handy’s suggestion that a Leader can only really know and trust up to 20 colleagues – suggesting perhaps an organisation as a network of groups of 20?

    Enough for now!

    • Karin says:

      Thank you for numbering, John – makes it easier to respond.

      2 Have a look at Bion’s book Experiences in Groups for more on his basic assumptions. He was a psychoanalyst and he writes interestingly about the behaviours he encountered.

      6, 8, 9 On command and control as a means of getting results – as you suggest, this is a style that is limited in its effectiveness. It wins compliance at best and not commitment – a dependence culture where people do not express their real views and there is partial engagement at most. Command and control is not a methodology linked with group effectiveness except in a crisis. It is disappointing if not surprising to see these behaviours creeping back into some organisations in the current circumstances.

      7 As you know, I agree completely with your point about finding the right triggers, hooks and languages for each individual. It can be done across a group in the right environment and, since we have last worked together, I have found that action learning can be a powerful framework for achieving this.

      8 There is a massive inertia in humans, but there is also a powerful energy in each person that can be activated in the right circumstances with the right connections. (A separate essay on this……)

      9 Command and control packaged as friendly or even benevolent inclusion (‘if you follow my rules’) is the deadliest of combinations. As you say, such an approach always fails ultimately but a lot of damage is often done in the meantime.

      10 Not sure where the 20 comes from but certainly groups of that size (or even a little less) verge on ineffective in my experience.

      10 again – should be 11, but I sense 10 is your upper limit!! (hence two 9s?) Thanks for your comments which are as ever thought-provoking and much appreciated. The subject remains open…….

  10. Chris says:

    On the issue of disagreeing, our incompetence at doing it well and our innate preference not to do it in public …

    I know a pair of 16-year old non-identical twins, both girls. Neither does well in groups. One either takes people on far too agressively if she disagrees with them or stays silent but then agonises and moans about them for ages afterwards. The other just smiles and says “Well that’s your opinion. It’s not mine because I think so and so but the world is big enough for both of us” and goes on her way without undue concern. She’s never going to enjoy the particular pleasures of a long and heated debate or of working within a good group but on the right occasion it’s a brilliant technique.

  11. Stephen says:

    Do you really believe that the youtube event was spontaneous? I think it was well rehearsed and staged for the cameras which were positioned at a number of different points. I’ve got great admiration for all those that joined in but I’m always wary of getting sucked into something like this where, on the face of it, it is quite innocuous but underlying it there’s something not quite right. The Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s are a good example of well rehearsed events that pulled ordinary people into totally inhuman acts – this must never be forgotten.
    And not one to let go of an idea the thought of geese flying came to mind the other morning when a scane of them flew over the house. Geese flying in a V formation use 70% less energy than when flying alone. For more info on this goto:
    At a human level we haven’t progressed that far from our ancient ancestry and civilisation is only a thin veneer. We humans are tribal and we find our tribal roots where we can often changing allegiances during the day from home to work etc.

    • Karin says:

      Hi Steve,

      Good to read you again here. Both you and Chris have commented on the energy-saving formation of geese. I can only agree. I liked the dance in the station because it raised my energy, I saw it late one Friday afternoon and it simply pleased me. But of course – ever the realist – you are right. Something must have been planned – perhaps an invite on Facebook or something like that got all those people there. And it certainly looked like they had rehearsed. It was still delightful for observers, don’t you think?

      On reflection, the only things ‘not quite right’ about it, as far as I can see, are: 1) it could be construed to be all about ego 2) it is about manipulating a response from the audience of passersby 3) and especially as it was so carefully filmed, maybe it was a marketing event. None of these seem to me to be terribly important or risky – rallies and protests are possibly of a different ilk? Or are you suggesting all crowd behaviour is potentially menacing (let’s band together as introverts!)

      I have to say though, now that I think more about it, I have never been one for ‘planned spontaneity’ of which the video is a perfect example. A friend recently invited me to an upcoming Sun Salutations event in Trafalgar Square. People are supposed to turn up with their yoga mats at a designated time and do this yoga sequence for half an hour. Even if I wasn’t already doing something else, I don’t really like the idea of it….Not sure what is the point, the value, and it does seem to be about drawing attention to self at least in part.

      Finally —– your comment about changing allegiances from home to work makes me think of the view so many people express to me (often in Myers-Briggs debriefs) that ‘I am a different person at home than I am at work’ (usually meaning ‘I’m much nicer at home’! and ‘I’m really a good person, believe me, even if I don’t act like it at work’). I wonder. Do we change allegiances, or do we just change settings? Can we not simultaneously maintain our relationships that co-exist in different settings?

      We change our behaviour. Do we change ourselves?

      On that note – have a good weekend and I hope all is as well as it can be.


      • Stephen says:

        Hi Karin – life goes on…
        I didn’t mean to imply that behaviours changed between work and home but certainly alliances and allegiances change and along with that one’s personal objectives are very different.
        We are an arrogant tribal species and the introverts amongst us are always on the edge of the tribal activity looking on with some caution as to whether all this group hugging (or dancing) is a good thing.

      • Karin says:

        Hi Steve
        A lot going on….I am interested in your comment about arrogance – what makes ‘us’ (all humans?) especially arrogant (as opposed to stupid!)? I know what you mean about being on the edge looking on with some questions….I live that feeling of ambivalence when I go to circle dancing events!
        Hoping things are ok,

  12. Chris says:

    I like Steve’s word ‘tribal’. I’m sure that he’s hit on a truth there. But these days we find ourselves called on to belong to many tribes. Maybe life used to be simpler – my one tribe right or wrong.

    I’m sure that we don’t change from work to home – we just suppress and display different facets of ourselves and raise and lower barriers to suit the audience.

    Talking of audiences and harking back to group behaviour we have been having trouble getting Parish Councillors to behave naturally and say what they really think at meetings held in the presence of members of the public. (I should say that given the riveting nature of our meetings we normally get about four members of the public in attendance and they are well known regulars.) It’s laughable how differently some Councillors behave on the odd occasion when no member of the public turns up. And such a shame. The quality of debate is better and work gets done faster and more enjoyably on those occasions. The people who can’t hack this can see what they are doing, understand why they shouldn’t be doing it but seem unable to change their behaviour. Great shame.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Chris – I strongly believe that we like to make sophisticated analysis of our behaviours but underlying these are some very basic, animal instincts. My comments on allegiances don’t mean we change ourselves, we change our objectives.
      Your comments about parish councillors struck a chord as I will hopefully become a parish councillor in May (an uncontested seat) so I might well experience these behaviours. It sounds like it will be very much like it was at work in local government where people would attend meetings (so many meetings), agree to a process or policy and then when back in their own tribal areas behave as though this agreement had never taken place.

      • Karin says:

        Steve, I too agree the basic instincts of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, protection of self and what/who is dear to us – these feelings underpin our responses. I believe we can become ever more aware of these feelings so that they do not dictate our responses. We can be aware and uncomfortable in the moment – and maybe we can just change ourselves….

    • Karin says:

      Apologies for delay in responding, Chris. Life has swamped me….
      I do not feel very tribal. I am always outside of tribes, but maybe everyone else feels that way too!
      Your comments on the effect the public presence has on Councillor behaviours are interesting. Self-consciousness is the great inhibitor, plus a sense of self-importance in role, and the effect of ‘performance’. Family and school inculcate this feeling of being watched, observed, evaluated, judged. It’s all about trust too. You can see I’m writing this in shorthand – I did like your anecdote.

  13. Chris says:

    Oh Stephen,

    Your comment about the introverts is SO true of me that I laughed out loud.

    Depending on your Parish Council you may be agreebly surprised. Should it be small and rural you may find that it has escaped the behaviours you deplore. Although ours suffers from people not speaking up without great encouragement everyone is there because they believe in the community and want to do the right things. Non-political, no bosses trapped in hierarchies and measured by targets to satisfy. I occasionally moan but after a good few years of service I still find it immensely satisfying. I hope you will too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s