The Unconscious at Work

4 September 2013

Posted By artgym

How to create high performing teams through understanding collective unconscious processes.

Returning from coaching a group of international leaders in India last week I reflected on how powerful and sometimes overwhelming group dynamics within a group can be and the impact this can have on a groups performance and potential. Of course there is a vast difference between a group of talented individuals who simply work together, and an efficient, high performing team. I have often experienced a group of talented, committed individuals working together where their overarching team personality is highly defensive, blocking their ability to learn and grow. Identifying what is blocking a group from becoming a high performing team where the overarching team personality is collaborative can be very challenging. When all the tangible elements of creating a team are in place, yet performance is low, we have to look beyond the conscious processes to what lies beneath. In this blog I outline the tools and techniques I use to help unearth the unconscious at work.

How deep is the unconscious at work?

In leadership teams I often observe how limiting patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours develop that can undermine the common good. These patterns dramatically inhibit a team’s performance without the members even realising that performance is being inhibited. In fact, teams can often operate believing that they are working efficiently, blind to their full potential. The unconscious is always at work in teams; therefore the question to consider is, to what degree unconscious processes are stimulating inhibiting patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours? As with individual development, working with teams, raising levels of consciousness is key. The most successful teams are capable of developing awareness and insight into their collective behaviour above and beyond simply assessing their activity in terms of pure business results.


When working with teams there are three frames of reference that act as my navigational compasses to the unconscious. Based on the work of Bruce Tuckman and Wilfred Bion, they have proven invaluable to me in assessing a team’s level of defensiveness and highlighting the specific aspects of a team’s dynamic that require attention to help them transform into a collaborative high performing team.

Frame of Reference 1: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

Bruce Tuckman

Tuckman’s field of study entails observations of the life cycles of groups and the different stages groups go through – namely forming (creating connections), storming (asserting difference), norming (creating cohesion) and performing (true collaboration). According to Tuckman, these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to face up to challenges and grow, to tackle problems, find solutions together and most importantly to deliver results. The first question I ask myself when working with a group is ‘what stage is this team going through?’ What is important to note is that teams can go though mini-cycles within a larger macro-cycle. For example, a team that has worked together for a number of months or years can go through a micro-cycle of forming, storming, norming and performing during the course of a one-day workshop. So the second question to consider is, ‘how effective is this team at each of the stages: forming, storming, norming and performing?’ During a storming phase, you may observe that different ideas or difficult feelings don’t get expressed. This might indicate that the team has not learnt how to effectively ‘storm’ together.[1] For example, I was working with a leadership team recently that was struggling to lead their organisation through significant change. They appeared on the surface to be a cohesive team, but I observed that they always made an inappropriate amount of jokes when a team member tried to express their emotions around the difficulties they were experiencing. It felt as if the team could not tolerate it. This sarcastic way of communicating together had been normalised. The team had unconsciously created a pattern of communicating together that avoided difficult conversations. In order to effectively lead the change in their organisation, the team needed to re-learn how to storm – how to express their differences as well as the difficult feelings around the change that was happening.[2] The next two frames of reference I use to navigate the unconscious at work come from the studies of the brilliant psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. According to Bion, much of the ineffective, irrational and sometimes chaotic behaviour we see in teams can be viewed as springing from unconscious ‘basic assumptions’ that members of the team make up. These basic assumptions arise as a defence against underlying fears and anxieties. Bion observed three different basic assumptions that play out in teams. In my experience working with large commercial organisations, two of these three are particularly relevant.[3]

Frame of Reference 2: Dependency Dynamic

Unconscious defensiveness in teams can easily trigger a dependency dynamic, where team members act out of a basic assumption that the leader will solve everything. This dynamic is often reflected on a larger scale in politics for example. Within organisations, a leader might not understand why team members are not effectively focusing on priorities, and team members behave as if the leader is taking care of everything important. In my example above, this dependency dynamic played out with team members assuming they didn’t need to voice their opinion and feelings about the change they were going through. The team leader unknowingly enforced this dynamic by never explicitly asking team members to express their opinion or feelings about the change when they were in team meetings, only focusing on asking members to report on their transactional activities.[4] To lessen a dependency dynamic, teams must gain the ability to reflect together, develop their metacognitive skills and focus on creating a genuine interdependency when working on tasks. For the team to reach its optimum performance potential it must make the transformation from a defensive stance to a collaborative stance by shifting the dependency dynamic from the leader to every member of the team is critical.

Frame of Reference 3: Fight or Flight

Wilfred Bion

The third frame of reference I use to unearth the unconscious in teams is Bion’s basic assumption called ‘Fight or Flight’, where team members act as if they were confronted with a common enemy or threat. For example, a leadership team may spend most of its time in meetings worrying about rumours of a buy-out or change instead of considering how best to organise and work together. Whilst this may provide a sense of togetherness, it also serves to avoid facing the difficulties of work. Sometimes when a team leader brings me in to work with his or her team, I experience team members acting as if I were a threat. For example, team members might avoid contact with me (flight) or demonstrate antagonistic behaviour or language (fight). Recognising these patterns is key, and understanding that they are only in defence against underlying fears and anxieties.[5] Therefore, part of my role in coaching the team is to help team members’ work through these feelings by communicating openly and honestly together. I was coaching a team recently who spent the majority of their time discussing the intentions of their investors. Soon the team reached a point of paranoia that became a major block to performance. Energy and focus was being wasted on this perceived threat. Underlying this was of course a genuine fear of change. Once recognised, the team focused on how to create effective channels of communication with their investors.

Conclusion: Unearthing the unconscious at work

The performance of every team depends on its psychological growth and health. The key question is, “why do teams need to raise their levels of consciousness?” Carl G. Jung claimed that “without the reflecting consciousness of man the world is a gigantic meaningless machine.” Yes, we can carry on with a twentieth century mechanistic metaphorical reference for organisations, where the deep psychological processes are ignored, or we can acknowledge the organisations we work with as living systems of interdependency.[6] The business driver for organisations to enhance performance by transforming defensive team cultures into collaborative team cultures is increasing. More and more, it is my experience that unearthing the unconscious  at work is critical to this transformation.


– Barrett, Sheila. Communication, Relationships and Care: A Reader, London: Routledge. 2004

– Dirkx, John M. ‘Transformative Learning and the Journey of Individuation’. Eric Digest – Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. No. 223, 2000.

– Hut, P.M. The Five Stages of Project Development:, last accessed 04.09.2012.

– Jacoby, Mario. Individuation and Narcissism – The Psychology of Self in Jung and Kohut. Routledge: East Sussex. 2008.

– Maples, Mary F. ‘Group development: Extending Tuckman’s Theory’. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, Vol. 13, Issue 1, 1988.

[1] P.M. Hut, The Five Stages of Project Development:, last accessed 04.09.2012.
[2] Mary F. Maples,  ‘Group development: Extending Tuckman’s Theory’ in The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, Vol. 13, Issue 1, 1988.
[3] Wilfred Bion, “The unconscious at Work in Groups and Teams: Contributions from the Work of Wilfred Bion” in Sheila Barrett, Communication, Relationships and Care: A Reader, Routledge, London, 2004.
[4] Wilfred Bion, “The unconscious at Work in Groups and Teams: Contributions from the Work of Wilfred Bion” in Sheila Barrett, Communication, Relationships and Care: A Reader, Routledge, London, 2004.
[5] Wilfred Bion “The unconscious at Work in Groups and Teams: Contributions From The Work of Wilfred Bion” in Sheila Barrett, Communication, Relationships and Care: A Reader, London, Routledge, 2004.
[6] Mario Jacoby, Individuation & Narcissism – The Psychology of Self in Jung and Kohut, Routledge: East Sussex, 2008, p. 108.

Other Related Articles

9 Core Competencies for Innovation at Work

18th May 2020

 What Does it Take to Lead Innovation and Change in the 21st Century? Well using our experience and research we have identified…

The Creativity Assessment

17th April 2020

Are you putting your creativity to work? Check out Artgym’s free Creative Intelligence Self-Assessment to help you find out? Creative…

Upping Creative Intelligence in the workplace

3rd April 2020

Eugene Hughes is the CEO at Artgym and a Psychologist specialising in imagination and creativity. He has won many international…