Group unconscious

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I’ve been reading this: The Group Unconscious: A Synthesis Paper (pdf), which its author Alok Singh shared with me. It’s real brain food and not a light read but it echoes strongly with me.

Alok explores the idea that groups of people amount to a great deal more than the sum of the parts, for good or ill. The notion of a collective unconscious makes considerable sense, although it’s often pooh-poohed in a culture that tends to see us only as individuals.

Exploring the unconscious feels like a risk, and requires a different way of thinking about conversation.

I think we’re accustomed to the idea of conversation as discussion (same root as percussion) in which competing explicit ideas and egos battle it out in a supposed survival of the fittest. Moving beyond this, to a space where we risk less certainty and more vulnerability, can be quite a shift.

(Folks are so attracted to certainty. I watched a commentator this morning, woefully wringing his hands at the result of a German election. The terrible uncertainty of a hung parliament would be bad for the German economy, blah blah. The notion that the opposing parties might have to engage in a constructive conversation and that there might be some good in this was excluded from consideration; in his eyes much better the “certainty” of one political grouping being “in control”.)

I liked Alok’s observation:

What I particularly notice is that breakthroughs in the depth of conversation happen when the group becomes more conscious of itself in the process of conversation itself.

He then relates some fascinating research by the physicist Henri Bortoft who compares “authentic and counterfeit wholes”. This strays into fairly mind-bending territory – it’s a characteristic of the phenomenon we’re trying to explore here that it doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation in words. But anyway, here are a few words:

Bortoft says that in any natural or human phenomenon, the Whole is of a different order to the Parts, and is thereby not the same as the sum of the Parts… there is an ‘essential irreducibility of the Whole’; while we can put Parts together, we cannot put together Wholes.

If you think of times when you’ve been part of, or maybe witnessed, a great team, or indeed found yourself sucked into a mob, you’ll have experienced this sense of something beyond the agglomeration of individuals.

The paper uses the iceberg metaphor to suggest that only a small fraction of what is going on in groups is conscious. (See my post about the Tyranny of the Explicit for more iceberg thoughts) Alok puts forward a variety of interesting thoughts about how groups work, if what’s largely going on is the working out of issues and conflicts that are known but not being talked about (the elephant under the table)… or even more interesting, unknown and not talked about (the elephant under the elephant?)

A good example is a group which keeps cycling back to some familiar conflict, apparently resolving only to revive it again. What’s interesting when this happens is to enquire into what’s beneath the superficial conflict.

Alok has some great insights about the difference between a highly functioning group (increases the level of consciousness) and a mob (reduces consciousness, so that the individuals merely lose themselves).

In Mobs, which develop through Deindividuation, group members bury a large part of their personal identity and replace it with the identity of the group-as-a-whole. Group members lose their moral compass, as the complexity of their many identities is submerged and denied… In Synergistic Groups, which develop through Individuation, group members become more aware of their complex identities, and start to take ownership of aspects of their identity that they have previously disavowed.

I also liked Alok’s summary of the qualities a facilitator needs to work with groups in a way that respects the great amount of non-rational, non-explicit stuff that is going on… self-awareness, presence and what he calls neutrality but I would call openness.

Fascinating stuff. And not easy to blog about.


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