As a leader, you may find it useful to consider how the primary tasks of your own organisation are connected to dependent, fight, flight, or pairing relations.

Bion’s theory of basic assumption groups, as he presents it, is essentially a theory of group-based defences. The basic assumptions of dependency, fight-flight and pairing each relate to a shared task of the members of a group, not necessarily consciously held, in which the group acts, for example, as if it has formed to fight or flee a threatening object. Bion uses the term work group to refer to the group engaged in a consciously shared task, for example, a committee meeting working through an agenda. The task of the work group is consciously acknowledged, the task of the basic assumption group must be inferred from the behaviour of the group – the group acts “as if” it is fighting or fleeing an enemy (baF), waiting for a messiah (baP), or waiting for a benevolent being to tend to its needs (baD).

Bion cites Freud’s mention of specialised work groups, the Church and the Army, and notes the connection between their conscious tasks and the basic assumption groups baD and baF respectively. He offers the aristocracy as an example of an institution functioning in baP – because of its interest in braiding. Nevertheless, he seems more interested in the way the basic assumptions serve as group-based defences helping to avoid the work task. Bion’s work group has its own vitality and is concerned with the search for truth, while the basic assumptions, acting as defences, embody the hatred of learning by experience.

French and Simpson (2010) assert that although the basic assumptions serve to defend against work, dependent, fight-flight and pairing relations, per se can also energise work groups to which they are appropriate.

“It was our work with leaders that first led us to question the presentation of work-group mentality as an apparently undifferentiated state; that is, simply as W, in contrast to the elaboration of the basic assumptions into baD, baF and baP“ (p.1868)

French and Simpson describe a case study in which a fight relation between two groups that was impeding work was redirected into successful work through the establishment of a pairing relation between the leaders of the two groups.

You may find it useful to consider how the primary tasks of your own organisation are connected to dependent, fight, flight, or pairing relations. Organisations, characterised by dependent relations, include not only the church, but also hospitals, childcare centres and educational institutions. Fight flight organisations include the armed services, competitive sports, police forces, and disaster management services. Pairing, with its evocation of excitement and hope, underpins, gambling, entertainment, and advertising. In complex organisations, these types of relations may characterise different sections of the organisation.

French, R. B. & Simpson, P., (2010). The ‘work group’: Redressing the balance in Bion’s Experiences in Groups, Human Relations, 63(12):1859-1878

To read the paper UWE Bristol.

GRA logo


PO Box 529, Yarra Glen Victoria  3775  Australia


Follow Us