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Collective subconsciouses revealed in work groups

1 February 2018
Noga Chipman-Steinwartz
office team

Years ago, I directed a group that discussed bullying among teenagers and how to eradicate the phenomenon. All participants felt very strongly on the subject: senior, involved and professional educators. All were experienced adults accompanying teenagers that were obviously aware to the personal and social price of bullying. By the second meeting I noticed a peculiar behavioral pattern. I gradually realized that two group members are actively participating while not allowing others to speak up and express their opinion. This was done via resentment, teasing and dismissive speech towards both other members and the group director. If anyone did try saying what's on their mind, blunt or tacit sarcastic comments were made to shut them up.

Similarly,  I worked with a wonderful group of various professionals dealing with socioeconomically challenged sectors. Each participant was far from helpless: professionally acclaimed, highly educated with a fitting income. However, the group as an autonomous entity was as helpless as they come, as it constantly raised heavy doubts regarding its members' ability to influence and change matters; ultimately, the group believed it wasn't even worth a try. There was many a silence, little reaction to products and although objectively financial resources were allocated for the group's work, they nevertheless repeatedly claimed that no resources were available.

I felt as if the groups were acting out a part, as in a theatrical drama. The first group took the form of a bullies and victims, popular and shunned while the second group shaped itself as a group marginalized by others. Although this was obviously deterring the groups' work I assumed this phenomenon had its value. In a way, the dynamics the members developed gave a voice to the victims of teenage bullying and the disenfranchised groups in society. However, this position will benefit the groups' progress only if the groups realize what took place and objectively process what they experienced through these "parts".

 Most current group theories accept the assumption that when individuals work as a group, an array of forces unconsciously activates them and the group as whole. A group cannot be studied solely based on its explicit conduct; beyond its face value façade, every conversation and interaction hides a tacit meaning.

Thus, in depth examination at the "here and now" enables us to experience, process and better comprehend the participants' reality in other situations.  There is much value of this type of examination as it leads to the development of new knowledge and effective work procedures that wouldn't have been possible if the situations have been merely described by members or via objective in literature.

 One way to understand the collective subconscious is to examine and process situation through a few questions:

  • Content: what is being discussed? What is the theme?

  • Process: how is the situations evolving? What stages is the group going through?

  • Form: how are the participants talking? Who is talking and who is remaining silent?

The "what" and "how" and consideration of the "process" element together create what we directors listen out for: the message. We are especially attentive towards situations that manifest a gap between form and content e.g. a situation in which bullying eradication is being discussed in a manner not unlike bullying, especially during early work stages for conflict development. Another example of a gap between content and form would be a group discussing helpless sectors of society quite helplessly.


What do we do with this message? We can derive much value from these situations by reflecting them to the group and examining the different roles together. Try asking: how did it feel to play a certain part? What did you gain/lose? Are there any precursors to the uncomfortable behavior that took place? Was a certain reaction (by either director or member) useful? Which tools inhibit and which promotive? Understanding these dynamics can be translated in future work stages to vital work tools: procedures, checklists and instructions.

However, it is vital to be aware of the discomfort group members will probably experience when confronted with the collective subconscious as it appropriates personal experiences and bluntly claims that individuals aren't in full control of their conduct. Directors should present this interpretation as a possible explanation and examine whether it is accepted by them and see whether they view the situation similarly.


I wish you success.

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