Emotions in group life – insights from political turmoil in the UK

For those readers of this blog outside the UK, and who may have a less detailed understanding of what has been happening here, contemporary British politics offers some perfect examples of individual and group behaviour at the extreme. This drama could be of great interest to organizational scholars, particularly in this exaggerated form because it gives the lie to the perspective that we are all rational, calculating individuals capable of calmly working out what is in our best interests and that of others, and that we are always in control. Rather it has been a story of manic action and reaction, no doubt accompanied by very strong feelings[1], which has mirrored a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones.


The whole circus has been amplified because it takes place in the public gaze and is subject to minute by minute commentary by media and social media, and is not subject to the usual smoothing over by public relations techniques which imply that everyone knows what they are doing and has a plan. In many ways the amplification is a classic example of what Anthony Giddens meant by the ‘double hermeneutic’[2] – observations, interpretations of what is unfolding get taken up by the actors themselves, and so shape as well as describe what is happening, forming and being formed.

But in terms of individual and group behaviour it allows for further reflection on what being together in a group can involve, particularly where there are high stakes, and thus strong feelings. It speaks to Norbert Elias’ sociological research project; he was optimistic that we could bring to bear the same degree of detachment and control to our social exchanges that we have mobilized in our attempts to control nature. Since we are social beings, he argued, gaining greater control of how we relate would require us to be detached about our involvement with others[3], which might be one definition of what it means to be reflexive, and reflexive about our emotions. His major work, The Civilising Process[4], pointed to the way that greater social control also involved greater self-control. They are two sides of the same coin. The alternative to being reflexive, to be able to notice oneself in relation to others, is being unthinkingly buffeted about by our emotions and other people’s, with the potential to escalate into violence, particularly in the domain of international relations. This is not to argue that becoming reflexive makes one any more ethical. It is perfectly possible to become more detached about one’s involvement in order more ruthlessly to pursue one’s own objectives at the expense of others. Just ask Michael Gove[5]. There is a difference between becoming reflexive and being empathetic and compassionate.

I briefly explore three scholars who have taken reflexivity seriously, particularly in relation to strong feelings, from their study of individuals and groups in a clinical setting. The point of doing so is to reflect upon what it might take practically to encourage us to become more reflexive, as partial a project as that is, and to reflect on the importance of emotions in organizational life.

So what would Wilfred Bion[6] make of what’s happening in the Conservative and Labour parties at the moment? Just to back up for international readers, in the Conservative Party, the prime minister has stepped down following the vote to leave the EU. In the Labour Party a reluctant Jeremy Corbyn entered the leadership race to be leader a year ago when the incumbent, Ed Miliband, resigned after failing at the general election, because it was his (Corbyn’s) turn, as a member of the left caucus in the party, to stand, with no expectation even of garnering enough votes to be included in the ballot. To his surprise, and to everyone else’s, he found himself by far and away the most popular candidate at hustings. There are a variety of factors involved in this, not least because the other candidates were all so undifferentiated and seemed to be offering more of the same. But for the last ten months he has been the unexpected leader of the Labour party and has struggled to find a way of working with his colleagues in parliament. This has recently provoked a leadership challenge from two of his peers, particularly with the corresponding turmoil in the Conservative Party in the anticipation of an imminent general election.

Bion argued that when groups are overwhelmed with anxiety, particularly when they don’t know what’s coming next or feel leaderless, they stop paying attention to their task, what he called the work function of the group, and fall instead into three basic patterns of behaviour, which he termed basic assumptions. The three basic assumptions are dependency, fight/flight and pairing. Roughly speaking, dependency is a state where group members look around in their state of anxiety to fix upon a person who can save them. It is possible to see how the contemporary discourse on transformational and visionary leadership encourages this kind of dependency, where we are persuaded that our leaders are imbued with super-human powers and a unique insight into the human condition. When anxious groups experience the fight/flight basic assumption, they fight with each other or find something remote from the task in hand to preoccupy them to avoid dealing with each other and the job they have to do. In the pairing basic assumption, group members look to two ideal types in the group to pair up and save them (as their parents might have done when they were small). A psychoanalyst called Pierre Turquet[7] added a fourth basic assumption, that of oneness, where there is an appeal to the greater whole: ‘members seek to join in a powerful union with an omnipotent force, unobtainably high, to surrender self for passive participation, and thereby feel existence, well-being, and wholeness’. This last basic assumption is also visible in contemporary organizations particularly during charismatic strategy visioning meetings where there is an appeal for employees to commit to the vision and mission for the good of the organization. In Dewey’s terms[8] we are caught up in the experience of participating in a sense of idealized wholeness, which we can never realize in our day to day lives, but which gives us the sense of being an enlarged self.

So in both major parties in the UK, one with a leader, David Cameron who has stepped down, and one where there is a reluctant leader who has lost the support of his colleagues, this has called out a variety of basic assumption-like responses in party members. The parliamentary Labour Party, gifted with an opportunity to attack the government, are overwhelmed instead with anxiety because they feel they are not being adequately led. To a degree, Corbyn is the victim of the unreasonable contemporary cult of leadership where he is expected to be charismatic, calling out the very feelings of dependency which he eschews. Instead Labour Party members have begun fighting with each other about who should lead them. This in turn has led to supporters of Corbyn to appeal to ‘oneness’ and harmony, encouraging to ‘believe in’ #Jeremy4leader or #Jeremy4PM, where Corbyn does take on an almost cult-like status amongst his followers, partly because he is being attacked. Meanwhile, before Theresa May emerged as sole contender for the job of Prime Minister, some highly improbable and ordinary candidates, such as Andrea Leadsom, were suddenly imbued with idealized characteristics by would-be supporters in the Conservative Party, and were alarmingly considered to be ‘outstanding’. The ‘fight’ response has probably been preeminent, but it is possible to see all of Bion and Turquet’s basic assumptions played out amongst the politicians and their followers.

Bion offers some explanations for what might otherwise come across as quite bizarre behaviour in British politics, and perhaps the reader might also make links with similarly strange behaviour in their own organizations when they have participated in groups which have become anxious. The limitations of Bion’s insights are that they create a binary between the work group and the basic assumption group, as though participants could not operate in both modes at the same time. Bion also wrote in the Freudian tradition which assumes that the individual is at war with the group: for him membership of a group inevitably provokes primitive behaviour. This is distinct from SH Foulkes’ perspective on groups, which I discuss further below.

The second scholar I want to explore concerning the project of becoming detached about our involvement is Peter Fonagy[9], a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has developed a body of work based on a concept he terms ‘mentalization’. By this he means an imaginative act of mental activity, the ability to hold someone else’s mind in mind, to see oneself as another might see one and to impute intentionality to others. Fonagy’s work has focused largely on treating people with borderline personality disorder, or BPD, who experience rapid fluctuations in their feeling states which they cannot control, and which thus puts them at odds with people they need to get along with. Fonagy attributes this inability to control their affect and their weak sense of what Mead[10] would term the ‘generalized other’, and argues that this is often due to the ability or otherwise of a child’s primary carer to have formed a strong attachment with them so that their emotional state is appropriately responded to. A secure attachment with a carer, where a child has learnt to regulate their feelings appropriately in relation to the caregiver, leads to a robust sense of self and the ability to self-regulate.

Mentalization, argue Fonagy et al., is not a process or a state, but is close to being a character style: and with this argument Fonagy points to the work of Aristotle who thought that character and the virtues could be cultivated. For Aristotle full flourishing can only be achieved if we can regulate our emotions in conjunction with our exercise of reason. Through mentalization we can achieve a complex understanding of our own experience. This is different from an abstract and intellectual understanding of ourselves, but involves the capacity to reflect upon the experience of emotions as we are experiencing them. There are three phases being able to ‘mentalize’ affect, according to Fonagy et al.; these are noticing, modulating and expressing. Modulation does not necessarily mean dampening down, but could also involve refining, or making links between one emotion and another: for example, feeling angry could quickly switch to feeling anxious about feeling angry. Noticng how one feeling leads to another can allow us deeper insight into who we are and how our habitual reactions prevent us from functioning. There is a possibility, then, of understanding ourselves and our emotional complexity in a far richer way, which means taking our own history and circumstances into account.  This may allow for greater control over whether to express affect or not, which also includes expressing what we feel privately to ourselves. Forming a judgement about when to express feelings also involves taking into account how our feelings might affect other people. It is possible to see how this is a highly complex and responsive achievement. Fonagy’s methods are widely taken up in therapeutic communities founded to help people suffering from psychological distress, particularly those with BPD, to find a variety of ways, in a group and one to one, to experiment with more systematic ways of regulating their affect so that it weakens the disruption to their ability to function in the world.

Where Fonagy’s work departs from an understanding of the self based in Mead’s thinking is that he still cleaves to the idea of mind as a form of representation of reality, based on object relations theory in psychoanalytic thinking. For Fonagy, mentalization if a form of second order representation, where we form a representation of a representation (which is in turn is a representation of something ‘external’, other people’s emotional and intentional states). By contrast, Mead’s understanding of mind is as a form of activity, a pattern of gesture and response by a body towards itself, and towards other human bodies.

The last thinker I want to consider is SH Foulkes, who was a friend and colleagues of Norbert Elias, although their relationship was problematic, at least from Elias’ side. IN doing so we return full circle to Elias’ project to encourage us to become more detached about our involvement in social life. For the most part, Foulkes abandons the idea of a self separate from other selves, preferring a highly social understanding:

‘The old juxtaposition of an inside and outside world, constitution and environment, individual and society, phantasy and reality, body and mind and so on, are untenable. They can at no stage be separated from each other, except by artificial isolation.’ (1948: 10)[11]

For Foulkes, reflexivity does not arise from forming representations of the minds of others, but through becoming aware of, and being better able to notice the matrix, a hypothetical web of communication and relationship, which arises in any group of people. The matrix works as follows:

Its lines of force may be conceived of as passing right through the individual members and may therefore be called a transpersonal network, comparable to a magnetic field. (Foulkes and Anthony, 1957: 258).[12]

Just to deal with two concepts which Foulkes thinks occur in groups so that we can notice and better understand ourselves in the matrix of relationships formed with others in a group context. The first is the idea that the group is a hall of mirrors in which we see ourselves multiply reflected (and perhaps distorted if we do not ‘recognise’ ourselves in how people respond to us). The second is the concept of resonance, which is a generally experienced emotional event in a group, but which calls out different responses in each of its members because they have a different life history: it has the nature of a paradox[13]. One image that Foulkes uses to describe resonance is that of a wind passing through wind chimes: when such an event happens each ‘responds according to his individual disposition on the specific level of regression, fixation or developmental arrest on which his main disturbances and conflicts operate’ (1977: 298).[14]

Foulkes understands groups as potentially generative places where we can become more aware of ourselves in relation to others and begin to notice and articulate the sometimes subtle patterning or relationships between us. Paying attention to how we are feeling offers something of a guide to what might be going on for others, and is likely to be a particular response, a resonance, to a more general phenomenon occurring in the group. Of course this says nothing about how we might respond to noticing ourselves in relation to others, what we might do with our enhanced reflexivity and ability to modulate our emotions. We might engage in pro-social behaviour to the benefit of our colleagues and society more generally, and/or we might live a fuller life, more fully aware of our experience and with a degree of insight into other people’s. Alternatively, and just as likely, we will turn this ability to become more detached about our involvement to our advantage.

There are a whole variety of more popular writers on emotions and reflexivity in organizations who would like to convince us that there are simple repeatable techniques for cutting through the ‘noise’ of affect so that we can get what we want, communicate more effectively and bring about ‘clear leadership’. If this is so, then I think both the Conservative and Labour parties in the UK are greatly in need of their services.



[1] In this post I have not attempted to disentangle emotions, feelings and affect.

[2] Giddens, A. (1993) New Rules of Sociological Method, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[3] Elias, N. (1956) Problems of involvement and detachment, British Journal of Sociology, 7: 226-252.

[4] Elias, N. (1939/2000) The Civilising Process, Oxford: Blackwell.

[5] The two prominent ‘Leave’ politicians were Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and the latter was expected to support the former for his anticipated Conservative Party leadership bid having constantly denied his own leadership ambitions. On the morning of Johnson’s expected announcement of his candidature, Gove announced the he himself was standing and that Johnson was unfit, thus scuppering Johnson’s bid. Gove did this, he said, because he ‘loved his country’.

[6] Bion, W. (1998) Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, London: Routledge.

[7] Turquet, P.M. (1974) Leadership: The individual and the group. In Gibbard, G.S. et al., eds. The Large Group: Therapy and Dynamics, San Francisco and London: Jossey Bass.

[8] Dewey, J. (1934) A Common Faith, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

[9] Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E. and Target, M. (2004) Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self, New York: Other Press.

[10] Mead, GH, Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[11] Foulkes, SF (1948) Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy, London: Heinemann.

[12] Foulkes, SH. and Anthony, E.J. (1957/84) Group Psychotherapy: the Psychoanalytic Approach, London: Karnac.

[13] Mowles, C. (2015) Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the Paradoxes of Everyday Organizational Life, London: Routledge.

[14] Foulkes, S.H. (1977) Notes on the concept of resonance, in Wolberg, L.R. and Aronson. M.L. (eds) Group Therapy: an Overview, New York: Stratton Intercontinental Book Corp.


2 thoughts on “Emotions in group life – insights from political turmoil in the UK

  1. Donald Benson

    Interesting framing , thank you. And, I suggest some others models that might be useful, not as extensively or well presented as you have. These may all be connected in a deep level
    1. The tension between two sides of our brains, described as the rational and emotional, and the time spent engaging the two in decision making. We might understand this by observing the goal for many, in commerce and politics, is then to motivate the public to make decisions through emotions before the rational mind intervenes.
    2. Elliot Jaques pointed us to his research presented in his writings regarding Human Capability, in which (in my interpretation) significant numbers of a population do not consider the long term (think teenagers) consequences of or complex issues in their decision making.
    3. Extending Jaques with the work of Vygotsky in developmental psychology, can lead to considering the influence of the social systems/groups that adults identify with, in order to sustain acceptance, validity, income, love and affection, etc. in decision making.


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