Mind Matters

And you thought your work teams only felt like group therapy. Turns out, they do have much in common--especially in terms of the conflicts they must face

There is a cartoon from the British humor magazine Punch that I frequently show to my group-therapy students. A woman and her child are fighting their way onto a crowded subway train. The child looks up and says, "Don't worry, Mum, next stop it'll be our turn to hate."

Amusing. But also revealing for what it says about group behavior, a long-standing subject of study for psychotherapists--and a topic of growing interest to company leaders, for whom creating team structures has become the trend of the day. The two types of groups have very different goals: therapy groups aim to make the individual members more aware of patterns in their interpersonal behavior; companies form teams in hopes of developing efficient and imaginative responses to specific problems.

But CEOs, so used to focusing on results, might do well to borrow a bit from the approach psychotherapists take. Paying closer attention to how a group does its work can help you elucidate, and remedy, many of the most common conflicts. Quite simply, there is a great deal to be gained by watching the ways groups function.

The experience of a patient of mine, Mark, provides an excellent example. An intelligent young man who was recovering from back surgery, Mark had a significant alcohol problem. After he had spent a few weeks in individual therapy, coupled with AA meetings, I encouraged him to join a therapy group for alcoholics. Despite some wariness, Mark agreed to try it out.

I made the recommendation because the support and sharing offered in group therapy can be particularly effective in dealing with addiction. Unfortunately, Mark's first group meeting was a disaster. A bit on the brash side, he immediately attempted to participate in the group discussion. Before long he was aware of being scrutinized--six steely pairs of eyes looking him up and down, six mouths letting loose a barrage of questions.

Then the group moved to open hostility: Mark took regular medication--painkillers and muscle relaxants for his searing back pain--and the members took him to task for that, as there was an understanding within the group that "using" would not be tolerated. "You've simply traded addictions," said Dana, a woman in her midforties, also a recovering alcoholic. The others echoed her sentiments, and by the session's end, Mark was ready to give up. So much for the supportive environment I'd hoped for.

Nonetheless, when I met with Mark the following day, I encouraged him to continue in the group. "Opening flurries are common. I suspect things will change," I told him.

Mark had no way of knowing this, but from my side of the couch, the group's behavior was not only understandable but also predictable. The arrival of a newcomer-- any newcomer--inevitably throws a group into turmoil. That chaos can be discouraging, even hurtful, to the neophyte as well as to the group at large. Such damage is preventable when the leader knows that the core of the conflict has nothing to do with the group's fundamental goals, or even the basic rules of conduct set up among its members. The chaos surrounding the appearance of a new member is common in groups of all sorts, from therapy to boardrooms to subways.

In fact, the conflicts that break out in groups can often be traced directly to specific interpersonal undercurrents. For instance, many therapy groups have coleaders, and the relationship between the two has an enormous influence on the team's performance. Ideally, they will cooperate, working together to further the group interaction. If, however, they are competitive, each may attempt to apply his or her own interpretation of events, vie for the group members' favor, and struggle to outdo the other.

Another common pitfall is the phenomenon of subgrouping--the formation of cliques within a group. If the goals of the subgroup are different from those of the group, and they usually are, divisiveness can result. Take the example of two group-therapy members who begin a romantic relationship or even a close friendship. Even if it is a constructive relationship for the two of them, it nearly always harms the group, for the group's goal is an open sharing of everything that happens between the members, while the goal of the lovers is intimacy and exclusion of the others. The goals of the couple are incompatible with the group's goals, so the leader must intervene and reestablish priorities.

Which is why, at Mark's second meeting, the leader wisely turned the group's attention to what had unfolded the previous week. Mark's arrival had caused anxiety among the members. Several said the group had been comfortable with six members--they felt secure and received enough attention from the leader. If a seventh came, they felt their work would be diluted. Further, they were irate that the leader had accepted the new member without consulting them. As this went on, it became apparent that Mark was not really the cause of their hostility; they were displacing their anger at the leader onto him.

During the following months the members began to accept Mark and became aware of the qualities he offered. He was attentive to the others, gave useful, occasionally provocative feedback, and was willing to challenge the group leader openly, an important step that no one else had dared take. Perhaps most important, he shared his fantasies--about his inner world, about the group members, about sexuality--and encouraged others to do so as well, thus opening a rich lode of untapped therapeutic material. Soon members frequently turned to him for his advice, and together they settled into a productive period, undistracted by any battles for control.

Just by virtue of his presence, Mark had reignited the jockeying for position that is regularly seen in the early phases of group development. Simply put, a number of people come together with some understood goal. After initial uncertainty about rules, membership, and orientation, there follows a struggle for power, in which participants try to determine where, and how, they fit in the group's hierarchy of influence. A new arrival upsets the group structure. In a business setting, projects run smoothly once people are not directing their energies in a competitive struggle with coworkers.

Of course, anxiety and disorientation can be lessened if everyone is prepared in some systematic manner for the changes. Had the group leader met with Mark and described the function and methods of group therapy, as well as the dynamics of this particular group, Mark would have been better able to navigate the various personalities. Further, the leader should have prepared the group, taking time in a previous session to tell the members about Mark and allowing them to air their responses. Powerful evidence from numerous research studies shows that such preparation results in lower dropout rates, reduced anxiety levels, and a stronger focus on the common goals.

The effective group leader, whether CEO or psychotherapist, must be something of a social engineer, maintaining the structure of the group in the interest of productive work. Setting up a culture of trust--in which members feel safe to give and receive feedback--is especially difficult in organizations filled with high stress levels, ambiguity, and confusion. But honesty and an atmosphere of frank mutual exchange are essential components of any fruitful collaborative effort.

Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., is a best-selling novelist (Lying on the Couch and When Nietzsche Wept) and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. Ben Yalom, a San Francisco-based writer, is working on a book about remarkable individuals and their mentors.