The Three Levels Of Fear. Part Two: Fear On A Group Level

This is the second of a three part article series that looks at previous research on how fear develops and spreads.  This article examines:

Fear On A Group Level:

In an executive team, individual members of that team should effectively work together for the betterment of their organisation.  The organisation, in turn, puts in structures, systems and processes (such as rules of conduct, organisational charts, and reporting and job descriptions) in an attempt for fears to be contained and controlled within the system of the organisation.  However, frequently these fears do surface, and on a group level defences are built.  Senge (1999) describes what can sometimes appear as a “facade of harmony” and states “what passes for teamwork in most settings is the ‘smooth surface’, the apparent absence of any problems”.  This is because the reality of how people behave in groups, as we will explore in this section, is somewhat different.  

Bion (1961) referred to the recurrent emotional needs of a group as “basic assumptions”.  He states that in any group there are actually two groups at work, these being:  i) the work group; the aspects of the group that focus on the purpose or primary task of the group; and ii) the basic assumption group; these are the underlying emotional needs and anxieties of the group. In Bion’s view there are three basic assumptions. The first is dependency, in which group members seek on an unconscious level from the leaders the protection they received from their primary care-giver when they were children.  The group members act passively and as if the group leader is omniscient and omnipotent.  However, resentment to the leaders can develop and this can lead to group members removing the leader. The second is flight-fight. In this mode, the group feels on an unconscious level that their world is unsafe and so they must run (flight) or stand and fight.  In fight mode they act aggressively, and in flight mode they aim to avoid their task by using diversionary tactics like small talk, arriving late and avoiding work. The final basic assumption is pairing, which is when on an unconscious level there is a desire to pair-up with another who is perceived as powerful.  The resulting pair conducts the main work of the group while others watch-on, for example in some organisations the chief executive and the chief financial officer have very close working relationships and it could be perceived that they do the main work of the executive team.

Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson (1994) describe how the emotions of a leader can be contagious.  Building on this, Crosetto (2004) showed how emotional contagion in teams can lead to what he terms “team emotion” whereby “emotional states are transmitted within the team through emotional contagion until the team achieves a degree of emotional synchrony that ranges from dissonance to resonance.”

Cole, Walter and Bruch (2008) examined the association between dysfunctional team behaviour and team performance.  Their findings demonstrated that team members’ collective emotions and emotional processing represent key mechanisms in determining how dysfunctional team behaviour is associated with team performance.  They noted how contagious aggression can occur where aggressive actions ricochet throughout a team.

This ricocheting of aggression seems to link into to what both Freud (1966) and Kets de Vries & Cheak (2014) describe the defensive process whereby (quoting the latter) “(when) confronted with a superior force, people sometimes feel a strong incentive to become like that superior force, to protect against possible aggression.”  Also relevant is the concept of how shared madness can develop in some leader / follower collusions, as outlined by Kets de Vries & Cheak (2014).  They state “In such collusions, there is usually a dominant person whose delusions become adopted by other members of the organisation.”

Emotions can have their own life within a group and can be nurtured by fears.  For example Kim and Glomb (2014) note that "Social comparison theory suggests that people evaluate their ability or performance through comparison with other people … social comparison … may also destroy their self-evaluation and professional identity when they compare unfavorably with their coworkers.”  They go on to say that “envy arises and leads to harming behaviors against envied targets such as high performers to reduce or remove their advantages”, and this envy can lead to victimisation.  So it is possible that these behaviours could be triggered by deep fears about for example performance and equality within an executive team.

Another psychodynamic process to consider in the life of an executive team is transference.  Kets de Vries & Cheak (2014) describe a form of transference called mirroring whereby we take “our cues about being and behaving from those around us — (this) becomes an on-going aspect of our daily life and of our relationships with others.”  They go on to describe how this can become collusive in leader / follower relationships in organisations: “Followers are eager to use their leaders to reflect what they would like to see. Leaders, on the other hand, find the affirmation of followers hard to resist. The result is often a mutual admiration society that encourages leaders to take actions that shore up their image rather than serve the needs of the organisation.”

Sub-teams can also develop within teams.   Goldenberg, Saguy, and Halpe (2014) state:

We know that in every group, even in the most ruthless and strict of societies,there is a deviant subgroup that holds different thoughts and emotions than the general collective. This subgroup may try to leave or disassociate itself from the group; however, it may also remain a part of it and strive to change some of the group’s values, attitudes, or behaviors. We often see that changes within groups are initiated by small, “deviant” subgroups.  

Perhaps the drive to form these subgroups is a desire for survival or a need to reduce personal fear.

(Article reference details, available on request)

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