Maintaining your mental health if you live in the UK at the moment is unlikely to rely on keeping up with news and current events.

If, on the other hand you are looking to gen up on dysfunctional group behaviour, our domestic Political Party Punch and Judy instant story creation is both illuminating and entertaining.

Cast your mind back to the last time you were participating in a group endeavour, perhaps a workshop or group discussion, and began to feel that nothing constructive or of relevance to the task in hand was happening.

The group begins to change its mental state from being engaged with its purpose to dissipating its energy in – anti-purpose.

Wilfred Bion, the wisest of the wise on all things ‘group’ (1897-1979), alerted us to the changes in mental states that groups experience.

He described a framework for understanding the contrasting ways in which a group – sometime temporarily, sometimes changeably – will operate.

A ‘work group mentality’ is operating where a group’s disposition and dynamics enable it to manage shared tensions, anxieties and relationships. The group members all demonstrate an ability to relate to and to engage with each other and the purpose for which the group has formed.

Bion described the outcome for such a group as the ‘capacity for realistic hard work’.

By contrast, a group that can be described as having a ‘basic assumption mentality’ has been taken over by strong emotions (and this can happen so quickly) of anxiety, fear, hate, love, anger, guilt or depression and will lose touch with the group’s purpose.

The group will ‘become caught up in an unconscious group delusion’.

The outcome he described here as ‘stagnation’.

These ‘delusions’ or ‘assumptions’ tend to revolve around 3 unconscious force fields – dependence (a leader / moderator will relieve the group of all anxiety), pairing (the group will rely on the output of a pairing (s) to rescue them), and fight or flight (some common enemy is perceived within or without the group inviting fight or flight).

While all group situations involving fallible human beings are both fluid and complex, one behavioural truth here is universal.

The group’s shift from real purpose to assumed new purpose is unconscious.

If a group becomes dominated by a basic assumption mentality, it is unlikely to be able to recognise the change. It may even feel as if the work is going well. Or even better than before.

An emotional state is avoided. An assumed (unspoken) anti-purpose now acts as (an unconscious) substitute for the real work.

We’re watching all this unfold in front of our eyes, aren’t we?


A criticism was levelled at a previous (Blair/Brown) government, particularly towards the end, that cabinet had become driven by the ‘how will this look?’ question rather than the more useful ‘what shall we do?’.

That ‘give a good account of yourself whatever the situation’ virus has spread, it seems, across the land. It’s a power-point contagion. In recent work with teams, a heated debate about the choice of the right visuals or presentation sound tracks seems to have noticeably squeezed out any real conversation about …….what is actually going on.

It might be the case that the (lovely and impressive) presentation technology available to us all has swapped the gift wrap for the gift, but that would be too easy a target.  The ‘lights, camera, action’ approach appears to take root wherever there is – anxiety: wherever the leadership ethos tends towards the narcissistic, and wherever blame is the handiest currency in circulation.

And it happens so easily.

Therapists know all about this.

Ask those who know, and they will describe a similar behaviour seen amongst anxious clients.  The individual might begin to think on the way to the session about what they are going to say this time. The sub text here is that they feel they must impress (even entertain?) the therapist with some worthwhile material, and that they must fill any possible gaps with experiences and stories.

(Remember that the client is paying for the session. Interesting.)

Some colleagues report a process of elaboration as the client nears the consulting room that would qualify for 5 star reviews anywhere on the Edinburgh Fringe.

But the point is that the therapist knows all about this.

Time, technique, care and attention will eventually win through.  The truth will be reached, the anecdotes discarded, the client able to explore that which needs to be explored.

Leadership teams don’t have these skills. The constructed drama will continue to disguise reality. Yet all they need to do is take one leaf from the therapy room’s book.

Create a safe space for discussion.

Let your teams spend their precious time thinking, critically and honestly, out loud with you: not aiming for a video award.


In 1970, the futurist Alvin Toffler, a bit of a technology guru, predicted a time to come in his book ‘Future Shock’.

He described how society would develop in such a way that we might not be able to handle….information.

The day would come when we would receive, constantly, so much information and at such speed that we would not be able to deal with it. Or ourselves. Society would morph into an anxiety driven mess.

He wrote Future Shock in 1970.

(One or two predictions were a little weird. Can we say disposable clothes have caught on in any significant way? Disposable fashion seems to be quite a different thing).

Amongst the changes he saw developing was the notion of an ‘adhocracy’ – that businesses and enterprises would become self-organised in a more fluid and adaptive and –adhoc -way.  This would be a part reaction to the need to respond in a more agile way to so much ‘input’.

While the ‘too much information’ has certainly arrived, what about ‘adhocracy’?  Has that happened?

Oddly, no.

The more that information sources multiply (authenticity unknown) the more ‘overload’ seems to encourage surprising behaviours. And most surprising is the effect on that instinct towards structure and control.

From working across different organisational cultures, of different sizes, it looks suspiciously as if there is a pretty linear relationship between information overload and… LESS ‘adhocracy’.

The more teams I see, the more clear the pattern becomes.

What looks on the surface like a relaxed new way of being (casual dress, first names used, less formal language around the business and what needs doing) emerges as a thin disguise for less autonomy, and for responsibility and authority to be taken to ever more centralised and senior levels.  Sometimes this rigidity and control may now exceed anything experienced before the accurately predicted information overload.

Come back Alvin – help us understand.

How did this happen?

And how do we make it stop


There’s something weird in the neighbourhood. And no-one to call.

A new tenant moved in nearby. The car is longer than each of the little terrace houses is wide.

Several of these big beasts have appeared recently.

On the underground, a backpack took down a young passenger.  Nothing serious, just that the backpack appeared to be fortified with some tank-like material.

A small trampling incident on a station platform. Again, nothing serious, except that the trampler’s sandals appeared to have soles not unlike car tyres in size and heft.

These are but tiny examples of a pattern of super-strong military grade defence design of everyday objects: where no proportional threat exists.

Leonard Lauder (Estée Lauder Companies) used to hypothesise that lipstick sales were an economic indicator.  When confidence ebbs and everyone feels that the economic future looks bleak, then small luxuries or indulgences – eg lipsticks – are purchased, rather than high price items.

Is this ‘fortress design’ pattern an indicator of something significant?

It’s fear, isn’t it?

A general level of anxiety about stuff, the world, and everything may be unconsciously influencing this trend towards over-sized, robustly made, ‘don’t mess with me’ design.

And there is an organisational version too.

Have you noticed how acceptable / common it is for meeting attendees to place an open laptop between themselves and others?

And to ensure their personal supply of coffee / water etc is maintained independently of anyone else’s needs?

There is something weird going on.

No one is an island, none of us self-sufficient; and no one (really) needs an armoured vehicle or accessories in a city.

Yet a pattern of protection is visible everywhere.

Protection from what, we wonder?


Mindfulness went mainstream ages ago. Why is that?

Ah, it has ‘full’ in it.

A possible pace change or respite or breath-take time has become, courtesy of current business productivity practices, another opportunity to do more.

The concept masquerades as an opportunity to turn inward and re-charge, but has quickly become another productivity tool.

An amazing array of businesses across all sectors now routinely incorporate some version of mindfulness-like activities into development and training programmes.

Like the school curriculum, another pursuit is squeezed into an unchanging time frame, with unchanging resource levels.

Is truly empty space ever available?

And would any of us recognise it?

‘Beware the barrenness of a busy life’ said Socrates (possibly rather threateningly).

He characteristically gets to the nub of it all.

When busy-ness and productivity drives activity, something very serious happens.

Stronger than displacement, more critical than focus or commitment, more worrying than having no time for reflection, is one unintended consequence of ‘not believing in stopping’.

Socrates uses the word ‘barren’.

There is no longer any potential or possibility.

By excluding one state that is a sure-fire way to replenish and nurture and nourish – doing nothing – we are rendered unable to create or to recognise possibilities or potential, any more.

This is what the burn-out state of many current clients really involves.

Rather than finding themselves, however occasionally, in what Gestalt theory teaches us to call ‘The Fertile Void’, they find themselves simply…void.

Emptiness can be full too – of ‘stuff not yet happened or identified’.

But first, the trick is to find it and embrace it and be in it.

The space really is the place.


Our working lives involve such a simple idea.

We can all be better, we can all do better.

Terms such as – performance review, skill set growth, competencies interview – are all about ‘fixing’ something. Us.

This deep down assumption is a tricky thing for any business, group, or team sincerely trying to change to a more modern, less machine-like way of working.

Supporting rather than managing, trusting, encouraging networks and autonomy, concentrating on impact rather than process, is surely the sort of environment most of us would choose.

It is happening. Open minded charities, community based businesses, some areas of health care and education, innovation teams within established commercial businesses are all experimenting with new, humanising ways of lifting everyone through self-organisation rather than command and control structures. There are some great success stories.

But not everywhere.

And interestingly, the default analysis in these cases is that the teams, the people involved, need ‘fixing’ first.

That may not be right.

Is the answer to be found in comparing a business to a nation state?

Professor of politics Andreas Wimmer has just published a book called ‘Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart’.

The unquestioned logic in ‘the West’ is that building a nation involves introducing democracy.

Yet this clearly hasn’t worked.

As nation & history after nation & history are examined, the author makes clear that a nation is built in reverse order.

Something important has to exist first: identification with some sort of collective purpose.

Healthy and real links between groups and ethnicities, between citizens and the State, alliances that bridge divisions: all build up a shared identity, and combat the ‘zero sum game’ mentality necessary for power grabs and abuse.

Then democracy. India is an example.

Might this help the introduction of a self-managing culture in businesses?

There’s a sneaky suspicion amongst some who have been burned by attempting such a transformation that the Leaders of the hierarchy, reluctant to really change, act out in an ‘over to you, then’ way.

Perhaps the first step is to encourage networks to organically build some sense of shared identity and purpose .

And then a self-organising transformation might stand a chance.






A few years ago when everything was in black and white, an Art Director of my acquaintance found himself in an unscheduled closeted meeting with many, many drinks.

The cocktail list was limited, but just varied enough to generate all those feelings of experiment and excitement and fun that sustain unwise activities.

Yet a very wise observation was the result.

He and his companions began to note the true constraints of that list.

A deceptively limited range of ingredients was offered within the assorted combinations.


‘Just like that bloomin image library we’re all using’ he mused.

And we were away.

He was living through, he said, the gradual reduction in the visual bravery and imagination of his teams – and himself – because everyone was working with the same cocktail ingredients.

Everyone was drinking from the same well. (An obvious analogy in retrospect)

This came back to me the other day in a Leadership development session. (No cocktails)

Everyone was very certain of their own positions, the approaches available, and of what was possible.

All were working, of course, with the same ‘inputs’.

Perhaps none of us have realised the subtle unintended consequences of gradually reducing the ingredients, the limits, the stimulus with which we work – whatever our field – over time.

It’s not that the work is impoverished. (Although it surely is.)

It’s that our identification with what we have in our hands seems to become stronger: too strong.

In the absence of fresh experience and perspective, we hold the cocktail we have chosen as a sort of self-identifier.

And find it more and more strange to imagine, whether that is a different point of view or a different self.

Sure, it takes a bit of effort to keep encouraging new ingredients and possibilities to flow into your working life. But it’s vital.

First step might be to create from experimental ingredients a brand new cocktail.

Called ….’Possibility Generator’ perhaps?


The White Queen told Alice that in her youth she could believe “6 impossible things before breakfast”.

Six impossible things? Piece of cake.

Stopping believing in something that has always seemed unassailably true is much tougher I reckon.

I lay before you: a team workshop using female archetypes, an Irish referendum result, and an animated film.


In Jung ‘s collective unconscious live the archetypes that drive or inform or influence our instinctive and unlearned patterns of behaviour: images and stories playing out in our psyches and lives. In a professional context, they can be a truly helpful way of understanding a situation and of finding new narratives. Female archetypes are famously exploited by storytellers and filmmakers and include descriptions such as.…amazon, father’s daughter, lover, maiden, mother, queen, huntress, sage, mystic, survivor….. We can find ourselves somewhere in there, can’t we?


The stories that won the day in Ireland on Friday seem to me to transcend all of them.

After seeing the indescribably beautiful and perfect film ‘The Breadwinner’, that archetype list again just falls short.

Does a ‘patriarchal bias’ extend …..even to the most widely accepted model of our human unconscious?

Not so impossible.

What a great development for #metoo, to rediscover and rewrite female archetypes.

Time for #whotoo.image2





You may have muttered it yourself today.

‘Never enough time to think’?

Organisations of all shapes and sizes report staff experiencing being ….overwhelmed. With not enough time to think, decisions and actions are made and taken on the hoof. The emphasis is on ‘just get things done’. Soon, those who ‘just do’ are valued over those who ask questions. The driving force is all about efficiency, completion, and moving on.

There’s another force around ‘no time to think’ that we never talk about.

A moral one.

In the May/June edition of ‘The Idler’, Andrew Smart reminds us of one of the many benefits of idleness by re-introducing the work of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a political theorist and philosopher who was particularly interested in the relationship of ‘thought’ to totalitarianism and freedom.

In her book ‘The Life of The Mind’, she explored the idea that stopping to think (avoiding thought-less-ness) was an activity of positive moral good.

Andrew Smart summarises her argument:

Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional standardised codes of expression and conduct protect us from reality. True engagement with the world, and morality, requires that we stop to think’.

The woman who for ever will be associated with the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ in the public consciousness suggests that the ability to stop, observe, become a spectator, and think can condition us not to do wrong.

It makes you see ‘protected me-time’ in a totally new light, doesn’t it?


If the business you are in involves life and death and safety, then it will be hard to laugh at the words ‘best practice’.

Health care, transport, looking after small people, for example, bring such responsibilities that the need for some place-marker for standards of professionalism and necessary achievement seems obvious. Of course it does.

The question is whether ‘best practice’, which sounds so desirable, is a sufficient place marker: whether the beliefs and assumptions it drags in its wake are ….damaging.  These assumptions include-

  • what works in one place will work in another,
  • everyone operates in an identical way,
  • that proven success in certain contexts means success in all contexts,
  • that following an agreed process trumps responding to an unprecedented situation in a new way.

Its machine thinking, isn it?

Yet when you learn something, and finally master it, has it not been adapted in some way and become your own? Have you not changed, and been changed by, this skill as you (unique you) practice and integrate it into how you operate?

The collision, leading to integration, between you and the skill generates something new.

The meeting of you, and the practice, is a productive meeting that generates outcomes and outputs that were not even imaginable before.

Best practice is about what has happened in the past.

Best practice is about replication.

Where is the possibility, the potential, for exceeding and improving?

When learning a foreign language we soon come across the concept of ‘false friends’ – words from the new language that sound familiar, but have a completely different meaning.

A lot of business speak is like another language. We can usually spot the mendacious or vacuous elements. They make us laugh.

Its these false friends that we should really watch out for.

They trap us in the past.