Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Leadership and Regressive Group Processes: A Pilot Study

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Leadership and Regressive Group Processes: A Pilot Study

Article excerpt

Various perspectives on leadership within the psychoanalytic, organizational and sociobiological literature are reviewed, with particular attention to research studies in these areas. Hypotheses are offered about what makes an effective leader: her ability to structure tasks well in order to avoid destructive regressions, to make constructive use of the omnipresent regressive energies in group life, and to redirect regressions when they occur. Systematic qualitative observations of three videotaped sessions each from N = 18 medical staff work groups at an urban medical center are discussed, as is the utility of a scale, the Leadership and Group Regressions Scale (LGRS), that attempts to operationalize the hypotheses. Analyzing the tapes qualitatively, it was noteworthy that at times (in N = 6 groups), the nominal leader of the group did not prove to be the actual, working leader. Quantitatively, a significant correlation was seen between leaders' LGRS scores and the group's satisfactory completion of their quantitative goals (p = 0.007) and ability to sustain the goals (p = 0.04), when the score of the person who met criteria for group leadership was used.

Keywords: leadership, psychoanalytic theory of groups, research


While psychoanalytic understandings of group phenomena have grown considerably since Freud's early work on group identifications, no systematic research on hypotheses derived from these understandings has been attempted. In this study, hypotheses based on psychoanalytic observations about effective group leadership are offered after the relevant literature is discussed and integrated. A description and discussion follow of methods by which these hypotheses were studied prospectively in 18 working groups at a large urban medical center. The groups, composed of nurses, nursing aides, pharmacists, unit secretaries and physicians, were formed to address a single, pressing problem in patient care delivery or safety identified by staff within their units, problems that were judged by a hospital Steering Committee to be generally similar in significance and scope. A hospital consultant helped the teams develop a goal, expressed numerically, which would be tracked by the Steering Committee upon completion of the groups' tasks and followed up three months later.

Three sessions from each of these groups' meetings were videotaped, and the videotapes were analyzed for group-leader interactions both quantitatively and qualitatively. Qualitatively, the observers looked at the tapes using guided questions based on the three hypotheses and were asked to also note other dimensions of leader and group interactions not be captured by the qualitative guide but judged to be important to understanding the groups' functioning. Quantitatively, an instrument was devised, the Leadership and Group Regressions Scale, to test the hypotheses about leadership in interaction with group regression. The strategies behind the new scale, its strengths and limitations, will be discussed and the quantitative results, to be published in greater detail elsewhere, will be briefly described. Results from the qualitative analysis, and the relative benefits and problems of each method of inquiry, will also be highlighted.

Literature review

Psychoanalytic understandings of leadership and of group regression began with Freud's (1921) work on the complex identifications that develop among group members and toward their leader. Bion (1961) used his experience in leading small therapeutic groups in World War II and at the Tavistock Institute to discern certain consistent, regressive fantasies within groups that emerged when he remained silent and refused to provide a non-interpretive structure for the their work. Such groups' functioning became organized around powerful fantasies ('basic assumptions') of their integrity or survival being possible only through fighting or fleeing a common enemy, of an unrealistic and inflamed sense of dependency on the leader, or of 'pairing': an assumption that any pair that creates an alliance within the group was doing so for sexual purposes. …

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