You know, I read the article “Son or Lover? Boss or Father? Mother or Child?” by David Delp about the childish shadow roles we play as adults in life and at work (read the rest of it here: http://pilotfire.com/son-or-lover-boss-or-father-mother-or-child/) and I started thinking about the recent announcement the state president of the country and the subsequent national conversation.
And it better articulated for me what I always saw as Bionian Dependency that is sweeping many of us in the country. We are so pre-occupied with the president and his team, what they do, what they do not do, so much that we do not realise that we have taken our eye off the ball. When he sneezes we move. Granted, our president encourages us, because he also caught in this dynamic that we all seduce each other into.
We have taken our mind off the role WE need to play and we are acting stupid. As if WE do not have any knowledge or wisdom to get where we need to go. Not ALL of us of course, but most of us. Many who know my position on the president and his team will probably be shocked by my stance in this instance, but then I don’t believe anyone is ALL GOOD or ALL BAD, which is in a sense part of the message of this paper.
To those who are not familiar with Wilfred Bion, let me give you a quick crash course so that we are on the same page here.
Wilfred Bion was a British psychoanalyst who spent his years working with both individuals and groups. And in his seminal work, experiences with groups, Wilfred Bion introduces the concept of Basic Assumptions of groups. He proposed that groups exhibit 3 basic assumptions in their “immature” or Basic Assumptions stage.
Basic Assumption dependency – where the group acts as if it’s stupid and does not know anything about how to achieve its objective and as such they act paralysed and look towards the leader for direction. Except that anything that a leader does is wrong. So the leader is essentially being set up for failure. How can the president of this country possibly satisfy everyone’s needs? As a result of this perceived failure- the president will be persecuted.
“Resentment at being dependent may eventually lead the group members to “take down” the leader, and then search for a new leader to repeat the process”. Many readers of this will remember how Mbeki was ousted in Polokwane.
Basic Assumption fight or flight – here the group, realising that their needs are not met, display two primitive responses to the anxiety of the “failure” of the leader. The one response is to act as if nothing has happened, ignore the “crises” and manifest the “it’s not my problem” behaviour or just get lost in a fantasy that is far from reality. Other ways in which flight shows itself would be leaving the country, focusing on international instead of domestic politics and generally partying themselves to a stupor and hoping that the problem will go away.
The opposite response is “fight” where the group engages in full frontal assault with the problem. The leader is attacked and persecuted at all ends until he gives up in bloody exhaustion. Seeing the president leave the podium after announcing his cabinet, with no smile on his face and a terse salutation to the media told me that perhaps this is where the beleaguered president is at right now. Tired of having to defend himself and his actions and has taken a “no more Mr. nice guy” position, which is good to see really because this avuncular response to the challenges being presented didn’t instil a lot of trust in me- reminded me all the time of the dog I used to own that in my cruel childhood, I would poke and kick until eventually it decided to snarl back surprisingly.
Basic Assumption pairing – with this fracas around people who fly out of the group and people who are engaged in a bloody fight, the group starts splitting into pairs. Groups that share a characteristic start coming together, in Freudian terms, to mate with the hope of conceiving a “baby”- i.e. that fantastic objective that will come from not doing any real work. So people of a similar ilk start forming coalitions (political parties, lobby groups, etc) to enforce their viewpoint, and hopefully influence the outcomes to their objective or vision.
If you look at where the country is, do you notice how in many ways we are caught in the shadow roles or in “Basic Assumptions” mode? While once in a while we remember that this South Africa is for all of us- and it will die because we do not work together, we do not wake up on time to save ourselves from the distraction that will lead to our destruction.
So how do we get out of Basic Assumption Mode? Well it’s a difficult one to do with 51 Million people. What I would do with a group of executives would be to put them in a 4-Day group process where these basic assumptions are surfaced, helping them see themselves, and then eventually moving them into a space of decisive shared action because they have realised how childish they have been in their actions. All of a sudden the words like Mission, Vision and Action have a far deeper meaning than the childish fantasy that many leaders realise.
Working in many boards in this country, it’s fascinating to see how this childish behaviour continue to plague the key institutions in the country- and if only the leaders (at all levels) would pay attention to their shadow play, for a second, for two days, then abandon their childish, selfish fantasy for a shared vision work to make this country, this continent work!