Attention, Cooperation, Purpose: An Approach to Working in Groups Using Insights from Wilfred Bion

Author(s) : Robert French, Author(s) : Peter Simpson

Attention, Cooperation, Purpose: An Approach to Working in Groups Using Insights from Wilfred Bion

Book Details

  • Publisher : Routledge
  • Published : November 2014
  • Cover : Paperback
  • Pages : 176
  • Category :
    Group Psychotherapy
  • Catalogue No : 35224
  • ISBN 13 : 9781782201311
  • ISBN 10 : 1782201319
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This book describes an approach based on attention that can help individuals and groups to cooperate more effectively. It presents the first book-length reassessment of Wilfred Bion’s ideas on groups. Every group has a purpose or purposes - or, as Bion put it, “every group, however casual, meets to ‘do’ something.” The approach described here shows how individual group members’ use of attention – both broad or “evenly suspended” and focused – can promote a better understanding of purpose, making it possible for them to do what they have met to do. This work of attention enables group members to maintain a clear sense of their purpose and also to recognise how easily they can become distracted, losing focus and dispersing their energies into activities that are off task.

The approach builds on the authors’ experience of using Bion’s insights into group dynamics over twenty-five years in different contexts, formal and informal, as group members, managers, leaders, teachers, consultants, researchers, family members, and friends. The book aims to introduce Wilfred Bion’s ideas to those who may never have encountered them, but it also develops those ideas in a way that offers fresh insights for those already familiar with his work. Throughout the book the authors use stories from their own experience to make the ideas accessible to anyone who is seeking to enhance their contributions to group life, to find the truth behind their experience, or simply to make things less confusing.

Reviews and Endorsements

'In this short work, French and Simpson explore group dynamics, and the components that are most important for practical group work. The book goes through each of the major elements of group behaviour, partly represented in the wording of the title. Each chapter has a healthy sprinkling of case studies, offering the reader a varied writing style, which is both engaging and clarifying. Overall, this book is inviting and accessible for anyone interested in identifying times when teamwork can effectively advance business aims.’
— Howard Weller, in The St Catharine’s College Society Magazine

'This is a wonderful introduction to Bion’s work on group dynamics. The book’s prose has the merit of transparency and directness, and its purpose is eminently practical: to help individuals in a wide range of settings become more effective in groups, and to help work groups become more effective.’
—Larry Hirschhorn, author of The Workplace Within, Reworking Authority, and Managing in the New Team Environment

‘This is a book of rich insights and new perspectives. Robert French and Peter Simpson excel as educators. They make complex ideas understandable, taking Bion’s often-challenging ideas and applying them to everyday group situations. Through a process of storytelling, they make theory come alive and engage readers in a thought-provoking narrative. This book will help many to work more effectively in groups.’
—Professor Susan Long, organisational consultant, educator, and author

‘At once erudite, scholarly, and accessible, this volume contains many illustrative anecdotes that add vitality and relevance to the theoretical investigations. A must-read for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of group dynamics.’
—Professor Peter Case, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England

‘In over three decades of work with groups, I am repeatedly struck by how deceptively simple and profoundly complex they actually are. This book is a terrific guide to the rich complexity of working with groups and the joy of open-mindedness.’
—Professor Michael A. Diamond, Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri

‘This excellent book seeks to ask and answer the question, “How can we improve the natural human motivation to work in groups – and make the result a better and more fulfilling proposition for everyone concerned?” This is a profound text. A well-written and essential part of educating our next generation of thoughtful leaders.’
—Dr Stephen Fear, businessman, philanthropist, and Entrepreneur in Residence & Ambassador for the British Library, London

About the Author(s)

Robert French is a writer and organisational consultant and Visiting Research Fellow at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England.

More titles by Robert French

Peter Simpson is Associate Professor in Organisation Studies at Bristol Business School. He co-edited Worldly Leadership: Alternative Wisdoms for a Complex World with Sharon Turnbull, Peter Case, Gareth Edwards and Doris Schedlitzki. He has also published widely in international journals on leadership, change management, organisational complexity, group dynamics, and workplace spirituality.

Customer Reviews

Our customers have given this title an average rating of 5 out of 5 from 2 review(s), add your own review for this title.

Dr Andrew Taylor on 02/03/2016 10:14:32

Rating1Rating2Rating3Rating4Rating5 (5 out of 5)

This book gives a fascinating insight into the hidden dynamics that go on when a group of people get together for an intended purpose. The analysis, helped along by easy to read stories from the personal experiences of the authors, illustrates how things can go badly or can go well in group situations and gives constructive ideas about how to get things back on track when the group gets distracted from its purpose.

As a practising family doctor, I was particularly interested in the authors' description of different forms of attention - "focused" and "evenly suspended". It struck me that the skill of looking after patients depends on the doctor's ability to utilise both forms of attention. While there is a clear necessity to focus on the details of symptoms, signs and the results of diagnostic tests, without a wider, often intuitive attention to the patient's emotional and perhaps spiritual well being, it can be easy to get distracted (to use another concept from the book) from the main purpose of looking after the person. I understood my own thinking processes better as a result of reading this book.

Dr Catherine Sandler on 02/03/2016 10:13:36

Rating1Rating2Rating3Rating4Rating5 (5 out of 5)

This excellent and highly readable book is a really useful addition to the (rather sparse) literature on the unconscious but powerful dynamics that take place in working groups. The authors take as their starting point the ideas of Wilfrid Bion, a leading and highly influential psychoanalyst associated with the Tavistock tradition who wrote a ground-breaking book called Experiences in Group in 1948. They succeed in sharing, extending and illustrating his ideas in a way which makes them accessible and relevant to any reader interested in this topic.

In particular, the book explains Bion's eye-opening ideas about the difficulty that groups have in remaining focused on their stated and agreed purpose. Anyone with experience of team meetings, project meetings, committee meetings or any other kind of meeting will recognise only too well how easily groups become distracted from the task in hand! Instead, the time is filled with discussion of tangential or irrelevant activities that leads the group away from achieving its goal. In Bion's and the authors' view, this is not simply due to boredom or the behaviour of a few undisciplined individuals but is a collective unconscious response to the anxiety and discomfort evoked by the work task itself. Bion suggested that, when a group slips into this mode, its members collude "without realising it" in various forms of avoidance behaviour. What French and Simpson do so well is to bring alive these ideas with numerous examples and stories of this phenomenon, drawing on their own experience as consultants and teachers and those of their clients and colleagues.

In addition, the book adds something very important to Bion's ideas about how groups distract themselves from their work by focusing in some detail on what happens when groups are working well—when they do manage to remain focused on their purpose and pay attention to the task. This provides a helpful balance to the negative side of group dynamics and enables those who work in or with groups to understand what happens when things are going right as well as wrong. Again, their ideas are illustrated with case-studies that are enormously helpful in visualising and understanding the concepts being discussed.

Finally, I particularly like the last chapter of the book which addresses the question of how consultants or those who participate in workplace groups can develop their own capacity to pay attention to what is going on under the surface, and so learn how to help groups regain their focus and achieve their purpose

As an executive coach working with teams as well as individuals, I would highly recommend this book to all those working to help groups be as productive as possible, especially during times of organisational change when anxiety is likely to be at its highest. It will also be of interest and use to anyone who spends time in groups and who is curious to understand what makes them tick.

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