Portrait of a shocked woman with mouth open standing isolated on a white background

Trauma and Organizations edited by Earl Hopper, New International Library of Group Analysis, Karnac, 2012.

This book of essays by a team of 18 group analysts, psychoanalysts, and organizational consultants from Europe, Australia and the United States, on how traumatic experiences affect groups is of great relevance to us in Asia. This is so because Asia has a strong tradition of authoritarian leadership and traumatic transitions of leaderships in our cultures and communities. But more of this later…..

This collection of new essays examines the conscious and unconscious patterns of responses of those organisations where traumatic experience is present. Among the organisations studied are hospitals and clinics for the care and treatment of the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled, international and industrial firms, universities and institutes for training mental health professionals, and churches. The book draws from traditional psychoanalytic Freudian theory to more recent Kleinian and Lacanian perspectives in psychoanalysis as well as from Foulkesian and Bionian(so named after Wilfred R Bion, British psychoanalyst) perspectives in group analysis. More specifically, the book serves to illustrate how the fourth basic assumption of Incohesion: Aggregation/Massification is lived out and experienced in the institutions and groups that were studied. More interestingly, the examples in these organizations and groups studied highlighted the way anxieties and re-enactment of them were transmitted by insensitive leaders.

Bion’s classification of groups

But before we go on, a word about Bionian terminology. Bion categorized groups as either ba(basic assumption) groups or work groups. Bion arrived at this classification in his study of groups which were non-therapy groups in contrast with Foulkes, (known as the Foulkesian approach), and especially on leaderless groups. Under such conditions, the group showed ba characteristics, namely dependency, fight/flight and pairing, which were essentially the group’s way of coping with anxiety. These states in response to anxiety has its roots in personal defense mechanisms and is a way of coping with leaderless mechanisms. Thus in dependency, the perceived leader is idealized and is all knowing and all powerful while the group consider themselves inadequate, immature and incompetent. This idealization of the leader as powerful is bound to fail, and the leader is devalued.

In the fight/flight mode, the group fights against an enemy, real or imagined, outside or inside the group. Psychological defence mechanisms at play here include splitting, projection, avoidance and paranoia. The leader of the group may be expelled. In pairing, the group looks to a couple, not unusually male and female. In pairing, there is operating, denial and repression, while a mood of hopefulness prevails. Creative strength and reliance prevail and are invested on the pair to produce a leader for the group and thus save it. While there is erotization, pairing is not essentially erotic as the energies are mostly creative with positive expectations of the group’s survival.

The work group dynamics is that of mature, rational and task oriented to solving specific problems. There is mutual respect, acceptance and support with appropriate leadership and this helps the group attain what it sets out to do.

In reality, ba groups and work groups never exist in isolation. They are intertwined with one another. The more the energy of the group is invested into the work group, the more tasks the group is able to accomplish. Ba groups therefore interfere with the tasks of the work group, yet the energies of a ba group is not necessarily bad, as when a nation under threat unite together with a fight/flight response to wage war and defend themselves.

Many authorities have added on to the basic assumptions originally formulated by Bion, but perhaps the most compelling is the Fourth Basic Assumption of Incohesion formulated by Earl Hopper who approached it through a systemic investigation into the cohesion of social systems. Studying traumatized patients and groups of people experiencing traumatic events such as survivors of war (such as the Holocaust and Vietnam War), the theory of incohesion evolved.

Traumatic experience and groups

In the event of traumatic experiences the psychological reactions are more severe. There is a failure of leadership and normal expectations of outcomes and rewards fall apart. For the traumatized victim, his world has shattered, and his body has to cope with extreme stimulation and provocation for which he is unprepared for. We are all aware of the modern interest in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which delineates the kind of manifestation that comes about when a subject had a recent exposure of such psychological trauma. The fourth basic assumption of Incohesion looks at the effects of such trauma as it affects the group, community, organization and society itself. Trauma brought about a fear of annihilation as well as separation and loss of the structures that hold together one’s sense of self and its relationship to a supportive environment. In its place, there is considerable uncertainty and disruption of the holding environment with which we are familiar with.

Essentially there is a breakdown of the way the group is functioning, but how are the group symptoms manifested socially? The fourth Basic Assumption of Incohesion is meant to provide us a description for the understanding of the trauma affecting groups, communities and organizations, even nations. By naming it Incohesion, there is an implicit statement that the normal cohesion of the social matrix is broken. It is the defense of the group in the face of overwhelming anxiety and Incohesion dynamics is a means of coping with threatened annihilation induced therein.

Characteristics of Incohesion

Incohesion has two poles, Aggregation and Massification. Aggregates and masses are not merely groups, crowds or collections of people. They are social formations with specific characteristic patterns of interaction, normation and communication. Aggregates and masses are incohesive extremes of social forms in response to trauma. Aggregates show characteristics of minimal degree of attraction and involvement with little or no shared beliefs, norms and values. Masses tend to have maximal degree of mutual attraction and involvement and for a brief moment share the illusion of solidarity with respect to beliefs, norms and values. Examples of aggregates are people flowing towards an underground station, a collection of billiard balls, crowds of shoppers in a shopping mall, prisoners being marched from one point to another. While aggregates maintained their individuality, they are cut off and isolated from each other. Communication, at best, is through humour, sarcasm and mockery. The word “crustacean” described aggregates well, each individual being walled in by his shell. Examples of masses are a cheering crowd, people taking part in a demonstration, a herd of charging cows/horses, soldiers getting ready for battle. Individuals in a mass have little individuality, and have a more or less homogenous quality. Communication is often by means of slogans, shouting or articulating the anger, frustration and demands of the mass. Rituals convey the apparent unity of the masses. The word “amoeboid” described the tendency of individuals to stick and adhere to one another. Fans entering a stadium would be aggregates, but once the game began, the chanting, the hysteria transform the crowd into a mass.

Traumatized organizations tend to oscillate between aggregation and massification. In aggregation, individuals tended to be cold, insensitive with a feeling of hopelessness. Where there is action, this often comes about through action by a lone wolf, an anti-hero or that of a suicide bomber. In massification, there is paranoid scapegoating, rejection and expulsion. Cheerleading and sloganeering transformed the crowd to vent their aggressive at some perceived threat. I am sure readers can identify social changes and upheavals with the theoretical concepts outlined here.

Descriptions of Incohesion

Now to the book itself. The book is divided into 2 parts. The first part described the structure and processes of organizations from a systemic perspective. The second part focus on leaders and leadership of both the work group and the basic assumption groups in the organizations studied in this section.

The first part described the experiences of trauma and the behavioural consequences in different settings. These included a major psychiatric teaching hospital, a Danish psychiatric hospital, a graduate program in an academic institution, a clinic for the treatment of intellectual disabilities and an inpatient unit for the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa. From a systemic perspective, it is interesting to note that the organizational pathologies of the organization is mirrored in the individual psychopathologies of the anorexic patients.

As this section of the book basically described the social and psychological processes of traumatic experiences in those organizations listed above, they basically validate the theoretical understand as outlined. A summary of the descriptions of each of these organizational experiences do not quite do them justice as it was exactly the details of the description that is coherent with the theoretical concepts outlined. Hence I shall leave the reader to look up the detailed description in the book itself should they be interested and go on to the practical issues of the second part.

Leaders and leadership Processes

In the second part of the book, leaders and leadership processes in the wake of traumatizing circumstances and how leaders with their own dysfunction can further traumatize the communities which they lead.

Thus chapters 7 and 8 looked at helping professionals. Chapter 7 examined the trauma of caring for the psychotic patient and how this led to the carers becoming themselves traumatizing as they coped with their sense of hopelessness. This is the institutionalization of psychiatric patients and psychiatric services. Without addressing the basic problem and shifting the burden of residential psychiatric hospitals into community care largely shifted the location of the institutionalized ethos. While there were definite gains achieved, this was dwarfed by the large degree of dysfunction and isolation still present.

Chapter 8 looked at the care that carers provided in general to the disadvantaged, the deprived and the disordered in society. With a disinterest in wanting or seeking help and with a political creed that the right to care and assistance is inalienable, carers had to cope with providing for a constituency whose response to their help was one of refusal, or else they were forced to impose the help to those they cared for against their will. Such scenarios were central to the genesis of trauma in caregivers within social services.

Chapter 9 dealt with the psychological trauma of leadership transitions in a religious community. Such communities are meant to be supporting social cohesion by means of a shared beliefs, however aggressive self-destruction can sometimes arises from unruly and dysfunctional members as well as from dysfunctional leaders. This chapter is an account of such anti-group processes. The community concerned was an independent church facing social and cultural changes. From its middle class roots whose affluent members had moved away from the church vicinity, the church’s neighbourhood was transformed into a working class neighbourhood from whom the community was increasingly alienated. With a declining membership and an aging one to boot, the church was in the midst of a transition that was painful and traumatic. A retired pastor continued to exercise his authority behind the scenes contrary to the rules and thereby contributed to the traumatic processes in the community rather than promoting healing. The writer, a therapist, was invited to intervene, but he himself was traumatized to the extent that he himself needed rehabilitation. Such was the price the community and its members paid for the traumatic processes that unfolded by the continuing action of people who were themselves traumatized.

Chapters 10 and 11 were devoted to leaders and leadership processes in settings that produced traumatized individuals in the first instance. The first was a four year research study of what sounds like a multinational corporation(MNC), the other of a company in Israel, a society that had seen constant and persistent trauma over the years.

The MNC’s social environment was the worldwide trend towards globalization, profit centredness, centrality of customer satisfaction and productivity with its attendant retrenchment, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions. The net result was a constant transitions of leadership, uncertainty and organizational unresolved grief and the loss of lifetime employment. Leaders often had to put a brave front in order to project a strong leadership but when with a coach, they can be weak and helpless, presenting their “true self”.

Chapter 11 which was centred in a factory in Central Israel, highlighted the consequences of constant and persistent trauma. Traumatic events occurring in the factory accentuated the psychological responses because of the sensitized social environment in which the factory was located. Hypersensitivity responses and a preoccupation with ritual helped the community to get control over the trauma. Day-to-day survival was served by denial and avoidance of communication of the traumatic experiences which sometimes led to a reduced or constricted ability to mourn further trauma.

Grounds for hope

I consider chapters 12 and 13 to be accounts of hope. Chapters 12 is about how Systems Centred Therapy(SCT) was able to utilise group processes to allow members to work through the pathological aspects of trauma. Based on a Theory of Living Human Systems (TLHS), and invoking an understanding based on hierarchy and roles, the techniques allowed for individuals to explore their experience of differences and conflict in an environment of safety and a climate of similarity.

It is my view that SCT is eminently suitable for work in an Asian context because of the way Asian society is hierarchical and cultural roles are often rigid, although some of these are already weakened by forces of globalization and the social media through the internet.

The last chapter gives an account of the aftermath of 911 in New York. The account was one of recovery and resilience even though the trauma was felt far and wide and etched itself into the American psyche. The call in this chapter was for intervention at the individual and group level in order to strengthen resilience and the ability to cope. This call to strengthen and reinforced individual resilience and organizational hardiness is one that I can heartily endorse.


The importance of this book’s ideas for Asians cannot be underestimated. Asian nations have in the modern era experienced a lot of psychological trauma as a result of political transitions, lengthy periods of corrupted dictatorships, frequent changes of leadership and the repeated occurrence of armed conflict. Thus in Singapore where I lived, the nation was conceived by a traumatic experience of separation from Malaysia and forced to be independent and self-sufficent besides facing various economic crises.

Singapore was fortunate to have a strong leadership in the person of Lee Kuan Yew. Wise enough to seek for an stable and peaceful environment, Lee was able to lead Singapore to focus on task, essentially that of a work group, to build Singapore to be a resilient and thriving economy where amenities and services do actually work as they are supposed to be. To his credit, Lee was able to build a largely uncorrupted administration. Such a thriving, enconomically successful Singapore, led to a self-confidence and assurance that allowed the nation to mature and to explore its own identity, an exercise which repeated several times led to a strong sense of nationhood. It also led to explorations of self and community actualization in the creative arts and cultural activities, which restored the soul of the nation as it were. Strong leadership does excite basic assumption characteristics and there was no lack of opposition to the national leadership with its attendant paranoia and massification characteristics. Indeed, it was dangerous to be a good leader for it excited a lot of hatred and aggression and a desire for its elimination by a section of its members.

I commend this book to my readers because it is vividly written and remarkably coherent. There are few books like this one which can match its rigour, insight, and scholarship. It uses psychoanalysis and group analysis as tools of socio-cultural enquiry, ideas though not unfamiliar to Asians yet not well understood here generally. More importantly, the ideas and concepts in this work is very applicable in our cultures. If readers find that the ideas which the words here represent ring a bell, that’s because the experience of trauma is something that is embedded in our lives because of our collective experience as part of a nation that has undergo traumatic experience in our lifetime. This book gives us grounds for hope that notwithstanding such traumatic experience we can continue to build and foster resilient individuals and community and organizational hardiness.

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Dr Douglas Kong is a Certified Executive and Life Coach specialising in helping individuals, teams and organization to function optimally with peak performance in the workplace. He helps people by assisting them to overcome their personal performance barriers and by increasing their social and interpersonal functioning and communication skills. He is a retired psychiatrist whose past training and experience are focused on Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Developmental Psychiatry and Group Dynamics.