As leaderless mobs of angry, unemployed 20-somethings continue to march on Wall Street this week picketing against big business and the federal government, my thoughts can’t help but drift back to the pages of Marvin R. Weisbord’s 2004 book, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century.
They return specifically to the chapters of the book that discuss the work of Eric Trist, Fred Emery, and the Tavistock Institute in 1950s London.
At the time, Tavistock’s study of groups in organizational settings had picked up where Kurt Lewin and the National Training Laboratories (or NTL) had left off a decade earlier, following Lewin’s death in 1947. Unlike the researchers at NTL, Tavistock researchers weren’t interested in becoming active members of the groups they studied—a method that Lewin called action research.
At Tavistock, researchers were more interested in stepping back and letting a leaderless group find its collective voice all on its own.
“The ‘Tavi’ groups,” Weisbord wrote, “emphasized structure, boundaries, and collective behavior when presented with responsibility for self-learning by an impassive authority, the trainer.”
Tavistock trainers refused to interact with group members. “Instead,” Weisbord wrote, “they delivered infrequent, impersonal, and sometimes cryptic analytic interpretations of group behavior.”
This, in turn, made group members project all sorts of feelings and assumptions on the trainer, particularly all the ill-feelings each group member harbored against his or her parents, teachers, bosses, or other authority figures.
Tavistock researchers found that “feelings about authority indiscriminately control our behavior in many situations when we least realize it,” Weisbord wrote. “Work group conflicts, passivity, demoralization, [and] withdrawal are traceable to group feelings about authority.”
Their findings gave credence to the leaderless theories of British Army Major Wilfred R. Bion, a psychoanalyst who studied the tension that tends to exists between cooperation and self-centeredness. Bion asserted that, in groups, people generally resort to three basic, unconscious assumptions: they fight or flee the group situation; they expect the group leader to decide everything; or they pair up defensively with other group members who share the same sentiments.
With Bion’s leaderless theory and the Tavistock group studies in mind, let’s take a look at the leaderless mobs presently haunting Wall Street and other cities across the U.S.
These mobs primarily consist of young, college-aged people who’ve rallied around a battle cry launched across social media channels “against social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government.”
Their leader? No one, really.
The demonstrations they’re now famous for started out as an idea by a Canadian-based, anti-consumerist, media foundation—an idea that rippled across cyberspace and flourished into a movement that became, well, leaderless.
This group views itself as a representation of the average, down-and-out, unemployed American who is angry at authority. It projects this anger against the wealthy, apathetic, influential types running Wall Street and the U.S. government—bankers, stocktraders, politicians.
Like a Tavistock trainer, these authority types offered many “infrequent, impersonal, and sometimes cryptic analytic interpretations” concerning the U.S. economy during these past few years. Now, the group members are peeved and have banded together to take out the trainer.
Sounds like Tavistock revisited… well, sort of.
As Weisbord noted, Tavistock research found that a leaderless group finds its voice by creating structure and boundaries to their collective behavior when an impassive authority figure slaps the group with the responsibility to work together and learn.
Like the Tavistock groups, this group of young protestors has felt the sting of authority’s challenge. Their response, however, has no clear purpose, vision, or direction—something the group’s been criticized about repeatedly in the cable news media.
They have developed a collective voice, but it’s just being used to vent with no driving purpose to learn, grow, or resolve the issues they’re picketing against. Without direction or a sense of purpose, this fringe group exists for the sake of existing and presently represents the people that, Bion noted, pair up defensively seeking safety or reassurance among the like-minded.
“When people fight, run away from the task, pair up defensively, or depend on a leader to solve their problems, they become childish, immature, and unable to grow,” Weisbord wrote. “They cannot use their creativity or commit to joint action.”
In order for a group’s actions to be considered constructive, these actions need to be purposefully defined and proactive so they can yield positive results that lead to some sort of growth.
“So what else is new?” Weisbord wrote. “It’s the sort of thing everybody knows.”
Well, not really, Mr. Weisbord. It seems some leaderless groups still have a lot of learning to do.