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When Mama shows up everybody regresses to when they were thirteen [or three]…

Regression also happens when leaders show up to work. That’s exactly what Rudden, Twemlow and Ackerman (2008) discuss in their article about leadership and group regression.  They present a mixed methods study that tests three hypotheses about positive performance in groups. Specifically that work groups will do better if leaders:

  1. Clearly state tasks and change how the task is structured if needed,
  2. Use regression in the group to improve work outcomes, and,
  3. Redirect destructive regressive fantasies to prevent destruction.

The authors provide a comprehensive literature review that begins with Freud and Bion and ends with sociobiology. In between we are introduced to the Tavistock/Group Relations model and traditional approaches to understanding leader-group dynamics such as leadership style (transactional, transformational), value congruence, and organizational culture. The authors note that their hypotheses are based on a cognitive-behavioral approach to leadership behavior in a group environment. While this approach neglects important psychodynamic features of leadership behavior, it does give us a starting point for thinking about the role of group regression in selecting and shaping group leaders.

Whether we are leaders or followers our behavior in groups is tied up in our earliest relationships. Given that regression is an inevitable part of group life, it’s reasonable to expect leaders to take responsibility for managing these primitive emotional and psychological states when group members are at their most vulnerable. But here’s the most surprising part – the leader may not be who you think it is. Groups need leaders who can redirect the regression in constructive ways and the person with these skills may not be the official leader of the group.

In short, neglecting the regressive tendencies of work groups will likely lead to poor performance. Perhaps learning to identify and properly manage the regressive tendencies of groups in the workplace could play an important role in management training and executive coaching.

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