The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

In small (6-8 people) and medium-sized groups (15 - 20 people), p(g) = I (n-1) Where p = power; g = group; I = individual.

In small (6-8 people) and medium-sized groups (15 – 20 people), p(g) = I (n-1) Where p = power; g = group; I = individual.

In a recent series of workshops, we found ourselves frequently using the phrase: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Yes, they said, we understand how that principle applies to our work, but how does it apply to us, to this group? Now?

The power of the group for achieving (or failing to achieve) its purposes is often thought of as a mystery. Regular definitions of groups usually refer to the conscious, purposeful association by numbers of people with a common feeling of camaraderie who strive through collaborative empiricism to reach agreed goals. These definitions seldom include the mystical idea that groups, once formed, take on a life of their own, which may or may not be under the control of its members, which may or may not correspond to the conscious intentions and wishes of their members. Why do groups frustrate the agreed wishes of their members? In our work with groups we notice how easily one part of the group frustrates the wishes of the other to the point where progress in their decision-making is impaired.

We raise these questions with the groups, and we ourselves ponder why groups are sometimes unable to achieve their objectives in spite of the best minds of the organisation applying themselves to the task. Is it the group membership? The size of the group? Or external forces impacting the group? And if so, why does the group not deal with these forces – they are, after all, the company’s senior leaders? The group members know how ‘dynamics’ operate in their respective fields of knowledge, so why do they not appreciate how ‘dynamics’ apply to them?

Once the group members acquire a taste for learning about group dynamics, they become hungry for more. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations offers programmes of learning in group dynamics to senior managers and leaders, via its famous Group Relations conferences, the most notable of which is the
Leicester conference. Group Relations is a model of learning that has been replicated all over the world.  In group relations conferences participants have an accelerated learning experience in real time, the effects of which are mind-blowing in the discovery of new ways of understanding complex environments. Group Relations conferences provide for the study of small group dynamics, large group dynamics, and the dynamics of other group formats. The groups work intensively with trained consultants to discover layer after layer of group unconscious functioning and conscious interaction. Inevitably, groups will be concerned with who leads and who follows, and especially in situations where it is not a person who leads, but an idea – and discovering what makes some ideas more inspiring than others.

Individuals bring unique contributions to the group task that are related to their personalities, family histories, professional discipline, national, ethnic and race experiences; they will discover the great part that gender plays in group behaviour; how subtle interactions and small choices have significant impacts – the butterfly effect.  Learning will be attentive to the hidden forces acting in and on groups and what factors impact on the power of the group to support its task or act against it. Working from a systems psychodynamics standpoint, the groups and their participants learn that the power of the group increases geometrically and not arithmetically in proportion to the faculties and resources of everyone.

That is the reason why we formulate the power of the group as a function of all the faculties of all the participants thus making the group experience a truly mystical one. Some people have a flair for understanding group dynamics; others learn it. Group Relations conferences are moments of profound learning and well worth the investment.

Dr Mannie Sher PhD
Director, Group Relations Programme

For further details or if you have any questions, please contact Rachel Kelly, Professional Development Coordinator.

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