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The interpersonal underworld: four group needs

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Why is the undercurrent in teams so fascinating? Because most group behavior cannot be understood from the actions of separate individuals. Apparently there are other, largely unseen ‘forces’ at work. We notice that ‘something’ is going on, but we do not know exactly where it’s coming from.

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And even if you knew, you wouldn’t have a clue how to handle it. Today it’s called the undercurrent, a word that doesn’t sound reassuring. Substitutes for the undercurrent are: group dynamics, force field, chemistry, depth structure. Many people find the undercurrent creepy, so they don’t speak too much about. It seems like the group is developing its own independent identity, an identity so strong that it appears to survive, even after individual group members have been replaced one by one. This is not useful in a group in which people are struggling with underlying patterns and dynamics.

The Iceberg Model of McClelland

This is a useful metaphor to visualize the undercurrent. Instead of ‘under water’ you can also say ‘under the table’ or ‘under the carpet’ or even ‘underworld’. The part above water is the domain of the content, the objectives, information, the topic, the explicit agreements, the overt rules, the structure and the procedures. In short, all that is visible and that can be openly discussed or written about.

The undercurrent is usually much ‘bigger’ and is the part under water. You can’t always see it, but it certainly is ‘noticeable.’ In ironic jokes, or in the underlying tone of certain remarks. This is the domain of relationships, likes and dislikes, of unspoken feelings, opinions, dreams, ambitions and fears. But also the domain of unwritten rules, standards and implicit assumptions.

There are countless variations on the model, using different words for above and below. It is often thought that the visible part is conscious and the invisible part is subconscious. This is incorrect, because sometimes what is conscious is deliberately kept under water. Perhaps it’s too painful, too incomprehensible, or it’s a taboo. What matters for our understanding of teams is that the group has a subconscious which is less spoken about. Much of the conscious and visible behavior of groups is affected by the undercurrent.

Basic principles of group dynamics

  1. Each group has two main goals: to generate a result and to maintain the group. Therefore, in a healthy group, always focus on both the content and mutual relationships. Above and under the water line.
  2. Groups display their ‘own’ behavior that is different from, or extends beyond the sum of individual behavior. So if you’re only looking at the behavior of individual group members, you’re missing a big part of the undercurrent.
  3. Individual behavior is always influenced by the group, but this effect is rarely simple or linear. For example, you won’t have more influence if you talk more. Also, you won’t have less influence if you talk less! And the group won’t necessarily become more comfortable if everyone shares something personal. In short: if you want to understand what’s going on in your team, delve into it’s undercurrent.

What you will see when you put your goggles on will not immediately make sense. I’ll give you a simple diagnostic tool: ask yourself what the basic needs of the team members are and how members deal with it.

Basic needs in the undercurrent

Every group member is always trying to fulfill certain basic needs. They are wondering how the group, and their companions, are going to help, or frustrate them in getting what they want. You can categorize their (subconscious) questions in four themes:

1. Inclusion – membership and boundaries of the group. 

  • Am I really part of this? Do I want to be part of it? Do I belong here?
  • Is everyone here truly committed?
  • Who else is and who isn’t part of the group?

2. Influence – the distribution of power in the group

  • Are my ideas and interests adequately addressed?
  • How do I control? How can I make sure that I do not lose all control?
  • Who is pulling the strings here?

3. Intimacy – how personal and confidential can it get

  • What will I share and what will I keep to myself?
  • Can I be myself here? Do I get to see what the others are about?
  • With whom do I really feel connected?

4. Inspiration – what the group can deliver

  • Does this group give me anything? Are we being meaningful and useful?
  • Can I contribute? Am I competent and interesting enough?
  • Who has good ideas, who is an example to me?

People are all different in their needs. Some want to immerse completely in the group, others prefer a position by the side (inclusion). You may like to give directions, others like to be following (influence). There are members who can’t wait to share all their personal feelings, where others may be more reserved (intimacy). And some place high demands on the yield and purpose of the group, while others need less of that (inspiration).

For everyone there is, in theory at least, a perfect alignment with the group and harmonic fit with the others. If the group succeeds to find an acceptable balance, it will be productive. But in a situation of shaky discrepancies, the undercurrent will eventually start making waves.

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