Alongside Transactional Analysis, Eric Berne also developed a theory of groups based on their structure and dynamics. A place to start within this theory is the idea of the imago.
What he described was a mental image that the individual may or may not be aware of but uses in his perception of what a group is or should be. The imago serves the individual when he enters a group and seeks to capture his relationship with the group.
Becoming a member of a group means coming in with one’s individuality and seeking to find one’s place in the group. It is a situation in which wanting to belong leads to asking oneself how one needs to change to become a member of the group as well as what role one will have to take up. It also is a situation in which one seeks to have one’s individuality appreciated.
As a group evolves, one’s membership evolves too. Much of this is reflected in the way the imago develops itself. In the beginning, it is provisional, then it becomes adaptive, operational, secondary, and lastly clarified.
The first four of these imago go quite well with the stages a group goes through anytime its membership changes and searches for ways to become an effective group or team. The last one then relates to renewal when the group changes and needs to accept the loss of its previous state.
In essence during any of these stages, the imago changes, that is the way the individual perceives the group at this stage. The view into the group becomes more detailed and allows the individual to ask himself a different question about his membership.
Any time a group changes in its structure its members will go back to a provisional imago of the group. It’s the moment when the individual seeks to figure out where the leadership is located in the group. The question asked at this stage is “How to participate?” It’s a moment in time when the individual seeks, for example, to understand what the rules of the game are in the team.
When the imago evolves it becomes the adaptive imago, that is one where the individual asks himself what his place is in the group. He’ll find himself connecting with some of the members in the group but not all and starts to understand the roles individuals have.
When the imago becomes the operational one, subgroups start to become visible, and the individual is concerned with the question of how he can engage. It’s a stage when the solidity of the connections is being tested. It can also be a time when more tensions as well as misunderstandings contribute to problems in the group.
When the group evolves to the next stage, most shift to a so-called secondary imago where there is the ability in the team to disconnect from whatever might be a stake to them individually. They become more concerned about the group’s cohesion and objectives. Working together becomes effective in a mostly pleasant atmosphere. The question that represents this imago best asks what responsibility is invested for what effectiveness.
But as groups regularly change, there are also the moments where one person leaves, or someone joins and thus changes the structure of the group. It opens the mind to the clarified imago. At this stage, the individuals realize what the group had in the previous stage. Whatever it was, there is a need to let go of it. It’s a stage where grief helps to deal with what has been lost. It’s a stage that can reappear anytime the individuals realize how he is impacted by the changed group. They find themselves also needing to go back to a provisional imago. The changed structure affects the way individuals take up their roles, where leadership is perceived, as well as how one can participate as an individual.
It’s a constant evolution, one that individuals are not always aware of, and one that can be subtle. It sometimes is confused with a shift in personal relationships.