Team Coaching: What Is The Group Imago?


My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m the director of Intact Academy. We give training programs for coaches, consultants and leaders to become skilled coaches. Individual coaches, team coaches and supervisors of coaches. You can find all that information on the website, I also run a business called Agile Business Innovation, where we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products. You can find that information on 


We’re talking about team coaching. We talked about group imago. It is the mental image of what a group is, or should be like, that you carry with you from other experiences and things you missed, probably in your family of origin. 


There’s a theory about how group imago develops. Eric Berne ran psychotherapy groups, he was a psychiatrist. His idea of group imago was always a little tilted through his experience as someone who ran psychiatric groups. Nonetheless, it’s relevant for team coaching. 


A group imago is something we carry inside at an unconscious level. As a team coach it is pretty hard to see what’s going on unconsciously, unless you look at the effects of behavior. Or if you bring in exercises which are non verbal. If you ask people to draw, if you use family constellations, if you do exercises around, “How was your family?” and “How do you want this ‘family’ to be?”. 


In any case, Eric Berne said that as the group imago becomes more adapted to the reality of the group, you are more likely to work from your Adult ego state. The more you adapt that mental image of what it should be like to what it is, the more you are able to work from a position of power and potency. 


As long as you have a gap between how it should be in your mind and what it is in reality, you’re working from a position that is based on a wish, a hope and a dream. The more friction there will be between what it should be, according to you, and what it is, the more energy you spend on that intra psychic adjustment, the less energy there is to work in reality. 


Berne said there were five stages of group imago development. Sometimes people mix that up with Tuckman’s stages of the formation of groups. That’s not completely relevant in this case. Tuckman also created an idea of how groups form, but was talking about the development of the structure of a group. Berne talked about the development of the intrapsychic imago. 


Imago development starts with a provisional imago. A provisional imago is based on fantasies, on the need to belong, on the need for safety, which is primary. The need to belong and the need for safety is one of the primary drivers of belonging to a group. This provisional imago is based on your life script. 


We say, “You get the group you deserve.”. It sounds very unkind, but in a sense, you’re always scanning the environment to belong to groups that fit with your imago, with your primary idea, your story of what a group should be. As you start to adjust you say, “I’ve got this imago, but the group is a little bit different than I thought.”. 


Your imago is based on your relationship with the leader. When you’ve come into any group, you first look at the leader. What’s your relationship, your distance, your similarity or difference to the leader. It’s only afterwards you start noticing there are other people in the group as well. This is the basis of the second stage of adaptation of your imago. Berne called that, the adapted imago. To adjust you may see a disagreement about the process in the group, some sort of agitation. That’s an important step in the adaptation of imago. In this friction between your image and what the group is, you start to create an identity, and you start to realize what the identity of the group is. 


Berne then talked about a third stage of the development of imago. He called that the operative imago. In that operative imago, you see a further negotiation between what you think it should be and what the group is. People start to actively ask, “could we do it differently?”. In that stage of adaptation, it’s important to bring that negotiation to the surface.  There is a wish and a need to belong, and there is a group that requires some adaptation. This belonging question is actually a two sided negotiation: “if I want to belong to this group, there have to be some changes.”. Vice versa, it’s also the group saying, “are you adapting enough for us to accept you as a member?”. In this operative imago stage, you see this bilateral negotiation going on. 


After this negotiation, Berne talked about a fourth stage of group imago development, called secondary adjustment of imago. This is where you see that people are starting to focus their energy, not towards the internal process of adaptation, but more towards goal achievement and problem solving. It’s at this stage, where you see more collaboration in a group. 


Collaboration of the group is not only the result of a healthy structure, or having good cohesion at the relational level. It’s also the subtotal of adjustment that people have done, that they can say, “I brought this imago into this group. We’ve negotiated that. I’m ready to cooperate with you.”. 


The fifth stage of group imago adaptation is called, clarified imago. Berne said that by this time, people are ready to work fully or leave the group. You have to remember that Berne worked in psychotherapy groups. His idea was that by the time people have clarified their imago, they start to get bored because there’s no friction anymore between their internal fantasy of what a group should be like and the reality. By the time people are completely adapted to reality in a psychotherapy group, they’re ready to leave. 


In a work group, of course, once people have clarified imago, they’re ready to work. and celebrate success because their energy is not only caught in that intra psychic adaptation, but they’re working outside with real people with a real image of what the group will be like. If people have not clarified their imago by the time the group finishes, you will often see goodbyes that are quite distorted. People have regrets, or people haven’t fully worked through the relationships in a group. You can tell when people are working in a team with clarified imagos if their goodbyes are as good as their hellos. 


With that, I want to ask you, how are you doing? What stage are you in? In terms of clarification of your imago. Are you already adapting your imago, “ I know what the group should be.”? Are you already negotiating explicitly for that, “If I want to belong, this is minimally what has to change.”? Are you already focusing your energy more outward towards goal achievement, than inward towards holding on to what a group should be? Are you ready to let go in the clarified imago? 


Let me know.