Team Complexes: A Psychological Explanation
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Team Complexes

Concrete behaviours

A "Team Complex" is a form of Group Think. It is a hidden force that inhibits team performance.

A Team Complex is a set of behaviours, rules, beliefs, hunches, emotions and observations that have 'grown together' and become inseparable.

When a builder mixes sand, cement, aggregate and water they form concrete. The sand, cement etc. cannot then be separated, and the differences between them cannot be seen.

In a similar way, a team complex is a mixture of things in the team that have been 'concreted' together and have become inseparable (perhaps through the development of Group-Think). Here are some examples:

Seeing everything as a nail

Maslow once commented that if you only have a hammer then you see everything as a nail. This is a good point, and demonstrates the importance of having the right tools at your disposal.

But team complexes provide an additional explanation for why a team may see everything as a nail, even though they may have a full set of tools in their toolbox: they can't tell the difference between nails, tacks, pins, screws, and land-mine triggers; these things have been 'concreted' together.

So, despite all the training and tools at their disposal, because they view some things as the same, they will respond to all those things in the same way. For instance, in the two examples above the following might happen:

In both of these cases, whilst the team responses seem reasonable to them, to other people who have not concreted these things together in the same way, their responses seem irrational.


Team complexes are like sleeping dogs: they don't really feature in the team unless they are woken up. What invokes the complex, what wakes up the sleeping dog, is a trigger.

A trigger can be anything that is part of the concrete complex. In the examples immediately above, the triggers are:

Anything that is part of the complex can trigger it.

Disproportionate response

Once a complex is triggered, all the things in the complex are triggered. This is because they are concreted together and cannot be separated.

Because Team Complexes often include behaviours, rules, beliefs, hunches, emotions and observations, when they are triggered you get all of these things coming to bear. In the example of being set "tough objectives", this might include:

This is an exaggerated example, but it illustrates the point: the complex is woken by any of the triggers, and then all of the triggers are woken.

Conscious and Unconscious behaviours

There has been a significant move in recent years towards understanding and developing consciousness in teams and organisations. Developing higher levels of consciousness in a team can, in many circumstances, help to mitigate the effect of complexes by bringing them into awareness (and it is one of the strategies highlighted below).

There are different views on this, but from a Jungian perspective complexes reside within the unconscious, and below superficial behavioural manifestations are often unconscious elements that have been concreted together. The development of higher levels of consciousness can sometimes work against the loosening of unconscious complexes, by creating a greater split between the conscious and the unconscious.

As a simplistic example, when a team is preparing a project plan it may press for all the information it can, so that it develops an awareness of all the rational options that are open and therefore the contingencies to be included. This may develop a 'higher level' of consciousness as far as rational thinking is concerned, but in doing so may repress other irrational factors such as individual feelings, emotions and ambitions, or unexpected, irrational events.

How to deal with complexes

From the previous section, it is probably clear that it can be very difficult to deal with complexes because highlighting them may well invoke them, and as soon as they are invoked, the response of the team is disproportionate. This can make the task very difficult, as the very thing you want the team to deal with is stopping them. However, not all complexes are as extreme as this example, and many are more easily tackled simply by raising awareness.

Nevetheless, dealing with team complexes can require a high degree of skill in facilitation, coaching and counselling. Broadly speaking, there are four strategies that can be used:

  1. Let the sleeping dog lie (passive).

    This can be done by just carrying on and hoping that the complex isn't triggered. There is no guarantee, of course, that this would happen but teams often reach a point of natural equilibrium where the complexes are unconsciously avoided.

  2. Avoid the sleeping dog (active).

    This involves establishing a team contract that steers the team towards other behaviours/topics and avoids those within the complex. Although the team will be involved in drawing up the contract, that it relates to a complex will be unbeknown to them. The relationship between the contract and the complex is something that only the team facilitator or consultant will be conscious of. Again, this cannot provide a guarantee - what may make it fail is either if circumstances force them into trigger behaviours, or if individuals have their own complexes that, caused by other things, nevertheless trigger the team complex. (Eg: if someone in the team can't copy with ambiguity, every time the team's discussion starts to meander that person might complain about a lack of structure, which then triggers the team's complex about agendas and bureaucracy).

  3. Let the team encounter 'disaster'.

    A complex can be likened to a constellation of stars, and a disaster (literally 'bad-star') can break apart the constellation. Whilst many teams stumble into this inadvertently, it can be a very risky strategy to use deliberately because you never have control over the consequences or individual reactions to the disaster.

  4. Heighten awareness of the complex.

    This involves setting an environment and preparing the team to be receptive to new information that doesn't trigger the complex. This can be a skilled task, but things that can help include:
    • An offsite team workshop in a picturesque, relaxed setting
    • A "team health check" report that, in effect, holds a mirror up to the team
    • Feedback based on the "Team Dynamics Assessment™" that indicates potential areas where complexes may be at work
    • Impartial data-based feedback on the team from those outside it
    • Presentation of feedback in non-judgemental ways, allowing the team to 'take it or leave it'
    • A positive focus, eg: 'what can we do to improve?' rather than 'where have we gone wrong?'
    • A good facilitator who is skills in both group and individual listening/counselling techniques.

  5. Delve into the unconscious.

    Exploring the team's unconscious is much more difficult than giving them greater awareness of something about which they are already conscious. The Team Dynamics Assessment™ can provide a starting point, when used in a workshop by a skilled facilitator.

Incidentally, complexes can occur within individuals as well as teams. Dealing with individual complexes is much more difficult than dealing with team complexes, because there is usually a much longer history and greater investment in the complexes.

To explore the overlap between the team and individual unconscious, the best approach currently available (in our view) is Human Elements, also known as Elements of Awareness.


Complexes a mix of elements that have been concreted together.

Depending on the level of mix, and how hard the concrete has set, complexes are not simple to deal with. Teasing apart the elements involves using the team equivalent of a centrifuge, which is a skilled job

The best tactics are usually either to work around the complex or to gently bring it into conscious awareness.

See all sixteen team complexes.

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