Psychological Intelligence Foundation CIC



Blog 2: Group imagoes – adding an Absent stage and a phantom

This is my second blog based on the monthly workshops and international webinars that I run – it will be ‘Group Processes’ in December.  In addition to imagoes (in a lot more detail than below 😉) I will be covering plenty of other ideas about groups – and leadership of them.

The concept of group imago from Berne (1963) help us understand even more about the underlying dynamics in groups.  We can then see why we like some people and not others, how our preconceptions and prejudices affect our involvement, and how we come to engage in such unhelpful and apparently illogical pursuits as psychological games.

Berne used the term ‘imago’ to mean a mental image that we have of a group of people, possibly outside conscious awareness, and which influences our actions.   We can identify four stages in the development of our imago, from the time we first enter the group until the point at which we are as integrated a group as we will become.  These phases are not separated by clear boundaries; we gradually move through them.  However, the characteristics of each are recognisable and knowledge of them can help us with our teambuilding process.

Berne’s labels for these stages were provisional, adapted, operative and secondarily adjusted and his diagrams for them looked rather like submarines, with a hump at the top for the leader of the group. I have renamed them as anticipatory, adjusted, adapted, and attached or alienated, to provide a memory aid. I also suggest that the shape of the diagram be different so that participants/clients are encouraged to use whatever shape feels appropriate for them.

Anticipatory Group Imago (Hay 2009)/Provisional Group Imago (Berne 1963)

We begin with an anticipatory mental picture like that in Figure 1. Typically, this will contain little more than a slot for ourself, a slot on a higher level for the leader, and an undifferentiated slot for everyone else.  If we already know some of the group members, these people are likely to have a slot of their own within our mental picture.   We may have separate, but still relatively undetailed slots, for males versus females, or managers versus staff, or for departments, as if we believe that anyone from sales will be one sort of person, and different from people from accounts, who are not like those in production, and so on.  Our behaviours and attitudes as we join the group will be structured by our anticipatory imago.

Figure 1 Anticipatory Group Imago

Adjusted Group Imago (Hay 2009)/Adapted Group Imago (Berne 1963)

As we get to know the other members in the group, we update, augment and generally adjust our imago.  Gradually we begin to differentiate between individuals who were formerly grouped into one slot, so that our imago comes to resemble that in Figure 2.  A major contributor to the process is the pastiming and superficial working together that we do.  As we interact, we are collecting data about each other and about how we will fit in. 

Figure 2 Adjusted Group Imago
Adapted Group Imago (Hay 2009)/Operative Group Imago (Berne 1963)

The third stage concerns our relationship with the leader.  We need to sort this out before we can decide how to behave towards other members of the group.  We begin to adapt our imago to reflect how we intend to adapt (or not) to the leader and other group members.  This is similar to being a child in a family; we needed to know where we stood with our parent(s) in order to deal appropriately with our siblings.  Now we interpret the behaviour of the leader as a guide to how we should deal with our colleagues.  The position of the slots in our imago, vis-à-vis the leader’s slot, take on more significance, as in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Adapted Group Imago
Attached (or Alienated) Group Imago (Hay 2009)/Secondarily Adjusted Group Imago (Berne 1963)

We will enter this stage with a clearer view of individual members of the group.  There will be enough detail for us to have decided which people we want to work closely with, who we would prefer to lose from the team, and who we will tolerate provided we do not have to spend much time with them.  They will of course have made the same decisions about us.  We have also decided the leadership issues, or have determined to continue our struggle for control.  Our imago may well look like that in Figure 4, although it may also be an alienated version where we do not feel we are in a group at all.

Figure 4 Attached Group Imago

Absent Group Imago (Hay 2015)

I add another a potential final imago that represents our perspective of a group of which we are no longer a member.  Such an imago may arise during periods whilst the group is ongoing but we are not currently within it, such as the periods of time between meetings.  The Attached or Alienated imago may still be in effect but will be changed somehow because the slots within it are now clearly mental representations of people who are not in the room with us at the time.

The Absent imago may also apply when the business of the group has been completed so that the group has closed, or when the individual will no longer be a part of the group even though other members are continuing.  The reasons for leaving the group will also impact on the Absent imago, as will the ongoing nature of the group in terms of whether it reached attachment or alienation, or even ceased functioning before either of those outcomes.

It is possible that we maintain Absent imagoes for groups which we left a long time ago, especially if we invest these imagoes with our unmet attachment needs from childhood and were unconsciously regarding the group as a substitute family.  On a more positive note, an Absent imago of a group in which we were supported and enabled to become more autonomous may later serve as a significant psychological resource when we recall how we felt at the time.

There may also be a Phantom – Marco Mazzetti (2012) refers to Berne’s (1963) use of the term phantom to refer to the continuing presence of someone in the group imago after they have left the group.


Berne, Eric (1963) Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups Philadelphia: Lippincott

Hay, Julie (2009) Transactional Analysis for Trainers 2nd ed Hertford: Sherwood Publishing

Hay, Julie (2015) Group Processes (module workbook) Hertford: Psychological Intelligence

Mazzetti, Marco (2012) Phantoms in Organisations Transactional Analysis Journal 42:3 199-208

We offer CPD and’ taster’ opportunities as well as ongoing qualification programmes.   We expect participants to try out before they commit to more.