Group resilience and collapse

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What happens to a group when one of its members “collapses” 1 ( is absent, is lacking, is not competent, is confused, is grumpy, psychologically collapses, “freaks out”, big anger … ).

Can the collapse of an individual lead to the collapse of the group?

That will depend on the group’s resilience, which in turn depends on the group’s intention and its regulation mechanism… let’s take a closer look:

Which groups are we talking about?

let’s differentiate groups by intention:

  • a (W)ork group
  • a (S)upport group ( or therapy, or self-help)
  • a (L)earning group


  • an agile team (in IT) (W),
  • a AA or variant (speech group) (S),
  • a CNV practice group (A)

Who do we serve?

  • a Work group is individuals serving a (common) objective
  • a Support group: a group at the service of one individual (at once, rotating)
  • a Learning group are individuals serving themselves
  • .

Note the antagonism of intentions: I’m serving either the objective ( of the group), another individual, or myself.

  • W: the individual serves the group
  • S: the group serves an individual
  • L: the individual serves himself

How the group functions when an individual “collapses”

what happens in a group when an individual collapses 2 )? ( is absent, defaults, is not competent, is confused, breaks down psychologically, is grumpy, “freaks out”, big anger … )

let’s distinguish a small temporary weakness from a “total” collapse.

if it ‘s a “temporary weakness”

  • a working group: an individual substitutes, at best of availability. “mission first”. ( ex: absence)
  • a support group: the group supports him, until a temporary recovery ( ex: crying fit)
  • a learning group: the individual pauses, or catches his breath. the group continues without waiting. ( ex: illness causing absence of several days)

if it’s a “full collapse”:

  • a work group: the individual is replaced (excluded) from the group, and the individual is taken care of by another part of the system than this group (or not)
  • a support group: the group supports him specifically, and structures itself for more intense; longer support, aiming just at the stop of the collapse ( the successive descent of levels), i.e. stabilization, not aiming to return to the previous level of equilibrium.
  • a learning group: the individual leaves the group (and can resume the curriculum after restabilization, often in another group). the group continues . ( ex: repeating a year, at school)

these are regulation mechanisms that are consistent with the group’s intention, but antagonistic to each other. ( exclusion (W) versus inclusion at all costs (S) for example)

collapse: causes, remedies

when one of its members collapses, the group itself may “collapse” and change modalities 3, without realizing it. That is, changing intent ( and the regulation structures that go with it). This can frustrate its members 4, because it’s implicit and not decided.

for example: a (W)ork group mutates into a (S)upport group for one of its members. or (W): the individual serves the group becomes (S): the group serves an individual. The mission, the objective is delayed.

Let’s illustrate with a few examples, then look at possible causes and remedies.

ex 1: Learning – temporary weakness

During a NVC training session, a participant P starts to burst into tears, in the large group. the group is stunned, and the training stops (i). Despite the intervention of two experienced co-trainers, the participant does not regain his composure. the incident and interruption continue. one of the trainers steps aside with P (in the same room) and nevertheless the crisis continues. the participants are affected, unable to refocus, and the group is unable to fully regain its composure. (g). We see how the collapse of an individual (i) impacts the group (g).

ex 2: Learning – (nearly) full collapse

At each session closure 5, ( 10 mn before lunch, say) participants do a check out where they succinctly share their learning and emotional state . And then, one of the participants reopens a heavy, personal subject that requires empathy and special treatment, and mobilizes the large group, which remains “stuck”, hostage to the “benevolent” pressure of the group, for 30 to 50 minutes before the trainer forcibly stops the group. And the mechanism is repeated every day of the week, over and over again, systematically (with the same participant). To the point where participants fear the moment of closure, which becomes a torment in anticipation. Some members are wondering about coming back ( discomfort) and the legitimacy of the trainers …

ex 3 : Work: temporary weakness

during a work meeting, just as the brainstorming session is coming to an end, after a well-executed divergence and convergence, and action plans are taking shape, a participant, 5 minutes before the end reopens a complex, ambiguous and uncertain subject, and which cannot be dealt within the allotted time (i). the participants change their attitude and the meeting ends in confusion, with no clarity. the participants part ways, no decision is made (g). the meeting is a disaster.

First conclusion:

In all three examples, the pattern is the same: an individual collapses, and takes the “system” down with him. the group itself has a temporary weakness or “full collapse”, and either “unbands”, or changes modality ( W-> L -> S).

we will show that it is an absence of structure and enlightened leadership that explains this, and how resilience can be structured.

Possible causes and explanation

1/ the group has no (explicit) clarity about its intention, and does not distinguish it clearly, explicitly, from other modalities. the absence of clarity leads many intentions to cohabit, yet they are antagonistic. As are the mechanisms of regulation (variant: the modalities and systems of regulation are not seen as antagonistic, and we try to make several modalities cohabit simultaneously).

2/ an individual’s collapse is not managed by the leader.

  • either he tries to mitigate a heavy collapse with a strategy adapted to a temporary weakness ( lack of clarity or confusion on his part )
  • or he lacks the courage or technique to reframe,
  • and then the group collapses

3/ variant: the leader can’t manage himself ( stress or confusion), he collapses himself, and the participants then try to manage on their own, ( chaos), or the group changes modalities, implicitly ( W-> L -> S)

In summary, the problem is lack of clarity of intent, and/or lack of coherent regulation mechanisms 6.
If the individual collapse is not “contained”, and there is propagation to the group, and the group “mutates” its intention,but then the regulation system must also be mutated. ( and if necessary, recompose the group appropriately)

In everyday reality, groups don’t have two regulation systems at hand, and no clarity on when and how to change them. In other words, no means of being resilient. 7

Note that it’s not the change of intention per se that’s the problem, but the fact that it’s not made explicit and shared.
And so, not all members of the group are on the same “wavelength”, and some will change their attitude and others not. This will increase the confusion, and accelerate the collapse of the group.

Let’s take a W -> S example. During a weekly synchronisation meeting of team leaders, a participant cries silently, then bursts into tears, for no apparent reason. 8
Some will continue to act as if the meeting is still going on, while others will take an interest in the tearful colleague, and lose interest in the topic of the day, and others look at both groups and wonder what to do, and don’t want to take sides.
There’s no longer “one” group, then, but several sub-groups cohabiting in the same space, with different modalities (the “rules of the game”, attitudes, etc.).

Examples of solutions

we recommend:

  1. lay out the frame ( clarity) and
  2. anticipate modality mutations ( clarity, mastery).

“How to structure a group between performance and resilience” is beyond the scope of this article, so we’re just looking here to illustrate the “intention-regulation” coherence thesis.


( ex: NVC practice group)

setting the framework:

1/ (mitigation) “we’re not a therapy group, we’re here to learn and practice. take real but light cases”
2/ (“explanatory” reframing): we’re all either “stable”, or a little affected, or in a state of upheaval. that’s okay, and it’s a sign of strong evolution, so it’s promising. we’ll take it into account, but don’t stop the whole group.

instructions for practice:

3/ in the triads, work on those who need a little empathy first, so they can be more available to others later. On the other hand, let the “upset” ones go last, so that if there’s a collapse, the whole group doesn’t skip its turn.

4/ and “call a trainer, without waiting too long, if it collapses”.

mutation of modalities: the group risks going from L to S, and the whole group ends up serving one individual instead of themselves.

( for individuals who have taken days off and are paying on thei own for their training, this may not be swalloed easily! )


( ex: brainstorming/seminar type meeting)

setting the scene: “we’re going to have a divergence, then a convergence. not all subjects can be dealt with, only those (most) impacting will be dealt with” .

instructions for practices:

use consent with a scale (e.g. consent has 3 levels), and a clear rule that once the proposal has been made, and the decision made, the reflection is closed, and new options are no longer considered. they are no longer processed ( disagree and commit).

( only objections are dealt with, and concerns, only if there’s time)

possible mutation: group W risks being moved to L or even S;

  • instead of serving the objective, ( of clarity) , one (or more individuals) capture the group to serve their personal interest or needs, (L) or feed their needs for attention or empathy (S)

( the group produces nothing productive ( collectively) but individuals gorge themselves personally (brilliance) , or stimulate themselves: (amusement ( need for lightness ) or power games ( need for intensity) )


In order to prevent the group from collapsing when one member collapses,
You need:

  • clarify group functioning , i.e. its intention, and its regulation, and make them coherent;
  • have two regulation systems ready, one adapted to the “normal” mode and a “crisis”
  • regulation.

  • explain the transition
  • .

  • be aware of biases affecting the facilitator/leader (and his blind spots) ,
  • be aware of the expectations (beliefs) of its members, and give an “explanatory framework” during changes.

Going further:


  • individual preferences, with the spiral
  • manipulation and perversity
  • framework and alignment
  • centralized and facilitative leadership: differentiating and distributing control
  • distributing control: Liberating Structures
  • clarify regulatory mechanisms: peacetime and wartime
  • distinguish Work, Play and Practice

  1. EN: collapse 
  2. a system collapses (EN: “collapse”) when it can no longer maintain its (self-)organization , its internal structure 
  3. the intention of a group and its mechanisms of organization, regulation 
  4. and the group’s ecosystem, where applicable. 
  5. after subgroups have worked in triads in the morning 
  6. in a “classic” mode a.k.a “leader”, the leader is a SPOF: Single Point of Failure  
  7. The most common case of the regulation system is the “chief/leader”, who has a monopoly on regulation. Everything must then come from him, the change of intention and his own system of regulation. It’s too demanding for it to work well, “naturally”. 
  8. we would later learn that she was divorcing, and her depressive state would last for several months, without her being either supported or temporarily replaced, leaving the team she led without “direction”. 

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