Acting Like a Facilitative Leader

“If you fail to honor your people,
They will fail to honor you;
It is said of a good leader that
When the work is done, the aim fulfilled,
The people will say, “We did this ourselves.”
Lao Tzu, , 604-531 B. C., Founder of Taoism, Tao Te Ching

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, painting by Michel Gantelet from 1472. Notice that in this case, the King (or the authority figure) has reduced their status to become a member of the group.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, painting by Michel Gantelet from 1472. Notice that in this case, the King (or the authority figure) has reduced their status to become a member of the group.

This article discusses the strengths and weaknesses of facilitative leadership—is a special type of leadership style for building consensus in meetings. One of the toughest communication and leadership skills can develop, discover what it is and why it is so hard.

Three Major Assumptions

Assumption 1: Facilitator Neutrality

One of the major differences between an autocratic leader and a facilitative leader is how each is perceived. Autocratic leaders typically take a position for which they are strong advocates. Facilitative leaders appear neutral and may really be neutral.

Assumption 2: The Leader Acts in the Best Interest of the Group

In many respects the faciliative leadership looks a great deal like a servant leader—they put the primary needs of the group ahead of their own selfish needs. A classic example is short-term profits over long term growth. The dominant view in capitalism is to stroke short-term results and to hell with the long-term. Such a view benefits the c-level executives and impatient investors at the expense of employees and patient investors.

For an exception to this rule, see the 60 Minutes video titled Antinori: Keeping it All in the Family. It’s about a family that has a long-term view. The subtitle of the piece is, “Family Has Run Wineries For 623 Years, With No Plans To Sell.”

During facilitation, it’s hard to act in the best interest of the group as a whole. It’s hard to know what best interest means.

Let’s say that a corporation has set up a strategy council to determine fundamental business strategy. Since the CEO is to busy shepherding merger, the CIO is asked to chair the sessions. For that person to be successful as a facilitator, she would have to set aside her advocacy role for the use of information technology.

Assumption 3: It’s Important to Build Consensus

To understand faciliative leadership, one has to understand the nature of consensus. The Diocese of Greenburg defines it as, “A method of making decisions through which a group strives to reach substantial, though not necessarily unanimous, agreement on matters of overall direction and policy which can be supported by all.”

Some might say it means one needs 100% agreement, others might say it means everyone agrees somewhat. Someone else might say, “You have consensus when they can live with it.” A cynic might say, “Consensus is when someone is not actively sabotaging the efforts of the group.”

Whatever definition is chosen, consensus is important since groups members experiencing it support and are more committed to implementing the the solution.

There are some very powerful groups that must function by consensus. For example, policy developed by members of the G8, the European Union, and ASEAN are all based on consensus. If something is agreed to in summit, individual states must voluntary carry it out.

Using The Facilitative Style During Meetings

“To facilitate or not to facilitate, that is the question.” A paraphrase of a much more famous saying by William Shakespeare

Definitions of Facilitation

Image by: Formula Student Germany, Reichmann.
Image by: Formula Student Germany, Reichmann.

fa·cil·i·ta·tion Noun: The action of facilitating something. The enhancement of the response of a neuron to a stimulus following prior stimulation. Source: Goggle Search.

This definition is more common that you think. Leadership, one who leads, a teacher is one who teaches. Of course, it tells you nothing. Even experts sometimes don’t have very good definitions. For example, take this one.

One who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high-quality decisions. A helper and enabler whose goal is to support others as they achieve exceptional performance.” Bens (2000)

So What Is Facilitation?

It consisted of two actions: observations and interventions that move that group forward while maintaining consensus. Essentially, a facilitator functions as a leader, and it is a one type of the 19 leadership styles — one that is is very participative and democratic. It is not a laisse faire style, one does not allow the group to do whatever it wants. And it especially in not an autocratic style.

Success in playing the role depends on Three Key Assumptions:

    • Facilitator Neutrality
    • The Leader Acts in the Groups Best Interest
    • Group Functions Under Consensus

Meeting facilitation is most appropriate when one has to deal with complex problems. It’s strength is it’s ability to meld the best ideas from different people. Use it when one needs the strong support and active cooperation. It’s a natural style for project managers, board chairman, entrepreneurs, and team leaders. Unfortunately, if over used, it can create problems as well.

Problems With Facilitation of Meetings

Inappropriate Use Presents an Appearance of Weakness

High power distance cultures such as those in Asia tend to prefer leaders with an autocratic style. In some environments, people prefer to be told what to do, not asked what they should do. It’s important to remember, faciliative leadership does not mean a complete absence of autocratic leadership,

It Requires High End Communication Skills

Functioning as a facilitative leader requires more skill than acting as an autocratic one. Telling people what to do is easy, asking them what to do and getting them to all agree is hard.

It takes Time To Reach a Consensus

Making the decision yourself is always faster—obtaining consensus is slow and often difficult. In fact, some might argue that if consensus is unlikely, it’s better just to make the decision yourself.

Facilitator Development

This is another one of those complex skills. One that sometimes takes a long time to perfect. The good news is that you can learn it, can develop since there are so many opportunities to practice. You might think, “How so? I don’t run many meetings?” That is true, but you have to understand that you don’t have to be the leader, you can be a participant who from times to time facilitate.For the facilitator role can be played anytime one is in a meeting. And it seems as though meetings are very, very common. It would not be unusual for many supervisors and managers to spend four hours and more. And for executives, that number is even higher. The often have formal management meetings, and breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, and the dinners in the evening. So do you really want to be an executive?

Observation

This passive activity involves using the powers of a great detective to put together a coherent picture from observable information. It consists largely of listening and interpreting nonverbal communication patterns.

Interventions

An intervention has as its ultimate objective changing the inherent nature of interactions and processes within the group. It could be directed at any of the focus areas described earlier. Running Exercises (Experience) An experiential intervention means using a type of game, exercise or structured activity to help the group learn.

A Model of Facilitation Skills

References

Bens, I. (2000). Facilitating With Ease!: A Step-by-Step Guidebook with Customizable Worksheets on CD-ROM, Jossey-Bass, ISBN 0-7879-5194-3

Kaner, S. with Lind, L., Toldi, C., Fisk, S. and Berger, D. (2007). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Jossey-Bass; ISBN 0-7879-8266-0

Schuman, S. (Ed) (2005). The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation: Best Practices from the Leading Organization in Facilitation, Jossey-Bass ISBN 0-7879-7160-X

Schwarz, R. (2002). The Skilled Facilitator, Jossey-Bass ISBN 0-7879-4723-7.

Leadership Skill Development