Facilitation Friday #5: Provide Leadership Without Taking the Reins

Some see facilitators’ as “flipchart patsies,” individuals who stand at the front of the room and merely note on the flipchart what others say. (Side note: you can't really facilitate AND flipchart if you hope to do either very well) The fact that group members often do not see facilitators taking control of the group is by design, not by accident. Individuals using a facilitative approach provide leadership to the group without exclusively taking the reins, never resorting to "cracking the whip" except in extreme circumstances when the success of the group depends on the facilitator exerting much more control.

Facilitators lead with restraint because when group members do not share ownership of the process, the decisions, or their outcomes, they are less likely to follow through on commitments. Too often, individuals abdicate their responsibility to the leader; that is, they fail to acknowledge that ensuring a group’s effectiveness is the responsibility of all members. In order for groups to realize their full potential, every individual must be concerned with the good of the whole and share the responsibility for helping ensure it.

For this reason, facilitative leaders more often ask rather than tell groups what they need to be doing and help them move forward rather than control their movement.  They more often lead with questions that invite others' input rather than directions or declarative statements that only invite others compliance or acquiescence.  "Are ready to move on to our next agenda item?" feels very different to a participant than a facilitators who says, "OK, let's move on now."  While facilitative leadership doesn't require participants' explicit permission for every decision related to group process, it does implicitly acknowledge the value in obtaining it on the questions that matter most.

In his classic work, Facilitation (McGraw-Hill, 1995; out of print but available used),Trevor Bentley notes that facilitative leaders position themselves differently vis-à-vis the group, depending on the situation. They lead from the front during a group’s early stages of development, when participants need to clarify their shared purpose and benefit from having a structure that connects them to the group’s work and to each other.As a group develops and members take more responsibility for directing its activities, the leader becomes just another voice, serving alongside the other members. Finally, when a group reaches higher stages of performance, the facilitative leader contributes from behind, offering insights and observations that add to the team’s evolving momentum.

When you hold a formal leadership position with a group you are facilitating—staff director leading a team meeting, board chair facilitating a board meeting—the perceived authority and power of your role can become a barrier to individuals seeing your primarily in a facilitative capacity.  Because you have more of a vest interest in the outcome of the discussions, you may have a tendency to lead the meeting toward an outcome you find acceptable rather than facilitate the group to an outcome it will own.  Even if you genuinely try to avoid steering the discussion a particular way, participants will filter your facilitation efforts through the leadership role you hold with/over them.  You can try to interrupt this through a discussion about roles at the meeting's onset, but if you have a strong interest in advocating for a particular decisions, you may wish to have someone else facilitate do that you can be more of an active participant.  At minimum, you need to remain self-aware about operating from a position of restraint to avoid participants feeling incredibly restrained about what they can say or do.

What are ways you provide leadership to groups and teams you facilitate without completely taking the reins?

Every Friday in 2012, I will post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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