Facilitative Leadership

Alisdair Smith, Facilitation Training Inc. (FTI)
FoGS Workshop April 16, 2003


Facilitative Leadership is a people–centered, quality and results driven process of developing and supporting a culture in the workplace that facilitates goal achievement through effective relational processes. Facilitative leadership is particularly important to effective group process, teamwork, workplace culture and change management in the workplace.

Key Concepts

Competencies of a Facilitative Leader

  • Understanding how group interaction impacts relationships and productivity
  • Keeping group discussion and interaction focused, clear and productive
  • Ensuring clarity of expectations, in terms of goals, roles, decisions
  • Seeking appropriate involvement in decision making
  • Building understanding in a group, even when their views are in conflict
  • Building agreements and solutions that capitalize on the group’s best thinking
  • Securing commitment and buy in for projects and decisions
  • Encouraging self–critique and improvement

Productivity and Commitment in the Workplace

The single most important variable in employee productivity and loyalty is the quality of the relationship between employees and their immediate supervisors.

Gallup findings reported that when employees were asked, “What is the relationship that employees want with their direct supervisor?” they responded

  • Give clear and consistent expectations
  • Care for them
  • Value their unique qualities
  • Encourage and support their growth and development

Building Trust is key to facilitative leadership. Fair process is key to building trust, as, “it profoundly influences attitudes and behaviours critical to high performance.”


Fair Process

To create a climate in which employees volunteer their creativity and expertise, managers need to look beyond the traditional tools at their disposal. They need to build trust. Facilitative leaders make this an ongoing priority.

Fair process is about fairness in the way a company makes and executes decisions. The elements are simple

  • Engage people’s input in decisions that directly affect them
  • Explain why decisions are made the way they are
  • Make clear what will be expected of employees after changes are made
Elements of Fair Process   Results
Engagement • Engage people’s input in the decisions that directly affect them
• Permit people to refute the merits of ideas
• Encourage people to challenge assumptions
• Communicates respect for people and their ideas
• Sharpens thinking
• Builds collective wisdom
• Better decisions
• Strengthens commitment and follow through
Explanation • Explain why decisions are made the way they are
• Acknowledge how input was considered
• That doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with the decision, but they do understand the logic and reasoning that the decision was based on
• Merit of decision is understood
• Business interests are understood
• Trust is built
• Organizational learning occurs
• Better decisions are made
Expectation Clarity • Make clear what is expected
• Clarify targets, milestones, behaviour, responsibilities and roles
• Communicate the “rules of the game”
• People understood what is expected
• political jockeying and favouritism is minimized
• people can focus on their work

With a fair process, managers can achieve even the most painful and difficult goals, while gaining the voluntary co–operation of the employees affected. Without fair process, even outcomes that employees might favour can be difficult to achieve.

Dynamics of Interaction

A major awareness matter for working with people individually or in groups, is the understanding that there are fundamental dimensions occurring simultaneously in all group interactions (1) content, (2) process and (3) emotion. We can be so wrapped up in the content of a discussion, or WHAT we are working on, that we ignore HOW we are working together, and how we are feeling.

Great leaders find a balance between getting results and how you get them. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that getting results is all there is to the job…Your real job is to get results and to do it in a way that makes your organization a great place to work.

Active Listening and Inquiry

Active listening and inquiry are key processes that use skills that are foundational to understanding and dealing with the dynamics of interaction in group work.The best Executives lead by constantly asking questions and then genuinely listening to the answers. Examples of these skills or techniques are set out below

Technique Description Example
Open–ended questions Broad questions that encourage the speaker to share information and discuss his/her perspective on an issue. Typically begin with how, what or why and require more than a one or two word answer. What are some ideas on how we might approach this situation?
Probes A short statement or question that encourages the participant to provide more information. Can you give me an example?
How do you mean?
How so?
What does that look like?
Bracket Internally acknowledge and set your own point of view, argument or judgement and concentrate on what is being said. Speaker:
“We could never meet these goals and maintain the required level of service.”
Listener thinks:
“Stay curious here, let’s stay in understanding mode and learn what his concerns are.”
Paraphrase Rephrase the essence of what the speaker has said using your own words to confirm you understand what the speaker has said. “The performance standards the company has set leave little time for staff to initiate new projects.”
Summarize Restate the major ideas expressed in order, review progress, pull together important ideas and facts, check for accuracy and/or to establish a basis for further discussion. So I understand we’ve got three issues here: available staff time, funding, and increasing customer expectations. Is that how you see it?
Perception Check State your perception about how the speaker feels as a question, to deepen your understanding and empathy. “Sue. I get the sense that the status quo is unacceptable to you.”
Reframing Maintaining a positive focus by restating what one party has said so that the other party will be more likely to hear the message. Speaker:
“If you interrupt me one more time, I’m out of here.”
“You would like to finish your sentence before Bob begins to answer.”
Reflect Acknowledge the speaker’s concern by repeating their exact words. Speaker:
“I don't agree with this salesy approach.”
“So, the salesy approach is what troubles you.”
Body Language Non–verbal signals that demonstrate that you are paying attention and are interested (e.g. eye contact, open posture) “Could we all shift along in our seats because I am unable to see Bob and Sue and that is making it difficult for me.”

Inquiry and Advocacy

The differences between these two communication approaches in their intent and style are important to generating shared understanding and empathy. The advocacy approach focuses on what the speaker wants, or the speakers’ position. It is by nature self–centered. The inquiry approach is nonpositional for the speaker, and draws out the position or interest of the other through its curiosity.

When we only advocate, we do not invite others to state how they see things. When we only inquire, we do not let others know our own point of view.

The facilitative leader must balance advocacy and inquiry. This is achieved through encouraging the following combination of activity among workers in interaction:

  • Observing: sensing, bystanding, withdrawing
  • Telling: testing, asserting, explaining, dictating
  • Asking: clarifying, interviewing, interrogating
  • Generating: skilful discussion, dialogue, politicking

Source: Argyris and Schon in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook

“Balancing inquiry and advocacy is sometimes hard on people's cherished opinions, which is one reason why it is so difficult to master. But the payoff comes in the more creative and insightful realizations that occur when people combine multiple perspectives.”

Decision–Making: Options for Involvement

The facilitative leader’s goal is to increase involvement appropriate to the situation — this will ensure a “Fair Process”. Involvement begins with defining which decisions need to be made and then

  • Engaging people’s input in the decisions that directly affect them.
  • Ensuring people understand why decisions are made the way they are, and
  • Explaining what is expected of people, or the “rules of the game.”
  • Consult individuals and decide
  • Consult group and decide
  • Develop group consensus
  • Leave decision to group

It is important to be clear about how decisions will be made, who is making the decision, and how others will be involved. This is key to all stakeholder management.

Process Informing and Involvement Tools

SWOT Analysis is a frequently used method to inform decision–making in a situationally relevant way. It is a very effective way of identifying your Strengths and Weaknesses, and of examining your Opportunities and Threats you face. Carrying out an analysis using the SWOT Framework helps you to focus your activities into areas where the greatest opportunities lie.

Skill Sets for Facilitating Group Process

Fundamental skills in the process of facilitating group interaction include

  • Role Selection
  • Fundamental roles in group interaction when working as a team include facilitator, scribe, time keeper, observer.
  • Giving Feedback and Coaching

The skilled facilitative leader does the following:

  • ensures everyone is clear on what result is wanted, and how the result is pursued
  • uses everyone as a resource
  • uses participants’ time effectively
  • makes good use of available information
  • remains clear about the tasks
  • remains clear about responsibilities
  • clarifies the process or steps to follow
  • monitors process
  • asks relevant questions to keep things on track
  • paraphrases and summarizes to ensure a common understanding
  • “nails down” key agreements and decisions
  • ensures appropriate use of visuals
  • acknowledges and addresses any confusion
  • gets the group back on track when confusion sets in
  • keeps participant input relevant and on track
  • keeps input concrete with minimal need for interpretation
  • maintains respectful communication within the group
  • develops sufficient information about topics and avoids exhaustive discussion
  • explores alternatives fully before making decisions, both in content and in process
  • encourages and explores differences in opinion, and
  • ensures adequate closure to discussion.

(Adapted from Team–Managed Facilitation, Dennis Kinlaw)

Reaching Consensus

Consensus is the process of finding a decision, solution or proposal acceptable enough that all members can support it and no member opposes it.

When consensus is the goal, the facilitative leader gets the group/team to:

  • Agree on what consensus means.
  • Set a time limit for making the decision.
  • Set a fallback if no decision is reached
  • Check to see how much consensus already exists.

(excerpt from “Reaching Consensus” article in Training Magazine)