Provide Leadership with Restraint
One of the core principles of effective faciliation
Approximate reading time: five minutes; 967 words.
Some see facilitators as “the flipchart people,” individuals who stand at the front of the room and note on the flipchart what others say. (Side note: you can't simultaneously facilitate AND flipchart if you hope to do either very well). That some group members may not see facilitators controlling a group is by design, not by accident.
Individuals using a facilitative approach provide leadership to the group without exclusively taking the reins. Just as a jockey sparingly uses a riding crop or parents limit their “Because I said so,” to influence children’s behavior, effective facilitators save being directive for when a group’s safety or success depends on the facilitator exerting much more control.
Why Operating with Restraint Matters
Facilitators lead with restraint because when group members do not share ownership of the process, the discussions, or their outcomes, they are less likely to follow through on commitments. As author and organizational development consultant Patrick Lencioni puts it, “Weighing in is a prerequisite for buying in.”
In many groups, individuals too often fail to acknowledge that ensuring a group’s effectiveness is everyone’s job and instead abdicate their responsibility to the leader or facilitator. As I like to say, “Anyone can—and everyone should—make facilitative contributions.”
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. Facilitating with restraint helps achieve that by cultivating peer-peer accountability and commitment to shared agreements instead of mere compliance with the process and the facilitator.
Restraint in Action
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 you ready to move on to the next agenda item?" feels very different to a participant than a facilitator 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, particularly on the questions that matter most or when it takes little time to do so. Whenever possible facilitators propose for group reaction and determination rather than impose by imperial decree.
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In his classic work, Facilitation (my review is here), Trevor Bentley notes that facilitators position themselves differently vis-à-vis the group, depending on the situation. We may lead more from the front during a group’s early stages of development, when participants need to clarify their shared purpose and benefit from having more 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 or facilitator functions more as a trusted and informed companion, 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 and challenging them to higher levels of performance.
A Range of Intervention Options
“Effective facilitation helps group participants manage themselves, not do the work that rightfully they should own. The default setting on your intervention software is best left at ‘do nothing’ so that you only activate your involvement after considering if you absolutely must.”
Of course we often do not do nothing, though it is a viable option some facilitators may wish to consider more regularly. Doing nothing allows time for group members to reflect on what is occurring and potentially do something themselves.
In Facilitation, Bentley outlines a range of facilitator interventions from gentle and supportive to directive and forceful with persuasive options residing in between.
Doing nothing, silence, support, questions to clarify
Questions to change, questions to move, suggesting choices, suggesting paths, suggesting ideas, suggesting action
Guidance, choosing for group, directing
Bentley notes that his choice of intervention is “entirely based on what I think will help the group get to where it wants to be.”
Choosing to Intervene Checklist
When I decide I need to do something I try to first answer these three questions:
Is there a gentler or more restrained option available to me that likely will accomplish the same results?
Is my choice the one most aligned with the values I am trying to model in my facilitation?
What might be the consequences if I act as I intend, and how would I manage them? This question essentially helps you do a “pre-mortem” anticipatory analysis of your intervention.
As facilitators we should choose persuasive or directive interventions if we believe that is what will serve the group best. But we should also later reflect on those moments (post-mortem) and try to identify what preparatory work with the group might have reduced the need for us to exercise less restraint.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t recommend a completely hands-off, laissez-faire approach to facilitation … nor does Bentley in Facilitation. What I do advocate is that we think more carefully about the options available to us and act with greater care and restraint when we feel the need to intervene.
Intervening as a facilitator generally is a weighted contribution. This is particularly true if group members perceive you as not neutral having personal or positional power over them. Just like weighted exam questions, our interventions can have a disproportionate impact on a group taking responsibility for itself. As such, we should lead with restraint, building over time the capacity and confidence of the group to do for themselves that which we may once have felt the need to do to them or for them.
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