#231 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 8          August 1996

Becoming a Facilitative Leader
by Roger M. Schwarz, Ph.D.

Dr. Schwarz is professor of public management and government, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has his own consulting practice (phone 919-932-3343).  He is author of The Skilled Facilitator:  Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups (Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 1994). 

To generate the extra creativity and productivity that will give their organization a competitive advantage, many leaders try to empower employees and create self-managing and learning teams.  These approaches to change, however, are destined to fail unless the role of the leaders also change.  So what kind of leaders are needed?

The traditional authoritarian leader who unilaterally controls situations and forces others to comply with his or her demands can’t create the environment needed to sustain these changes.  Authoritarian leadership saps the intrinsic motivation that is the lifeblood of creativity. 

More recently, heroic leadership has found a following in many organizations.  Heroic leaders paint a vivid and compelling picture of the organization’s mission and vision.  Heroic leaders inspire and persuade others to help create the leader’s vision.  To be sure, this kind of leadership energizes members and can accomplish a lot.  But the strengths of heroic leadership are also its weaknesses.  With heroic leadership, the source of wisdom, direction, and inspiration is the leader.  Yet, to create the kind of fundamental changes that organizations are now seeking, they need a type of leadership which, paradoxically, doesn’t focus on the leader per se, but instead focuses on the leader helping the team become more effective.  I call this facilitative leadership.

Facilitative leadership is designed to create teams and organizations where people can talk openly and honestly about the difficult issues needing to be discussed.  Facilitative leadership solves problems in a way that takes into account many people’s interests, not just the leader’s.  It replaces quick-fix solutions, that soon fall apart, with solutions that genuinely solve problems.  As a result, facilitative leadership leads people to take responsibility and ownership for their actions.  Finally, it enables teams to learn from their experiences.  We’ll look at the core values and some ground rules that guide facilitative leadership, and how facilitative leaders create effective teams.

Core Values

Every leader has a set of core values that guide his or her behavior.  The core values are like computer operating software; they work quickly and out of awareness, but they influence everything the leader does.  The core values help leaders quickly decide how to deal with situations such as whether to give a boss negative feedback, or to ask his management team whether they see problems with his proposal.  The three core values of facilitative leadership are: 

1)  Valid information

2)  Free and informed choice

3)  Internal commitment 

When people share valid information, they share all the information relevant to that problem.  This includes information that differs from their point of view as well as information that supports it.  For example, if you believed that R&D should not be pursuing a particular strategy, but also knew that there were some good reasons for pursuing it, you would share them, rather than wait for others to raise them.  Valid information is also specific and independently confirmable.  Stating that there are a number of complaints from other departments about R&D’s responsiveness is not valid information because no one can independently confirm such a general statement.  If, however, you provide the names and specific nature of the complaints, those could be confirmed.

When leaders enable others to make free and informed choices, it means that people can define their own objectives and the methods they use for achieving them and that their choices are based on valid information.  When people make free choices, they are not coerced or manipulated.  Internal commitment occurs when people feel personally responsible for their decisions.  As a result they are committed to do whatever is needed to get the job done.  If members are committed to generating valid information, they will also continue to seek new information relevant to their decisions, in order to revisit decisions if new information warrants it.

Most leaders are likely to say that they believe in getting all the relevant information out on the table, in letting people freely make up their minds, and in building genuine commitment, rather than compliance, to decisions.

But almost all leaders’ and team members’ core values differ from those they espouse.  They fail to see the difference, as well as how they produce the opposite of the very results they strive to create.  This is especially true when they’re dealing with high-stakes situations or ones that are potentially embarrassing or threatening.  When valid information is withheld and team members make less than fully informed choices, they may later state that they wouldn’t have agreed to a decision had they known what others knew, but didn’t share.  Consequences follow; for instance, team members may no longer agree to support the decision.  Or, they may say they agree, but then undermine it.  Acting consistent with the three core values is the foundation for effective leadership.

The Ground Rules

I developed a set of ground rules, based on the core values, which describe specific behaviors for effective groups:

1.  Test assumptions and inferences.

2.  Share all relevant information.

3.  Focus on interests, not positions.

4.  Be specific—use examples.

5.  Agree on what important words mean.

6.  Explain the reasons behind you statements, questions, and actions.

7.  Disagree openly with any member of the group.

8.  Make statements, then invite questions.

9.  Jointly design ways to test disagreements and solutions.

10.  Discuss undiscussable issues.

11.  Keep the discussions focused.

12.  Don’t make cheap shots or otherwise distract the group.

13.  All members are expected to participate in all phases of the process.

14.  Exchange relevant information with non-group members.

15.  Make decisions by consensus.

16.  Do self-critiques.

©1994 by Institute of Government

 I’ll now discuss how to use three of the ground rules.  (For a brief description of all of these ground rules, request Ground Rules for Effective Groups, available from the Institute of Government; phone 919-966-5381.)

Test Assumptions and Inferences.  This ground rule requires that facilitative leaders and team members test assumptions and inferences that they make.  An assumption is something one takes for granted; an inference is a conclusion one reaches about something that is unknown based on something that is known.  For example, when we look down the street and see smoke rising, we may infer that there is a fire, even though we don’t see a fire.

The problem with assumptions and inferences is not that we make them.  We must make assumptions and inferences to deal with the hundreds of small decisions needed to get through the day.  The problem is that we make assumptions and inferences without being aware that we’re making them, believe them to be true without testing whether they’re true, and act on them as if they are true.  When decisions or actions are based on invalid assumptions or inferences, they are based on invalid information.  Leaders and team members are more likely not to test their inferences and assumptions when the situation is potentially threatening or embarrassing.  Unfortunately, these are often the very situations in which the consequences of not testing assumptions and inferences are more severe.

To test assumptions and inferences, the facilitative leader follows a two-step process.  First, the leader tells the other member the behavior observed that led to make an inference, and then tests to see if the other person has made the same observation.  For example, the leader might say, “Dan, a minute ago, when I said that we would have to stop the project, you said, ‘that’s classic corporate.’  Am I right?”  Assuming the other person agrees, the leader moves to the second step—sharing his or her inference.  Here the leader might say, “Dan, I’m inferring from what you said that you think corporate pulls its support before a project has had a chance to show results.  Am I inferring correctly?”  After testing the inference, the team can decide what needs to be done depending on whether the inference is accurate.

Share All Relevant Information.  Sharing all relevant information means that leaders and team members share all information that might affect how people think or feel about the issue the team is discussing.  This requires members to also share information that doesn’t support the decision they favor.  For example, during a discussion about how to allocate resources, a team member who favors a particular approach would also be required to share any information he or she has that would indicate potential problems with using that approach.

Following this ground rule ensures that all members have the same valid information to make decisions.  Underlying this ground rule is the assumption that as team members share a common base of information they are better able to make higher quality decisions to which members are committed.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions.  This ground rule enables team members to address their interests and reach consensus, even when they hold incompatible positions on an issue.  Interests are the basic needs, desires and concerns that members have regarding how a specific problem is solved.  Positions are solutions that members take to meet their interests.  Focusing on interests is important because often team members’ interests are compatible even when their positions are in conflict.  

Consider this simple example:  if a team is deciding on a deadline to write a report, one member may suggest an earlier deadline (a position) because he has another project beginning soon, for which he needs to be available (an interest).  A second team member may suggest a later deadline because she is currently involved in another project and will not have time to write the report over the next two weeks.  By focusing on interests, the team might decide that the team member who is currently busy on another project can write a later part of the report and the other team member can write an earlier part of the report.  In this way, the team arrives at a solution that meets the different team members’ interests.

To reach team consensus, a decision must typically meet the interests of all team members.  Yet, there’s a natural tendency for each member to move immediately from identifying the problem to suggesting a solution that meets his or her interests, without first discussing these interests.  By helping the team follow this ground rule, members can begin discussing their interests underlying the problem before they generate alternative solutions.  After they have identified and discussed their interests, they seek solutions that meet all of the interests.  If members prematurely suggest solutions, the leader can help them re-focus on interests by asking what interests are met by the proposed solution.  In cases where team members aren’t able to develop a solution that meets all the interests, then team members can discuss which, if any, interests are most important.

Applying the Core Values and Ground Rules

Facilitative leaders use the core values and the sixteen ground rules to help their team become increasingly effective.  When introducing them to a team, the team needs time to discuss them, understand their implications, and agree to use them as is, or to modify them.  To use the ground rules most effectively, the entire team should consent to using them.  It is inconsistent with the core values to force the ground rules upon a team.  If a team has agreed to follow the ground rules, they can use them more effectively if they post the list, and frequently refer to the ground rules, so that they become part of the team’s norms.  Over time, teams generate the ability to facilitate and lead themselves, which is a major goal of facilitative leadership.  

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