The Role of the Facilitative Leader: A Literature Review

November 14, 2004

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610).

Both a review of the literature and working in organizations over the last twenty years show a shift in leadership from dictatorial and hierarchical in nature to a style more attuned to consensus, collaboration, and synergy. This second style is facilitative leadership, a style which calls for a different set of skills, tools, and knowledge. For many of us who grew up in hierarchical organizations which emphasized decision making solely by leaders and delegation of task from the top down, facilitative leadership requires us to learn and implement these new skills and tools. A host of resources exists to help with this transition; in the following discussion, I’ll discuss five sources which can provide assistance for anyone seeking information on facilitative leadership.

Bens (1999) states “Facilitation is a way of providing leadership without taking the reins. A facilitator’s job is to get others to assume responsibility and to take the lead.” (p. 3) Her handy, pocket-sized, spiral-bound volume is an excellent primer on facilitation and provides insight into conflict resolution in the work place, suggestions on group decision-making and meeting management, and process tools for facilitators. Bens focuses on leadership and facilitation in the “meeting” environment. Her work does an excellent job of differentiating between content and process during a meeting; she then provides the tools for the process, the “how” of the group’s work. Her focus is on the methods and procedures, how relations are maintained, the tools being used, the rules or norms set, the group dynamics, and the climate. (p. 5)

While Bens covers common process tools (such as brainstorming, force field analysis, and multi-voting) for facilitators – like other pocket guides’ authors including Martin & Tate (1997), Brassard & Ritter (1994), and Goal/QPC & Oriel (1995) – Bens tackles new ground in her chapter on facilitating conflict. While Bens’ approach is somewhat simplistic in that she often presents topics as two sided or either/or (such as debates vs. arguments) or two stepped (such as managing conflict by venting emotions and then resolving issues) her ying/yang approach works: it provides the basic information necessary for a person to successfully facilitate a meeting or lead a team.

Bens’ guide is a good primer for novice facilitators; it is also a good review for more experienced facilitators and leaders. A facilitator or leader can use the book in preparing for a meeting; the guide offers checklists for meeting planning. Team members, the team leader, or the facilitator can also use the book during a meeting when answering questions on process and meeting management.

Scholtes’ (1998) handbook is not a pocket guide, but rather a desk manual designed for use by leaders at all levels of an organization. Scholtes’ work is a balance between “instruction” and tools. While Scholtes’ handbook is certainly of value to new or inexperienced leaders, its real value is likely to seasoned and more experienced leaders. Scholtes’ concepts and tools will support and challenge seasoned leaders, demanding they re-think their own leadership philosophy and paradigms.

Scholtes proposes six leadership competencies which fit with the concepts of facilitative leadership. These competencies – and the discussion, models, and checksheets which expound on the competencies – challenge leaders to think about their own current competencies and what steps they need to do to develop skills in the six “new” leadership competencies.

While Scholtes provides a host of useful tools and models, the tools and models are interspersed throughout the text and discussed in proximity to topics which use the tool. For instance, flow charting is discussed in depth with six different types of flow charts presented along with the process for using and building these flow charts. The tools, however, are buried in a discussion of “getting work done.” They are not easily found.

Of particular note for facilitative leaders is Scholtes’ discussion about performance without appraisal. Scholtes shares a philosophical worldview with W. E. Deming, the father of the total quality movement in Japan and here in the United States. Scholtes outlines the “case against appraisal” with what he defines as the faults common to all types of performance appraisal systems. (p. 307-308) The facilitative leader will ask, then, “What am I to do?” Scholtes suggests “debundling” the various aspects or benefits of the performance appraisal process and experience. Through debundling, the facilitative leader can still gain the benefits of a traditional performance appraisal system without the faults Scholtes identifies as catastrophic to creating a healthy, high performing organization.

Rees (2001) presents a full text on using facilitative leadership with teams in organizations. This book is not a pocket guide, or even a desk guide, but rather a text providing a more academic presentation of facilitation and facilitative leadership. Rees first discusses teamwork in evolving organizations, noting a shift in organizational leadership from traditional, or hierarchical, organizations to team-based organizations. The second section of the book provides an in-depth discussion of facilitative leadership with an emphasis on the leadership aspects. Rees presents a model which delineates four goals a facilitative leader must keep in mind at all times: (a) lead with a clear purpose, (b) empower to participate, (c) aim for consensus, and (d) direct the process. (p. 31) She then presents information on communication in team settings and the skills necessary to facilitate productive communication in one-on-one settings, in small groups, and with distance teams. The fourth section, a how-to for facilitating team meetings, consumes the bulk of the text.

Rees’ text is an excellent resource for anyone interested in facilitative leadership. Her discussion about facilitating meetings is full and complete. While she does not provide specific tools, her discussions provide the background and philosophical under-girding important in understanding the process beyond just the doing of it. Her chapter on “recording people’s ideas” provides an excellent overview which would help any leader interested in harnessing group member’s ideas beyond the moment of the meeting.

Putz (2002) provides a simplistic overview of the facilitative process in his book. Putz’s work focuses on pure facilitation and identifies the roles and responsibilities of all participants, including the leader, the facilitator, and team members. He provides a step-by-step overview for a successful facilitation experience, and he outlines nuts and bolts issues such as room setup, logistics, and meeting management issues. Putz also provides information and models for handling conflict. He provides and overview of conflict, using the assertiveness & cooperation 2×2 matrix, and he provides helpful hints for dealing with problem behaviors. Two sections, of the most benefit for someone facilitating, are a set of frequently asked questions and examples of flip charts for use during meetings. These two sections of Putz’s work address issues not seen in the other resources.

Sadly, Putz’s book is not all that user friendly. The book is replete with line drawings which many learners may find distracting. The material is presented in a way which may appeal to novices, but will turn off a seasoned professional. Aside from the FAQ and the flip chart examples, most of the volume will be of little use to most facilitators. The volume will likely be of even less use for the facilitative leader as Putz’s paradigm is one of “pure facilitation.” By pure facilitation, I mean his focus is on traditional team-based meetings with a facilitator – most likely not a member of the group and thus a “hired gun” – and a team or meeting owner (the boss) and team members.

Kaner’s (1996) work is also mostly a pure facilitation text, although Kaner approaches the topic from a broader perspective. People in a variety of roles can use the tools, models, and skills Kaner presents in a host of group settings. The common denominator for users of Kaner’s work is that they see facilitation – which Kaner notes comes from the Latin root meaning “to enable, to make easy” (p. xi) – as key to group work. Kaner’s work revolves around a model of dynamics of group decision making involving “divergent thinking” leading to “convergent thinking” through what he calls the “groan zone” and the “struggle in the service of integration.” (p. 19-20) Kaner presents a series of facilitator fundamentals which provide tools, models, and skills for facilitation. His presentation is comprehensive, yet easy to understand and would aid beginners and experienced facilitators alike. In addition, he writes from a paradigm which allows a leader to latch onto the tools and models and see applicability in a variety of leadership situations.

Kaner presents six brief case studies which help put a “real world” spin on his tools, models, and skills. These case studies would be of benefit to a facilitative leader in helping to understand the material and see how it applies. A facilitative leader who is willing to improve their own leadership behaviors could learn much. In addition, Kaner’s reframing activities are a unique vision for facilitative leadership. Kaner provides seven specific tools to help the facilitative leader “invite group members to break out of their normal categories of analysis and re-examine their beliefs and assumptions. These activities require participants to make deliberate mental shifts in order to look at a problem from a completely different angle.” (p. 195)

Indeed this is what each of these resources is asking of us. Each of these resources is asking us to look at leadership and group work in a new light; each of these resources is asking us to use new tools, and to approach the work with new worldviews, in order to harness the collective power and intelligence of a group of people. These resources provide assistance for the leader just starting the transition away from hierarchical decision making or the accomplished and experienced facilitative leader.

Bens, I. (1999). Facilitation at a Glance: A pocket guide of tools and techniques for effective meeting facilitation. Salem, NH: Association of Quality and Participation & Goal/QPC.

Brassard, M. & Ritter, D. (1994). The Memory Jogger II: A pocket guide of tools for continuous improvement & effective planning. Salem, NH: Goal/QPC.

Goal/QPC & Oriel Incorporated. (1995). The Team Memory Jogger: A pocket guide for team members. Salem, NH: Author.

Kaner, S. (1996). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Martin, P. & Tate, K. (1997). Project Management Memory Jogger: A pocket guide for project teams. Salem, NH: Goal/QPC.

Putz, G. B. (2002). Facilitation Skills: Helping groups make decisions (2nd ed.). Bountiful, UT: Deep Space Technology Company.

Rees, F. (2001). How to Lead Work Teams: Facilitation skills (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Scholtes, P. R. (1998). The Leader’s Handbook: Making things happen, getting things done. New York: McGraw-Hill.