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Great Leaders Are Facilitators: They Know How to Design Collaboration and Innovation

Leaders who facilitate belonging, participation, and meaning are more effective

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 12, 2023

Facilitative Leadership maximizes team members' contributions – rather than being the expert, the leader taps into collective wisdom

When you think of effective leadership styles, what words come to mind? "Facilitation" is probably not a word you would associate with leadership, yet successful leaders are skilled facilitators. They know how to draw out the ideas and thoughts of others, integrating diverse perspectives.

Wise leaders are facilitators – they know they can't achieve success alone. Facilitative leaders tap into collective wisdom by listening to and integrating diverse perspectives. Instead of followers, they have contributors.

Great leaders (like great facilitators) enable others to speak up, ensure diverse perspectives are considered, and create an environment where everyone feels they belong.

In this post, I will address why facilitative leadership is an underrated skill, what leaders can learn from facilitators, and how to effectively facilitate a culture of collaboration and innovation.

Facilitation: A Skill Every Leader Should Have

In today's organizations, facilitation is a powerful skill every executive needs to thrive.

Complex problems demand cross-functional collaboration and making decisions that involve multiple viewpoints and expertise. Tapping into collective wisdom is not easy – it requires knowing which opinions to consider, not just listening to everyone.

Most importantly, leaders need to let go of the belief that they should have all the answers – to shift from being the "expert" to becoming a facilitator of culture.

Let's start by challenging the leadership narrative.

We often think of leaders as charismatic, driven, smart, and high achievers – superior to the rest of us.

Historically, we have consistently portrayed leaders as superior. Author and coach Dr. Marshall Goldsmith recounts: Kings were descended from God, religious leaders talked to God, masters knew more than apprentices, and professors were always smarter than their students. However, that's an assumption that's no longer true.

Goldsmith explains: "We always thought these authority figures were inherently superior. That was then; this is now. Today, most people manage knowledge workers. And, by definition, knowledge workers know more about what they're doing than the leader does. This is a huge transition for leaders."

Today's leaders need to select people that know more than they do. They must move out of that superiority role and become better at listening, thinking, learning, and asking questions. In a nutshell, leaders must become better facilitators of collaboration and innovation.

Facilitative leaders use an inclusive style to unleash individual potential: they co-create to achieve their goals. Effective facilitation allows all individuals to contribute, evaluate, and improve solutions.

Leaders who facilitate belonging, participation, and meaning are more effective.

Vinay Kumar, Chair of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), said: "Leaders who understand how to invite people into a participatory environment and use the group energy to innovate fit well into today's context. With the world calling for more inclusion and equity, tomorrow's leaders need to be facilitators."

Unfortunately, most leaders run the show without understanding the basics of facilitation. They fail to promote equal participation, meaningful conversations, or integrative decision-making. Often, leaders default to the safe role of being the expert in the room – their voice becomes the only one that matters.

Skilled facilitators (like effective leaders) wear many hats. They positively impact teams by inspiring, motivating, challenging, and making things possible. They make it less complicated for the group to achieve its goals.

Your organization needs facilitative leaders who can secure cross-functional collaboration, address conflict in the open, and integrate diverse perspectives to solve complex problems.

What Does It Mean to Be a Facilitator?

Many people see facilitation as a functional task – but it's not. Skilled facilitators make it possible to achieve a better state – they simplify the process needed to achieve the desired outcome.

The word "facilitate" comes from the Latin facilis, which means "easy." Facilitation is, then, the "act of making something easier." However, easing the process doesn't mean there won't be growing pain.

Google recently got huge backlash when it announced its "Simplicity Sprint" – an initiative to increase productivity by minimizing distractions and raising the bar on product excellence. Critics state that this is a reactive response to Google's decreasing net, which fell 13 percent in the past quarter. The initiative has increased anxiety in the tech giant: employees expect imminent layoffs.

However, this initiative has a hidden gem: Google is opening the floor for employees to share their ideas through an internal survey that includes three essential questions.

Where should we remove speed bumps to get to better results faster?

How do we eliminate waste and stay entrepreneurial and focused as we grow?

What would help you work with greater clarity and efficiency to serve our users and customers?  

These questions capture part of the essence of facilitative leadership: removing unnecessary obstacles, exploring what's possible, and simplifying complex processes.  

As Gabor Bittera explains in this insightful interview: "Facilitation is the art of making something possible, not easy." The scrum coach believes facilitators help a group see (and take) vast possibilities but can't guarantee that the journey will be painless –  actually, it's often the opposite.

Facilitators help team members overcome personal and cultural obstacles, both real and perceived. Facilitating is about simplifying things: turning complicated things into easy-to-solve chunks, so people can acknowledge, confront, and resolve what's getting in the way.

That's easier said than done. We (facilitators) often try to do too much, overcomplicate things to look smart, or want to be seen as the expert. Basically, we let our ego get in the way - just like most leaders do.

In short, facilitation is the art of designing an easier experience for people to (finally) address tough topics, conversations, and problems.

Facilitative Leadership: An Underrated Skill

Facilitative leadership is the opposite of a top-down style, welcoming input and ideas from contributors. You can achieve higher participation, collaboration, and buy-in when you include people in the process.

Research shows that diversity leads to better decision-making. Bringing different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds into the conversation gives you a fresh perspective to solve complex problems. A similar study shows that facilitative leadership is critical to achieving school success.

Rather than controlling and instructing, facilitative leadership looks to encourage and inspire others.

However, this doesn't mean involving everyone on every topic or turning all decisions into democratic ones. Effective leaders know when to involve people and when to make the call themselves. Most importantly, they don't try to be neutral or objective.

Many experts advocate for neutrality as a key trait to being an effective facilitator – I strongly disagree, especially regarding leaders.

Is neutrality or objectivity actually possible? (That requires a long debate that I'll leave for the future).

However, there's a crucial point I want to address: facilitators should have skin in the game. Effective facilitators care about the outcome and don't let their love for facilitation get in their way. Neutrality could lead to celebrating 'bad ideas' simply because "everyone contributed." In other words, neutrality could quickly promote groupthink and mediocrity.

Also, our subjectivity is a wonderful gift, so why deny it?

I often coach team leaders who are afraid of 'influencing' the team. They're so scared of being perceived as micromanagers or controlling that they feel guilty about bringing their perspectives to the table. The pendulum has moved to the other extreme.

There's a difference between dominating the conversation or imposing your views and staying completely neutral.

Great leaders provide clarity and vision – they inspire people to achieve a better future. Participative leadership doesn't mean following a cut-and-dry process; leaders must bring their unique energy and richness to the conversation.

A good prompt or question could get a team unstuck, but not always. Sometimes you need to share your ideas and inspire your team to evolve that concept or build another. Challenging a solution also prevents a team from falling in love with a mediocre concept. Similarly, if I share a bold idea when I'm facilitating a group that's stuck, it immediately frees people to start thinking outside the box.

Facilitative leadership is not about being a passive player; it's knowing when to be visible and when to get out of the equation.

As I like to joke with my clients about our impact as facilitators: when things go wrong, team members will blame the facilitator. When magic happens, however, they celebrate their achievement and wonder if hiring a facilitator was even necessary.

Characteristics of a Facilitative Leader

Facilitators help team members achieve technical mastery, process mastery, and transformation mastery. They play three key roles, as I explain in this post:

Designer: facilitates difficult, actionable conversations by promoting participation

Sherpa: guides and supports people during the journey – growing pains included

Instigator: inspires and challenges people, ensuring authentic conversations and productive outcomes

So, what does it take to become a facilitative leader?

Here are the key characteristics of a great facilitator:

1. Inspirational: Stimulates the group, setting a vision for what's possible without guiding or dictating the solution. Facilitative leaders provide direction and invite others to explore alternative solutions.

2. Fearless: Promotes courageous conversations, challenges thinking, and makes it safe to explore new possibilities. Facilitative leaders challenge others and encourage team members to challenge them, too.

3. Curious: Facilitates with questions and welcomes diverse perspectives and diverse thinking. Good facilitative leaders are highly observant, open to new facts, and make informed decisions.

4. Designer: Uses human-centered methods to stimulate reflection, participation, and behavioral change. Facilitative leaders draw out others' opinions, making others feel heard and respected.

5. Adaptive: Follows the dynamic and the energy in the room rather than sticking to a rigid agenda or plan. Facilitative leaders adjust their style and techniques to the situation; they know when to step in and when to stand back.

6. Room-reader: Creates a safe environment for even participation, making the implicit explicit. Good facilitative leaders pay attention and listen to their team members, including what's not said.

7. Focused: Uses clear goals, time boxing, and high standards to keep the group energized and accountable. Effective facilitative leaders design for participation, always keeping the end goal in mind.

How Leaders Can Facilitate a Positive Culture

As facilitators of culture, leaders need to focus on the system – from removing an unnecessary obstacle to modeling the type of behavior and language they want others to bring to the conversation.

Here are seven ways facilitative leadership can help you build a stronger, more positive culture.

1. Remove unnecessary obstacles

It's natural to blame people when something goes wrong. However, finger-pointing is harmful and encourages us to ask the wrong question – "who?" versus "why?" Facilitative leaders focus on the system. They shift the conversation from "who did it?" to "what in the system encouraged people to make a mistake?"

Etsy, Atlassian, Hootsuite, and Google facilitate blameless postmortems to objectively understand the root cause of mistakes and prevent others from repeating them. Once they know the cause of each failure, they focus on the obstacles to be removed, parts of the system that need to be improved, and what a better response would look like.

What are the speed bumps that are slowing your team down?

Effective leaders focus on the system: they tackle obstacles that prevent teams from doing their best work.

2. Facilitate belonging

The foundation of a strong organization is built on human connection. People don't just want to be part of a team; they want to belong. Facilitative leaders create an environment that honors strong human relationships – a vital ingredient for workplace success.

At Warby Parker, belonging begins at day zero. A team member reaches out to recent hires to walk them through the basics and answer any pre-orientation questions. The new employee also receives a packet at home that helps them immerse in Warby Parker's culture even before they start.

How do you facilitate a sense of belonging, making team members welcome?

Belonging is the antidote to feeling distant in a remote or hybrid workplace, as I explain in my book Remote, Not Distant.

3. Facilitate courageous conversations

Addressing conflict in the workplace is not easy, but the consequences of avoiding it is a much higher price to pay. Team problems that aren't addressed won't magically disappear – they will actually get worse. Facilitative leaders model the proper behavior by addressing issues in the open.

Slack's culture is default to open: people are encouraged to discuss concerns or ideas publicly. The CEO encourages conversations in open channels to increase visibility and transparency. Issues are discussed openly, even if they only affect one team, so everyone's aware and can come up with a solution.

What is everybody thinking but no one is saying?

Great leaders don't avoid conflict – they tackle it head-on.

Facilitative leaders create a safe space to address tensions in the open; they tackle the stinky fish before it contaminates the entire culture.

4. Facilitate collaboration

Conventional wisdom assumes that the more employees collaborate, the better. However, too much collaboration can quickly undermine performance, as research by Morten T Hansen shows. Sometimes the cost of collaboration is not worth the time and effort, slowing down teams and projects. Facilitative leaders know when it's necessary – or not – to collaborate. Most importantly, they understand that collaboration doesn't happen spontaneously – it needs to be facilitated.

Research by Gartner shows that knowledge workers who collaborate intentionally are nearly three times more likely to achieve high innovation. Leaders must differentiate between good and bad collaboration and integrate the benefits of asynchronous and synchronous work.

Will collaboration (on this project) create or destroy value?

Facilitative leaders understand that not all effective collaboration is equal. They allow teams to choose when, where, and how they collaborate.

5. Provide clarity and direction

Successful teams operate in the sweet spot between alignment and autonomy. When team members have a shared purpose and the freedom to find the best solution, magic happens. Facilitative leaders provide inspirational direction – they define the "why" without prescribing the "how."

Airbnb's purpose statement – create a world where anyone can belong anywhere – doesn't just speak about how it serves internal customers, but also what it desires from employees. Airbnbers are expected to bring the purpose to life by hosting people in their homes a couple of times a year.

What's the impact you want your team to create?

Defining a compelling team purpose clarifies why your team exists. Move beyond what your team does, codifying what should drive your people.

6. Facilitate Innovation

Innovation is not the result of a few gifted employees but a system that encourages, rewards, and nurtures creativity. Facilitative leaders promote active participation by making everyone's voices heard. Innovation is a byproduct of diverse perspectives; the more unique, the better. Inviting people to share their ideas or opinions is about tapping into collective wisdom, not pleasing everyone.

Amazon created a culture of innovation by design, not chance. The company started by understanding the customer and then worked backwards to purposefully design a culture that facilitates innovation. At Spotify, the best idea – not the highest title – wins.

How can you detach yourself from your viewpoints and nurture great ideas?

Great leaders are not apathetic; they provoke thinking. Avoiding influencing the group or dictating the solution shouldn't mean complete neutrality. People need to be inspired, challenged, and guided.

7. Model being a facilitator

Facilitative leaders rely on effective facilitation, not serendipity. Poor participation is often not a people's problem but a cultural issue. Failure to engage team members, listen to everyone's voices, or have meaningful conversations is a sign of ineffective facilitation.

Atlassian uses turn-taking to ensure every team member has equal airtime to voice their opinions and ideas – leaders always speak last. It also practices the "no-interruptions" rule, encouraging teammates to call out those who don't let them talk or finish their thoughts – it protects minorities and introverts from the loudest voices in the room.

How do you ensure everyone's voices are heard and respected?

Effective facilitation increases participation and the quality of the conversations, turning painful meetings into ones that people love to attend.

Great Facilitators Know When to Get Out of the Way

Effective leaders facilitate culture so teams can do their best work. They leverage everyone's expertise instead of trying to be the smartest person in the room. Facilitative leaders create the right environment and then get out of the way.

Traditional leadership is about being at the front and center. Letting go of being the hero or the expert is uncomfortable. However, to succeed in today's world, leaders must learn to lead from the side – not the front or the back.

Great leaders model positive behavior by making hard choices. They don't take the easy path but the right one. What sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve your purpose and goals?

The good news? Facilitation is a skill that most leaders can master and add to their existing leadership skills.

Reach out to see how we can equip you and your team with practical facilitation skills and tools.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

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