Kick off the New Year by creating a facilitator culture
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted January 26, 2014

Up until a few years ago, those of us who are professional facilitators were considered to be a breed apart. People turned to us for special ways of extracting the best ideas from a group, weaving together a stimulating conversation (even when people had wildly different perspectives), or helping people reach consensus on difficult decisions. Fortunately for us, our clients still value our ability to plan and guide productive conversations when the outcomes matter most.

And yet—I see more and more employees and managers recognizing the need to act as facilitators themselves, especially among geographically dispersed groups. Why? First of all, more people are asked to lead teams (whether project teams or “permanent” teams), without the requisite authority to make people participate, i.e., they have to learn how to persuasively influence others to cooperate, collaborate, communicate, etc. with no way to sanction them if they don’t. Second, competitive pressures dictate that teams need to crank out the results more quickly, with fewer costly missteps. A competent guide to help navigate through crucial conversations helps keeps teams on track, avoiding expensive derailments. Perhaps most important—especially for virtual teams—someone needs to spearhead efforts to help people cultivate the kind of trusting relationships that foster great collaboration. (We know that even when the stars are in perfect alignment, deep relationships don’t magically evolve out of nowhere!)

This team-leader-as-facilitator role requires special skills, competencies and tools that many leaders of traditional teams haven’t formally learned. (And many not even realize these skills are particularly important – unconscious incompetence at work!) For leaders who have grown used to seeing their wishes as other people’s commands, acting as team facilitator is a real stretch. The good news is that many of these skills can be learned and practiced by anyone who appreciates the need for facilitative leadership skills. (For those who still believe that a command-and-control mindset will motivate a group of people to put everything else aside and stand at attention, well that’s another matter.)

What are some of these facilitation skills that virtual team leaders need to practice to energize, motivate and inspire a group of geographically- dispersed people to think, act and work together as a team? Here are just a few:

  • Articulating and asking insightful questions that demonstrate understanding and empathy (e.g., “Sarah, I have noticed that you have not been participating much on our team calls, and I am concerned that the team is not reaping the benefit of your experience. I am wondering what might be getting in the way of your participation.”)
  • Actively listening to the responses, both what is said and what is not being said. It takes a special kind of antennae to decipher words and tones (as well as pauses and silence!) in the absence of any visual confirmation. This includes the ability to ask probing questions to get a deeper sense of meaning. (e.g., “Sounds like you’re totally overwhelmed with all of your priorities right now. What are your thoughts about how best to allocate your time?”)
  • Paraphrasing and validating shared meaning, especially where a common understanding of an important issue is vital. (E.g., “Joe, I want to make sure we understand the reasons you feel we need to change our deadline. May I summarize what I think you said? Great. Sounds like if we can’t complete our beta testing by the end of this week, then we risk launching an application that has a high risk of user error. Those errors can be measured in millions of dollars’ worth of business interruptions across the company. Is that right?”
  • Understanding how cultural differences (national, functional, organizational, etc.) can act as a barrier to collaboration and planning meetings (and other team communications) accordingly. E.g., knowing how and when to use different collaboration tools to accommodate styles, preference and comfort levels of different cultures.
  • Assessing when people have become disengaged, and knowing how to bring them back into the fold. E.g. understanding how to interpret lack of participation and making positive interventions that encourage and support participation, either 1:1 or as a whole team.

Whatever our official role, as our world grows ever smaller, more of us need to act as facilitators to guide important conversations across boundaries of all kinds – countries, time zones, organizations, functions, business entities, etc. There are many means by which leaders can acquire these skills: through books, articles, classes, shadowing others, buddying up with an experienced facilitator, or –if you’re brave—through trial and error. In any event, facilitating meaningful virtual conversations is a crucial skill any successful manager must have to succeed in today’s world.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy