Facilitative leadership is everyone’s responsibility

MSU Extension’s Community Engagement and Leadership Development team helps leaders learn and practice facilitative leadership skills.

When asked to define a leader, the first picture that comes to mind may be an influential, charismatic person standing at the front of the room. He or she is the kind of individual who can direct subordinates to follow through on assignments in an efficient and effective manner. In this scene, the leader takes ultimate responsibility for getting tasks done, successfully using the talents of staff to move the company or organization forward. Though this kind of leader probably uses skills gained through careful practice, we often assume that there is also a measure of inborn ability in the mix, suggesting that not everyone is born with the characteristics to be a leader.

More recently organizations are recognizing the value of more democratic styles of leadership. This form of leadership encourages openly sharing information and power among all staff, as well as active listening and shared decision making. The idea is that this type of democratic leadership promotes higher morale and motivation, leading to better productivity and performance among its members. According to Fryer, the social scientist and philosopher Habermas’ concept of ideal speech is a central feature for this kind of leadership (2011). This means that everyone involved in the group has the right to be included in the discussion, that they may question any statement or idea, as well as suggesting their own, and that they are free share their own desires and needs. The goal of ideal speech is to develop a shared understanding of the group’s purposes, tasks, strategies and target outcomes. The job of facilitative leader is to create the conditions that make it easier for participants to openly and comfortably contribute to that shared meaning.

There are several cautionary points to remember when adopting facilitative leadership styles:

  • The goal of reaching shared understanding does not assume all participants will reach 100 percent agreement, or that everyone will always get along. It is more like the North Star, what the group looks to without ever expecting to fully reach it.
  • Facilitative leadership may seem superficial if major parts of the organization, such as its vision, goals or objectives, are not included as part of the deliberative process. It also may not be effective if leaders only say they are listening but do not actively include others’ input in the organization’s decisions or desired outcomes.
  • Forcing someone to participate in this style of democratic leadership defeats the purpose.
  • Our culture says that the right way to deliberate an issue is to be logical and free of emotion. Not all cultures believe this: Be open to other ways of communicating.
  • Facilitative leadership takes time, especially if that leader is truly asking everyone to contribute to the discussion and offer suggestions on how to move forward. If taken too far, organizational paralysis may keep the organization from getting things done (Fryer, 2011).

If supervisors, bosses, administrators, staff members, subordinates and all other members of an organization strive to practice facilitative leadership, then it is more likely that all involved will own the process and the product. All are more likely to take responsibility for their share of the assigned tasks to reach the organization’s desired outcomes. Taking a broader view, Innes and Booher point out that facilitative leadership also builds stronger social networks and capital, while developing a greater shared understanding of an organization’s direction (2003). This leads to individuals who will be “primed” to pick up tasks or opportunities that may come along in the future.

What tools and skills do facilitative leaders need to allow for an ideal speech environment? The MSU Extension Community Engagement and Leadership Development team hosts many opportunities for learning and practicing facilitative leadership skills. For example, a three-day, hands-on Facilitative Leadership workshop will be offered from Tuesday-Thursday, September 11-13 at the Kettunen Center near Tustin, Mich. Registration for this workshop is availableonline. For other rewarding opportunities, contact Bonnie Zoia zoiay@anr.msu.edu or 989-724-6478.

Fryer, Mick. 2011. Facilitative leadership: Drawing on Jurgen Habermas’ model of ideal speech to propose a less impositional way to lead. Organization, 7 April 2011, Sage Publications Online, www.sagepublications.com.

Innes, Judith E. and Booher, David E. 2003. Collaborative policymaking: Governance through dialogue. In: M. A. Hajer and H. Wagenaar (eds) Deliberative Policy Analysis: Understanding Governance in the Network Society, pp. 33-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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