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ATD Blog

Facilitation: A Leader’s Secret Weapon for Inspiring Peak Performance

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

“You will never find an opportunity without a problem in front of it.” –John Maxwell

When the pandemic started, many organizations faced the daunting challenge of moving their workforces to a remote-only model or one that significantly reduced the number of people who could be in office. When teams went remote, managers lacked face-to-face supervision, employees spent more time hunting for information, and the world struggled with feelings brought on by constant isolation and stress. Combined, these factors can have a tremendous effect on the performance of individuals, teams, and organizations.

While earlier discussions were focused on technology enablement, more recent conversations have focused on people enablement. Many managers hoped the challenges they were experiencing with their teams were a result of the pandemic and people working remotely. As the pandemic continues, managers can no longer take such an approach to addressing team challenges, as research indicates that remote working is here to stay. According to McKinsey research, post-COVID-19 projections estimate that three times the amount of work will be done remotely, increasing from 7 percent pre-COVID-19 to 20 percent

In the chaos that this pandemic has introduced lies great opportunities to address performance issues that many would argue have little to do with the pandemic—trust, communication, and clear expectations. The pandemic brought these issues to the forefront for organizations as remote collaboration requires these elements to be present in order to work effectively. Leaders have the opportunity to break down these impediments that hold back their teams and develop organizational capability.

At a recent ATD Forum ConnectSpark, Sardèk P. Love, CEO of Sardèk Love International and co-author of the book Speak for a Living, spoke about how leaders at all levels can use facilitation methods as a powerful weapon for inspiring peak performance in people, regardless of whether they are in person or remote. He stated, “A great leader understands that change is a very personal, individual thing, and no one goes through change at the same pace. You need a strategy to encourage people to stay with you as you lead change.”

When you work with in-person teams, you can observe body language and people while they work, and you can create opportunities to focus on key outcomes. When people work remotely, effective focus and engagement require additional effort to create because many organizations are still highly reliant on using video communication tools versus more robust virtual collaboration tools. Regardless of where and how interaction occurs, effective facilitation enables leaders to tap into a range of skills that foster deeper collaboration and insights on the problems and actions to be taken.


Three Key Facilitation Skills

Leaders who are willing to develop a culture where employees connect, contribute, and share will far outpace their competition. To do this, leaders must create an environment of open and authentic discussion and of inquiry-based problem solving. This can be catalyzed by a curious leader asking effective questions to position conversations on results.

Love challenged the group to think about their roles as leaders. When their teams encounter a problem, what is their immediate response? Is it to give directions, to make suggestions for solving it, or to ask questions that elicit thinking in others? According to Love, to be effective at facilitating conversations requires three specific skills: having a curious mindset, providing a process for the conversations, and focusing on the results.

Curious Mindset
Many leaders fail to use the simple technique of being curious in favor of command-and-control approaches to getting work done. According to Love’s research, in conversations, 83 percent of all questions asked by leaders are closed rather than open-ended. By shifting to a curious mindset where questions start with “what?” and “how?” or even “how might we?” leaders can trade control for contribution and lead their teams through masterful questioning that uncovers barriers and opportunities for their teams and facilities solving problems.

Process Driven
Facilitation focuses on providing a process for navigating discussions with listening serving as the compass to guide how the conversation unfolds. Through using effective questions and listening, organizations can uncover tremendous insights into key customer problems. Love’s research indicated that 90 percent of the time individuals who have direct interaction with the customer and are involved in the day-to-day execution of the business know what is broken and how to fix the program at hand. Being curious and using questions and active listening to drive the discussion process helps teams engage and expand their collective knowledge. With this greater understanding the team can garner new insights and better solutions.


Results Focus
When facilitation is focused on leading others in search of better, faster, simpler, and cheaper solutions, it can unlock opportunities and affect the bottom line. In solving problems, it is easy to focus on employee roles. This is what leads to “asking the boss” syndrome. When the focus is on getting the best results or outcome, the team needs to focus on the task.

Facilitation in Practice

To illustrate how these three facilitation skills worked together, Love closed the virtual session with the Scattered Numbers activity, which is used to demonstrate a systematic approach to looking for patterns and trends. Seemingly random numbers were presented to group members who were tasked with finding as many of the numbers in order as quickly as possible within the given timeframe. While the task was defined (find the numbers) and parameters given (in order and within a specified time period), an individual with a facilitation mindset would step back to ask key questions that could in turn lead to better processes for solving the problem—and thus produce a better outcome.

The facilitation process may look like this:

  • What is happening with these numbers?
  • Are the numbers placed randomly or is there a pattern?
  • What approaches would help identify the numbers faster?
  • How might we approach this task to identify as many numbers as possible?

Using these facilitation skills of curiosity and being process driven and results focused will allow groups to identify all of the numbers and in less time than if they were just given the task to complete. One task of leaders is to create an environment where teams are continually increasing efficiency and productivity through collective problem solving while simultaneously building team capabilities. As Love states, “When used correctly, facilitation counterintuitively and dramatically reduces the time required to achieve peak performance and deliver maximum results.”

About the Author

Michelle Webb is an innovative talent development leader and trusted advisor to organizations and is known for her deep expertise in uncovering insights, identifying strategic solutions, and driving organizational transformation programs at organizations seeking to maximize the capabilities of their talent. Michelle serves as a judge for the Brandon Hall Human Capital Management and Technology Awards and serves as a director in L&D Cares, an organization focused on supporting L&D professionals in positioning themselves for success by providing resources to help them reframe or reinvent their careers. She is a contributing author to Leading the Learning Function: Tools and Techniques for Organizational Impact and an active member of the ATD Forum.

About the Author

Bryan McElroy is a learning and development specialist with more than 20 years of leadership and project management experience. Having spearheaded the development of new, compelling e-learning content for several fortune 500 companies, Bryan also brings over 15 years of experience in every aspect of production in the entertainment industry.

His most recent role was as a senior manager of L&D for Rush Enterprises, which has the largest network of commercial truck dealers in North America. As the leader of this learning and development team, Bryan developed all aspects of training. This included training everyone from C-suite to the frontline employees.

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