Facilitation is the essential leadership skill of the modern-day, helping unlock creativity and performance in teams. I talked to Myriam Hadnes, founder of the boundary-pushing NeverDoneBefore community, about how organisations can build better facilitation skills.
This article is a summary of our interview with Myriam in the Playing the Culture Game podcast, a fortnightly interview series where we dive deep into the people & culture space.
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Why is facilitation the superskill for leaders?
Myriam: Facilitation is about much more than just aligning activities to stimulate conversation: it’s a way to bring people together and make everyone heard. And leadership is about much more than management and telling people what to do.
Facilitation actually comes from the Latin word facile, which means easy. It’s a leader’s purpose to make things easy for people and empower them. When we talk about burnout, disengagement at work, or too many meetings, we can see that this empowerment, this facilitation, is crucial. It’s how a leader can create a space where they (as a leader) don’t have to do the work: the people do the work.
This isn’t easy. To feel empowered, people need clarity about their role and they need to feel enough psychological safety to dare to do what they have to do. This is what leaders can give people through facilitation.
Building psychological safety and a facilitation-friendly culture
How can organisations give leaders the courage to step into facilitation?
Myriam: It’s becoming a buzzword, but I think the key is ensuring psychological safety. That means creating a space where everyone feels that they belong and that they have permission to speak up, ask questions, and even challenge the status quo. In order to facilitate well, leaders must feel that someone has their back as well.
“If a leader is feeling pressure from above, or being blamed for bad results or for not being productive enough, then obviously they’ll pass this stress on to their people. We can only create psychological safety for others if we feel safe ourselves. It all starts there.”
Here’s an example of how it works. Back when I was a PhD student, it was my task to solve problem sets for the Master’s students. One day, there was a problem I couldn’t wrap my head around, so I went and asked my supervisor to explain it. And his reply was, “Oh, Myriam, it’s very easy. You just do blah blah and there you go.”
I felt stupid that I still didn’t understand the problem, and didn’t dare ask again. I was in my 20s and very insecure. So when, later, a Master’s student asked me to explain the same problem, my answer was, “Oh, it’s very easy,” and I repeated exactly what my supervisor had said.
That student never asked a question again. My supervisor’s answer and my insecurity destroyed any feeling of safety that I could dive deeper, and I just passed that on to the next level. If instead, my supervisor had thanked me for asking and explained things, I would have done the same with my students.
To put this in an organisational context, if a leader asks a question and their manager or C-suite says they should have known that or they should figure it out themselves, that leader will most likely mirror that same attitude to their teams, which destroys their chances of facilitating well. At least, that’s what I’ve observed.
What else can organisations do to make facilitation easier?
Myriam: One thing is to have the mindset of a facilitator themselves. But they also need to think about the right questions. How can we make it easier for everyone to work? How can we reduce the number of meetings? How can we cut down on bureaucracy?
I think many meetings are just unnecessary. If we can dare to let leaders empower their people to decline meetings where it’s not clear what their role is or what the topic and outcome are, or all meetings that could have just been an email… I think that would already be a great step in the right direction.
And when it comes to meetings, maybe stopping back-to-back appointments. What I’ve seen in most organisations is that you can just book someone’s time in their calendar and they have to find that 30-minute slot in the week. When they have slots back-to-back, that means the person doesn’t have time to prepare or unwind.
Maybe we need calendars that automatically block 15 minutes before and after each meeting, just to take care of our biological needs. Or to check emails, breathe, and perhaps read the memos so we can prepare a bit.
“Slow down to speed up” and other ideas for better meetings
What’s wrong with meetings today?
Myriam: Some problems lie with leaders, and some come from the general meeting culture.
Many leaders have the false belief that they have to lead a meeting all by themselves. If they just dropped that and allowed their team members to facilitate, that would give the leader much more capacity to listen to what’s going on.
Related to that, leaders who call a meeting are very often under the impression that they have to do all the speaking. Even worse, since leaders are good at thinking on their feet, they’ll come to a meeting totally unprepared. In order to mask that, they just speak to fill the space. So everyone is frustrated that they’re taking up too much space instead of opening the conversation, asking a question, letting people speak, and then responding to them.
When it comes to meeting culture, what I observe is that generally, there’s too much distraction. In a meeting, if you’re not present and focused, you can’t really listen. You’re more in reply mode, where you’re listening to reply instead of listening to understand.
Time — people’s time — is also a problem. People often schedule too many meetings. If we’re in this situation, we’re not creating the right environment for quality to emerge. And even if the quality of the meetings is great, we don’t do work in meetings: we work before or after a meeting. So if we only have meetings, when are we going to do the work? When are we going to feel we’re making progress?
“If we feel a sense of meaningful progress at work — that we can do something and have an impact — we feel better about it. But when we sit in back-to-back meetings, we feel drained.”
What’s the solution?
Myriam: I think we need to force leaders to slow down so they can start facilitating better. It’s a buzz phrase, but sometimes we need to slow down to speed up.
Here’s an example. Say a child is really upset and screaming, and you want them to get to school or they’ll be late. You can push them, try to make them go faster, and they’ll scream even louder and make a mess. Or you can slow down, sit down with them, listen to what their problem is, and give them a hug.
In the second case, you arrive earlier at school than you would have done if your child had made that big mess. And if you’re both in a better mood, maybe you can even run the last 100 metres to school because the energy is there. You can’t do that when you’re dragging a screaming kid with you.
“You have to slow down and deal with whatever’s present.”
Developing new habits like slowing down and learning to facilitate isn’t easy. It’s very human to fall back into old patterns when we’re stressed, because we’re so used to them.
So how can we avoid that? Maybe with accountability partners. Or another strategy is to have a premortem — to predict what could go wrong while trying to adopt this new habit of slowing down and facilitating. In a premortem exercise, you look at the goal or outcome you want to achieve and anticipate everything you could do to fail at achieving it. And then you look at how you can avoid that failure. So you basically build a strategy to prevent yourself from failing.
Learning facilitation as a leader
What are the facilitation challenges for leaders, and how can they overcome them?
Myriam: I think one thing that holds leaders back is uncertainty.
“The moment we hand over power to other people, we give up control. We don’t know what will happen, and that’s difficult.”
It’s also a question of confidence, and that operates on two levels.
To facilitate well, first I need to have confidence in myself. If I doubt that I have the competence to do the work, then I don’t want anyone to question me. It’s safer for me to tell other people what to do and control them, because that doesn’t leave any room for doubt in my abilities to be voiced.
And second, I need to have confidence in my team’s competence. If instead of telling them what to do, I’m giving them the space to explore something themselves and take ownership, I clearly need to trust their competence and trust that they’ll ask a question if they don’t understand. This is something else a leader needs to work on.
How can leaders overcome these challenges? I think in the first instance, we need to accept that independent of our status and where we are in our career, we’ll always have some level of impostor syndrome. We all have it — it’s just human. So it’s a question of stepping up our game and just embracing impostor syndrome as normal.
And in the second case, when it comes to enabling others to take the lead, part of it is resisting the urge to do work for them. Instead, we can start by trying to find out with them the best thing to do, using something like a workshop or guided conversation.
How can leaders get started with meeting facilitation?
Myriam: There’s lots of literature out there on basic facilitation skills. An important skill is having the mindset to just be there, and to speak less and listen more.
If you’re a leader who wants to have a tiny experience of facilitation, you can start a meeting with a check-in. That’s the name we use in facilitation for a time when everyone gets a chance to use their voice.
“You can start with just one question. What’s on your mind today? Or what’s your internal weather report? What’s your expectation for this meeting, what would make it meaningful? Or maybe, what’s one reason you don’t want to be here? Even that one question can have a magical effect.”
With a check-in question, you can show it’s OK to not want to be here, and you give people the opportunity to state what else they’re busy with. When you do that, you share some empathy that we all have full schedules. Or maybe you learn that someone has a personal issue that means their mind may be a little cluttered.
Whatever your question is, everyone has already used their vocal cords in the meeting. Everyone feels present. And research shows that the earlier you’ve spoken up in a meeting, the more likely you are to speak up again, so as a leader, you’re making sure that everyone will be involved and engaged.
And finally, if you invite everyone to speak like this right at the beginning, you’re also showing that you want everyone to be there.
Everyone should have a role in a meeting, but what often happens is that too many people are invited. Then you have lots of people around the table who don’t have a reason to be there. They suck energy out of the space because either they’re bored or they feel uncomfortable because they have nothing to say. Or if they do say something, other people get uncomfortable wondering why the person is speaking or what they have to contribute.
Myriam Hadnes is the founder of Workshops Work, a consultancy offering tailored facilitation coaching and training. She is also the founder of NeverDoneBefore, a community and event that pushes the boundaries. Follow her on LinkedIn.