In Charge or In Control?

Oct 04, 2012 No Comments by

Few professional skills will correlate more closely with your ability to lead change as your ability to facilitate influential groups through critical discussions and timely decisions. Being able to guide people as they define their goals for a given interaction – and then consistently reach those outcomes – is a big part of helping your team realize its overall change goals.

Questions of Authority & Priority: Leading strong-willed people toward any goal can be challenging, but two unique factors make it even tougher for neutral facilitators:

  • Facilitators are usually not in charge of the people they facilitate.
  • They usually don’t own the topics they’re working with.

In short: they don’t set priorities and they can’t usually direct people to do anything.

This begs the question:

“When you lead a facilitated event, should your primary focus be on taking charge of the topics and the players or keeping the process under control?”

In Charge or In Control? I recommend the latter – for two reasons. The first reason is simple and I’ll say it bluntly for emphasis: They really don’t have to listen to you. Any attempt to dictate the agenda or take charge of people who ultimately don’t answer to you will eventually catch up with you and your orders could be ignored.

If you’ve ever seen a political power struggle unfold during a tense business meeting, you know what I mean. If a person or group is asked to do something they object to doing, they can always appeal to their leaders. When conflicts get escalated in this way, they usually play out along the lines of authority reflected in the organizational structure.

Imagine demanding a certain behavior from a participant and receiving this (accurate) response in return: “You can’t make me!”

Hocus-Pocus -v- Process Focus: The second reason is more subtle, but just as important. While the lines of authority and prevailing priorities may largely determine the agenda and the players, the job of getting the work done in your meeting is different.  Facilitation is mostly about the process.

I often describe facilitation in this way:

  • Facilitation isn’t magic – but it can be an art.
  • It isn’t about making people do things or cajoling them into decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make.
  • It is about helping people get things done by fostering an open dialogue that’s focused on a shared goal.”

Tip #51: Be “In Control” More Than “In Charge”.

I mentioned in my previous two posts that it’s usually best if the Facilitator is not the person who owns the topic at hand. It’s far better if they maintain a certain neutrality about how a given decision will work out. It also helps if the facilitator has no direct reporting-line authority over the other people in the room.

If your boss wears one of these, you probably should just do what he asks you to do…

The Problem With Being in Charge: It can sometimes be difficult for a person “in charge” of some or all of the participants to appear neutral. Even when they try, subordinates may interpret the discussion and the decision-making process through a filter of what they think their boss wants to hear.

Similarly, having the topic owner facilitate can also skew the results. Because topic owners are “in charge” of the content and thus the outcome of the meeting, they may be perceived as pushing their own agenda to satisfy their vested interests. Even if they try to take a neutral approach, they can be sometimes be viewed as influencing the discussion to turn out a certain way.

The Bottom Line: When leading a facilitated session, it’s important for Change Agents to shepherd the discussion and avoid trying to take charge of the content or the people. They should focus on maintaining enough control of the process that the group can steadily make their way toward the desired outcome.

In my next article, I’ll get into ways that facilitators can keep their cool when strong personalities and contentious issues cause things to get heated.

(…but that never actually happens in our meetings, does it?)


Question for Chatter:

  • How can a person facilitate in a neutral way if in fact they are in charge of some or all of the participants?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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