What Is Facilitative Leadership?

Facilitative leadership aims to empower followers to make decisions and to promote better communication and productivity in teams. We take a closer look at this popular leadership style.

By — on / Leadership Skills

team negotiation facilitative leadership

These days, work can often feel chaotic and unfocused. Leaders and followers alike struggle to keep complex group projects moving forward in the face of seemingly insurmountable economic, technological, and logistical challenges. One tool that can help is facilitative leadership—a management strategy that empowers employees to make decisions, address conflict, and take on greater responsibility. 

“As more work is performed by knowledge workers in matrixed structures supported by technology, facilitative leadership is emerging as the most effective style for creating and sustaining high-performing teams,” writes Ingrid Bens in Facilitating to Lead! Leadership Strategies for a Networked World. We take a closer look at the roots of facilitative leadership, describe what it is, and provide an overview of how it works.  

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

What Is Facilitation?

Facilitative leadership is grounded in the skills of facilitation, which largely revolves around keeping meetings and negotiations focused and productive. 

“Facilitation can be viewed as a bundle of meeting-management skills that anyone can employ, such as coordinating the flow of conversation, ensuring that participants observe time limits, cooling tempers when talks get overheated, and periodically summarizing the essence of working agreements,” writes Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind in his book Good for You, Great for Me. Facilitators work with groups to structure their agenda; set and enforce ground rules, such as “Wait to be recognized before you start talking”; and summarize negotiated outcomes in writing. 

When conflict arises in organizations, Susskind writes, too many managers “overlook the benefits of incorporating facilitation into their standard routines.” Wise leaders understand that facilitation can help strengthen their reputation for managing complex negotiations and other projects. 

Facilitative Leadership: A Reciprocal Process

Managers and others who adopt facilitative leadership blend their “role of visionary decisive leader with that of listening and empowering leader,” writes Fran Rees in her book The Facilitator Excellence Handbook: Helping People Work Creatively and Productively Together. In contrast with other leadership styles, such as paternalistic leadership or charismatic leadership, facilitative leadership involves followers “as much as possible in creating the group’s vision and purpose, carrying out the vision and purpose, and building a productive and cohesive team,” she continues. 

This emphasis on collaboration between leaders and followers is integral to facilitative leadership. According to Jane Humphries of the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University, “Facilitative leadership is a reciprocal process between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.” Rather than being “something that is done to people,” facilitative leadership involves working with and through other people to achieve organizational goals,” Humphries writes.

In fact, anyone in an organization can practice facilitative leadership, regardless of their rank or level of responsibility, writes Roger Schwarz in his book The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches

Rules and Themes of Facilitative Leadership

Now that we know what facilitative leadership is, how does it work in practice? Schwarz lists nine “ground rules” that can help groups adhere to their core values in facilitative leadership:

  • Test assumptions and inferences.
  • Share all relevant information.
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
  • Explain your reasoning and intent.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Combine advocacy and inquiry.
  • Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements.
  • Discuss undiscussable issues.
  • Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed.

In an article for The Systems Thinker, Jeffrey Cufaude summarizes six broad themes that emerge from facilitative leadership

  1. Facilitative leadership involves connecting people with their colleagues, the issues at hand, and past lessons and future potential. “Facilitative leaders listen for and seek to make (or help others make) the connection between what is occurring in a conversation and what has occurred in other places or at other times,” he writes.
  2. Facilitative leadership involves providing direction without taking control. Facilitative managers engage in collaborative leadership that ensures everyone on a team is involved in group decision making.
  3. Facilitative leadership balances managing both the content and process of group discussions. Facilitative leadership recognizes that the process in which a group task unfolds is critical to its success and deserves significant attention. 
  4. Facilitative leadership includes discussion of difficult topics—the so-called elephant in the room—to ensure conflict is addressed productively. This leadership style encourages open, honest, and respectful dialogue.
  5. Facilitative leadership nurtures each employee’s capacity to take responsibility for making decisions and completing tasks on their own. 
  6. Facilitative leadership involves stepping back and operating “from a position of restraint, carefully measuring what, if any, action . . . to take.” In meetings, facilitative leaders attempt to stay reflective and silent to ensure all voices are heard. 

Authenticity is a key hallmark of facilitative leadership, Cufaude stresses. Rather than simply mastering a list of principles, “facilitative leaders model their genuine selves for others and help create the space that honors the diversity and genuineness present in any group,” he writes. 

What have your experiences with facilitative leadership been like? 

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818