The Power of Synthesizing Perspectives: Skilled Facilitation as a Core Leadership Ability
The other day I found myself in a meeting in a collaborative workplace where a topic with multiple conflicting perspectives was on the table for discussion. Feelings were hot, people were talking over each other in an effort to be heard, and no evident solution was present. It felt awful! And given that the item was of a high stakes nature, the conflict in the room was unsettling. Even though everyone present had positive and solid relationships with each other, it was unclear how we were going to create a path forward under the circumstances where everyone felt their well being and even financial survival on the line.
It was both fascinating and disturbing to see the spectacle unfold and I was grateful for the facilitator who led us through the conversation using a clear and fair decision making process to get to a workable solution that was worth trying in action. In the heat of the moment with feathers ruffled and hackles raised, it was hard to imagine how that was even possible. But as we made the decision, uncomfortable though the process was, I was overwhelmed with appreciation for just how huge a success we had collectively generated by coming to a decision through integrating the conflicting perspectives, rather than through the force of will of one or a few leaders, or even through a democratic vote which would have further polarized the winners and losers.
As I was reflecting on that decision-making experience and the events in our current world, it struck me that the increase of complex and conflicting perspectives might be a central feature of the leadership landscape. Take, for example, the battles we face over understanding climate change and strategizing how to reduce its impacts. Or perhaps, as above, it’s the arguments with one’s partners over how to prioritize financial resources. No matter which direction we turn our lives might seem inundated by difficult and contentious decisions without a clear path to one “right” answer.
As leaders in these complex environments, how we sense and respond to these pressures is a point of leverage. We can ignore these challenges to the detriment of everyone around us, regress to authoritarian leadership styles, or rise to the occasion using the collective creativity of our team. But how we do so successfully requires a much needed skill: facilitation.
The silver lining, in the rise of complex and conflicting perspectives, is that with an effective process and a decent facilitator, the ability to create movement forward on dilemmas is already in the room. However, most of what is taught and learned as leadership and management in our world has little ability to see or harness those solutions. Most of us have been taught as leaders that we must have the solution, that it is our job as a leader to see a way through or to get expert help. Unfortunately that very training undermines our ability to actually create a workable solution in complex and rapidly changing conditions.
Facilitative leadership takes a radically different approach. Facilitative leadership is the ability to lead through synthesizing perspectives rather than taking one’s own or the boss’ perspective as the best way to go. Facilitative leadership focuses on both the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ that’s under discussion and provides a clear, inclusive, and fair process to get to a workable solution. Here at Round Sky Solutions, we’ve researched and developed a set of participatory leadership processes, Collab, that reliably enables leaders to achieve success with facilitative leadership and harness the power that comes from everyone to create a way through conflicting perspectives. And if you’ve ever been in a room with a hot topic under discussion, you know that work simply isn’t easy, but effective processes and trained facilitators can make good use of the conflict to create decisions that are workable, not necessarily decisions where everyone is happy and agreeable!
How we seek and integrate perspectives is a defining skill in our evolving leadership and comes down to understanding what power is and how it can be used well to create generative results. We’ve found that defining power as “something we all have, yet might lack the fair communication process to access” is a useful framing for unlocking the strength of facilitative leadership to respond to complex and conflicting situations. As leaders, when we are able to identify conflicting perspectives and integrate them collaboratively and effectively, we will have achieved a core leadership competency for 21st century environments.
Originally published at www.roundskysolutions.com on May 12, 2017.