Meeting organizer: book facilitator first!

I would like meeting organizers to call facilitators before they book venues and dates for meetings.

In the past several months, I have done a dozen facilitations for as many groups, and in virtually all situations, the date was booked, the agenda partially defined and the meeting room decided BEFORE talking with the facilitator.

While this sounds like a rational approach, if you’re the facilitator it is completely backwards.

A professional facilitator starts every client engagement with a thorough needs assessment. We need to understand what is to be accomplished, what has happened so far, the challenges and the dynamics of the group and who will carry out the work that emerges from the work shop. We are curious about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a group; the history of the group and its promise.

Once we understand these factors, we can address the client’s uniqueness and design an appropriate agenda and meeting process. Until the process is defined, the room needs are less clear (beyond something BIG).

So, I’ve crafted a list of things that I’d like meeting organizers to know:

  1. Give your facilitator SUFFICIENT LEAD time. Good facilitation needs preparation time. The call on Monday for a Thursday facilitation is thoughtless at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. Leave booking your facilitator to the last minute and it is likely that the good ones will not be available.
  2. Make time for the facilitator to conduct a thorough NEEDS ASSESSMENT  interview with you. If there isn’t time for that conversation, consider changing the meeting date. Without a good discovery conversation, you may not get what you want from your meeting.
  3. Consult with the facilitator BEFORE you finalize dates and rooms. Your facilitator will know what their room needs are when they’ve considered the processes to be used and the number of participants involved.
  4. Do NOT hand a professional facilitator an already baked agenda. The value in hiring a facilitator is their expertise at designing an effective agenda that will accomplish your meeting goals. If you’ve already decided agenda and process, hire a time keeper.
  5. TRUST your facilitator. Facilitators have spent lots of time with lots of groups and  have learned through trial and error what works and what does not work.
  6. Book a room with LOTS OF WALL SPACE. Natural light is awesome and we love it too, unless it means that there are NO WALLS for posting the efforts of the day. Golf courses seem like a good idea until you realize that there isn’t any uninterrupted wall space.
  7. Book a BIG, FLEXIBLE room. We want two or three times more space than ‘maximum occupancy’ dictates. People NEED to move around during a long meeting.
  8. Avoid rooms with a FIXED BOARDROOM table in the middle of a long narrow room. These rooms aren’t comfortable or particularly functional and you will certainly feel like you’ve been held hostage by the end of the day.
  9. PUT AWAY DEVICES. You are making this investment and taking people out of their jobs for a period of time for good reason. Give yourself the gift of focus and implement a no device rule for the day.
  10. SEPARATE lunch space from work space. Move lunch to a different room. Food is messy and so are work spaces. Participants need a physical break during full day meetings.

Successful meetings are a result of good discovery, good process design and good physical environment. The role of a facilitator is to ensure all  three elements are well addressed. So start your meeting organizing with a call to the facilitator!

When groups struggle to decide

One of the most interesting things about working with groups is observing their dynamic through a decision making lens.  At certain points, during a workshop, a group needs to make a decision, revealing much about the nature of their group.

As a meeting leader, you need to be aware of what is happening in your group at that time. Is the decision process going well? Is it stalling? If so, what is happening?

Step 1: Observe

The first step of a meeting leader is to observe the dynamic. What are you noticing? What behaviours are evident? What is going on at the surface? Below the surface?

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

  • silence, the group is not speaking
  • limited support for new ideas as they arise, the group doesn’t know what it believes
  • stilted dialogue, the group is uncertain of safety and is feeling cautious
  • an absence of insight, the group can’t decide what something means
  • different perspectives are not acknowledged, the group hasn’t decided to support each other

A struggling group is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may
be a necessary thing. 

Bruce Tuckmans article Developmental Sequence for Small Groups  defined a the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model that many of us are familiar with. At the heart of this model is an acknowledgement group development follows a cycle and takes time. Groups go through four distinctly different phases characterized by different behaviours and challenges.

That groups struggle is necessary and to some degree unavoidable. Importantly, if even one member of a group should change, you start over. You are back at the forming stage.

Step 2: Self reflection

This is a small but important step as the meeting leader. How are you feeling about what is happening in the room? How important is it that the group resolve their roadblock right away? Do they have time to resolve it?

Take a quick breath to understand how you are reacting to what you are seeing first, before you jump to diagnosis.

Step 3: Diagnosis

Why are the observed behaviours happening?  What do you think is a root cause?  What might some contributing factors? A bit of dispassionate analysis is needed. This is often where a third party facilitator has an advantage as they don’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas.

  • Is there an overweighting of a single thinking style?
  • Is the group newly formed?
  • Has there been a change in the membership of the group?
  • Is the topic of discussion relatively unfamiliar?
  • Are trust levels within the room low?
  • Are there ‘factions’ within the room?
  • Are there ‘elephants’ wandering freely in the room?
  • Is this a ‘hostage-like’ scenario?

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

As a meeting leader – there are things you can do to address the dynamics that you see happening. You have to decide on the degree of intervention that is needed. Intervention can be quite simple.

In the case of an overweighting of a single thinking style (which is common when you deal with departmental groups), add diversity. Bring others, into the discussion, who will offer a different perspective which can be beneficial in unblocking a group. Alternatively, plan your meeting activity so as to stimulate an alternate thinking style. A common approach with technical groups who tend to be quite analytic (left brained) is to have them work with images, which stimulate the more holistic, pattern thinking right brain.  (see Too Much Left Brain )

Often, I work with newly assembled groups. As an example, a board of directors has turned over and is quite new, but open to working together. Their limited familiarity causes them to be cautious and reserved. Their group dynamic is as yet, undeveloped. They are forming.

This is the easiest problem to solve. Spend time on activities which will increase familiarity such as personal story telling and small group work or fun exercises. Have the group define its primary purpose. Maintain a supportive environment and encourage articulation of thoughts. In my experience these groups become much more comfortable over the course of a single day. Be aware that a similar process is necessary when new members join an existing group.

New topics are an interesting dilemma for groups. The topic is often the reason for bringing them together, but the topic may be quite different, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and causes the group to act accordingly. In this scenario it is important to give a healthy quantity of time to the topic itself. Increase the amount of time spent the group spends on reviewing facts, reflecting on the topic and exploring meaning before moving to decision. Often groups are pushed towards decision too quickly in these scenarios and find themselves resistant. Time spent exploring the topic will improve decision making.

An untrusting dynamic is more complicated to resolve and will take more time. A good starting point may be to clarify the purpose of the group. Have the group articulate their issues and focus on ideas. Acknowledge and reflect the experiences of the group. What has happened before? Encourage transparency of thinking. What did they mean when they said that? Ask group members to state their reasoning and intent when they speak to reduce the risk of further misunderstandings. Maintain an open and supportive environment. Adoption of this form of dialogue may allow you to get to a decision. Turning this dynamic on a permanent basis is a longer term proposition and a more complicated intervention.

In the case of factions in a room, where the camp is obviously divided, decision making becomes elusive because the factions may be supporting a specific position. In this scenario, it is necessary to define the problem and define the common interest of the group. Focus on establishing options, establish decision criteria and then move towards decision making. A deeply divided group has a host of issues that take time to overcome.  This may be the most complicated intervention and require more than one conversation to get to a result.

When there is an elephant wandering freely in the room, suspend your planned agenda and deal with the elephant. Good decisions can not be made with a large, unresolved issue.

In the case of a room full of ‘hostages’ – people who would rather be anywhere but here, find out what would be a useful outcome to them. If there’s nothing in sight for them, let them leave the room. They do not want to be a part of the process and won’t help you get to a good decision.

Ask the group what it needs. 

Last and perhaps most important, ask the group what it needs to resolve its struggle. Ask  what would be helpful to the group at this point in their struggles. Sometimes groups will ask for more think time, or more discussion time, more facts, more structure, or better decision criteria. When in doubt – ask the group.

It’s important to remember that not all struggle is bad. In fact, struggle is often needed to come to a common understanding or agreement on a topic.

Some of the benefits of a struggle during the decision process include: 

  • increased group cohesion
  • increased commitment to outcome
  • increased likelihood that important topics are coming to the surface
  • areas for additional discussion are exposed

As the leader of a group meeting, your role is to create a healthy process for decision making. The group’s job is to get the decision made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does hearing look like?

January 2016

When I’m working with groups, I am always watching to see whether they are listening, and more importantly how they are listening to each other. Do they actually hear what each other has to say? After all, the whole point of a facilitated session is to ensure that people share, listen and learn from each other.

From a physical perspective, listening appears to happen when:

  • someone looks directly at the speaker
  • notes are being taken while someone is talking
  • body language is forward and attentive (e.g. leaning toward the speaker, head nodding)

Any school teacher or professional trainer will tell you that the physical signs of listening can be misleading. For example,

  • I am looking at the speaker, but thinking about about how tight my belt feel today
  • I am taking notes, but really I am preparing my grocery list
  • I am leaning forward and nodding my head, but I’m doing this to keep myself awake.

While I’m watching for the physical signs of listening, it is crucially more important to look for the evidence of listening, which is hearing.  We all know what it looks like when hearing doesn’t happen. Think back to a presentation you attended, your last project kick off meeting, or a vendor sales pitch! A failure to hear looks like:

  • ‘umm, can you repeat the question’
  • non-sequiturs: responses feel like they are disconnected from previous commentary
  • people speak in vague, unspecific terms
  • or worse… ‘deer in headlights’ … stunned silence

So – what then does good hearing look like? What is the evidence that hearing is taking place?

Hearing can be observed when:

  • clarifying questions are asked of a speaker
  • objections are raised to what was said and in context of how it was said
  • the speakers comments are restated or rephrased
  • a response was provided that was directly connected to what was said
  • additional insight was added to the previous level of insight

When I work with a group, the evidence that they have moved from a more passive (or physical) level of listening to an active level of hearing becomes obvious when they seek to clarify statements; when they identify underlying assumptions and when they challenge the assumptions of others. This can create conflict, but as long as the group continues to hear what each other says, they move beyond conflict towards resolution.

When groups start to build on each other’s ideas, hearing is actively at play. It sounds like:

“I liked what you said when… and if we did also did this then…. we’d accomplish what … said”. 

I work with a small management team that doesn’t always agree with each other. What I really appreciate about this team is that they actively hear each other. They demonstrate their hearing when they genuinely seek clarification from each other; they openly disagree with each other and more importantly state why they disagree with each other. Once the source of disagreement is understood, then they start building resolution by referencing statements that they have said earlier and begin to stitch together a go forward approach. This management team has well developed conflict resolution skills and their number one asset is their capacity for hearing each other.

When I am working with a group – large or small and I see these moments of hearing, I feel that anything is possible. These are the little moments that feel like big wins in a facilitated discussion.

When was the last time you observed it in action?

What I believe to be true…

“I’ve been asked to speak on work-life balance at a women’s leadership conference”, said a friend of mine.

In my blunt fashion I said, “Good lord – why are we still asking professional women this question? Why do we assume that women, who are powerful and competent, need answers to this question? How often do we ask men this question?”

Image governs behaviour

In 1956, Kenneth Boulding wrote a book called The Image. In it, he wrote that our behaviours are a reflection of the images that we hold of ourselves. In his words “…what I believe to be true; my subjective knowledge. It is this image that largely governs my behaviour“.  

As events occur, they alter our images and as our image alters we alter our behaviour accordingly. Images are built up as a result of our past experiences. They can be deeply ingrained and are held in place by the messages that reach it. “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image“.  When a message hits an image – it can be rejected; it can add to the image or bolster the image; it can clarify the image; or it can intrude on the image, catalyzing some kind of change, even a revolutionary change. When this revolutionary change happens the image may be re-organized. 

The key element of how the message is received and how it impacts the image is the value screen that a message must pass through. In Boulding’s words “the values are perhaps the most important single element determining the effect of messages on its image”

I was reminded of this model the other day when I realized that if really DO want to be 10 pounds lighter, then my image needs to shift to that of a person who IS 10 pounds lighter (the revolutionary change). I need to filter the allure of the pumpkin scone through a value filter that says “skinny people don’t eat pumpkin scones”.  Then I will triumphantly turn up my nose at said scone. 

If we accept this model, then maybe the question we need to ask professional women is:  “What is the underlying image that we hold, that makes us think we need to keep answering this question? What messages are we receiving that say we don’t know the answer? What values are we filtering our perceptions of work/life balance through?”

 I think this would spark a far more interesting conversation.  

Facilitation for image shift

When facilitators work with groups, they often work within the framework of image shift. A group wants a certain outcome – so what needs to shift, in order to achieve the outcome? If a group wants to be a high performing team – what image do they hold of themselves? What messages are reinforcing the current image, and what values are these messages being filtered through? What are the resulting behaviours? How do these aspects of the image model need to shift to move the group towards its aspirational state? What are the underlying contradictions preventing this shift? 

These are fascinating conversations that groups must navigate as they shift from their current state towards the desired, future state.

Facilitation is an enabling process. 

Training & facilitation: similar but different

Oct 7, 2015

“Is there a difference between a facilitator and a trainer?”  

During a break, in a recent facilitation, a participant began to describe to me, the challenges her organization had experienced delivering a training program. The trainer that was hired didn’t seem to hit the mark for the organization. The participant told me that the trainer did too much talking; didn’t draw out the people in the training session and didn’t create enough dialogue. So I asked the question: “Did you hire a facilitator, or a trainer?”

___

There is much common ground between facilitators and trainers. Many facilitators train and many trainers facilitate. They share over-lapping skills sets. and perform similar activities. Some common traits for both trainers and facilitators include:

  • thoughtful, articulate and responsive to questions
  • able to adapt to the needs of people in the room
  • able to keep participants engaged and interacting
  • able to manage to an agenda 

Trainers are additionally responsible for

  • delivering a specific learning objective 
  • designing and controlling a process
  • managing room dynamics 
  • and bringing content expertise to the discussion

The last point is important – trainers are generally content experts. Their criticality stems from their ability to illuminate content, to aid comprehension of a subject, and to help participants engage with the concepts. This is important and makes them persuasive in their delivery. A trainer will generally be at the centre of any discussion in the room.

Facilitators, like trainers, are responsible for: 

  • designing and controlling a process 
  • managing room dynamics

The roles begin to diverge in how an event unfolds. Facilitators are also responsible for:  

  • tapping into the knowledge of the room to generate the necessary content 
  • listening carefully in order to ask the next question 
  • gaining commitment to action and follow through to achieve a desired outcome
  • remaining steadfastly neutral

A facilitator listens more than they speak. They ask carefully considered questions, aimed at provoking ever more thoughtful responses; allowing the room to discover its wisdom. 

According to ICA Associates, the focus for facilitators is on enabling groups to process their experiences, think things through, form consensus and make plans and decisions. The facilitator’s energy is dedicated to developing process and tools to assist people in achieving their objectives.  

In short – a trainer owns content; a facilitator owns process.

Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies sums up his conversation with a trainer who also facilitates: “I like facilitation, but I love training. Because when you’re facilitating, you really have to listen to them. And that’s work!”

After our discussion, the individual that I was talking with indicated that there was a strong desire in their training program to have the participants share their knowledge; build community and network; and learn from each other. At the conclusion of our discussion, she thought that a facilitator might have been a better choice. They just hadn’t understood the difference.

Reframe the problem

Aug 17, 2015

It turns out our parents were right. There really is more than one way of looking at a problem.  

Once someone perceives a problem in a certain way, it can be very difficult to see the problem in any other way. Past experiences and past brain patterns cause us to lock into a mode of thought. The expression “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind.

Sam Kaner says that when tackling difficult problems most people reach conclusions quickly and are confident they have explored every solution option. Their expertise, past experience and frame of mind suggest that looking for alternatives is pointless and a waste of time (see a previous article “All fun is not Superficial for a small discussion on the corresponding brain activity)”. The idea that a problem can be reframed, that it can be considered from a different perspective and therefore dramatically shift their understanding is a significant shift for many people. It’s not a place they go to easily. 

A recent experience comes to mind that really illustrated this concept. A colleague was discussing an upcoming facilitation which was complex and looked difficult. They were being asked to look for cost reductions in a project that was well underway. We circled around the topic for a period of time, wrestling with the negative scenario, speculating on the level of automatic resistance that we would encounter. 

After a time, it was suggested that we re-frame the problem. Could we find another way we could look at this issue? Our thinking quickly shifted from the more negative ‘cost reduction’ to a more positive ‘project performance’ mode and the approach to the facilitation quickly emerged. I was reminded of the real value that comes from re-framing.

On a simplistic level., ‘our product won’t sell’ can be reframed as ‘we’re trying to sell our product to the wrong people’,  or ‘our employees are incompetent’ to ‘our employees don’t have enough time to do a quality job’, or ‘we don’t have enough money’ to ‘we haven’t figured out how to find new sources of money’. We instinctively do this when we’re trying to mediate between two people, kids, colleagues or employees.

So, if you find yourself stuck on a problem statement, and working with a group, consider the following steps: 

  1. State the perceived problem.  
  2. Brainstorm a list of ‘reframes’ of the problem.
  3. Discuss the implications of the possible reframed statements
  4. Decide on your next step 

You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that an alternative approach, option or solution is more evident than originally thought. 

For a more detailed discussion, check out The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner.  

          

Too much left brain?

July 21, 2015

In modern society we have highly valued a certain type of person and a certain type of mind – people such as engineers who can analyze data, computer programmers who write code, MBA’s who can crunch numbers. 

This type of individual draws heavily from the left side of the brain – that part of our mind that we understand to be rational, analytic, and logical. The left side of our brain reasons sequentially, excels at analysis and handles words. A person with these strengths is definitely the kind of person you want doing your taxes.   

In contrast, those we have considered ‘right’ brained may be artists who express themselves non verbally, writers who create beautiful images, futurists who see patterns and suggest trends. This type of person draws more heavily on the right side of the brain which is nonlinear, instinctive, it reasons holistically, recognizes patterns and interprets emotions and non verbal expressions. This is someone we want as a coach or counsellor.

In A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pinkhe summarizes 3 decades of research on the brain’s hemispheres to 4 key differences:

  1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere control the left side of the body. 
  2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. 
  3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context.
  4. The left hemisphere analyses details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.

I have recently facilitated strategic planning meetings with two management teams that had a heavy weighting of technical skills, or what we’d call left brain skills. Our meetings included an workshop where we identify barriers to achieving our desired future state. The process of brainstorming options went well – many ideas were generated. The process of organizing the ideas into clusters went quickly, albeit with a more linear approach to organizing ideas.

Once ideas are clustered, we look for the larger pattern of causation and the deeper meaning. We’re seeking the root of the issue to assign a name to the cluster. This name, then represents the obstacle that requires future attention.  

What a challenge for these left brain-centric teams. 

They struggled to see a larger pattern; they struggled to see context and they struggled to assign larger meaning. The left brain was struggling and there wasn’t enough right brain thinking in the room to offer balance. A certain level of frustration began to arise. Soon the groups began taking a name from one cluster and assigning to another cluster with a small modification, to get the job done – the root of the issue may have been missed.

I happened to read Daniel Pink’s book a week or so later and had a giant eureka moment; to get a left brain crowd to do right brain work was going to require much more instruction, direction and example from the facilitator. The group won’t automatically jump into the more holistic, pattern identification work. It’s not that the group doesn’t have these capabilities, it’s that for these groups, the right brain skills were under developed, in part because we have valued these skills less in our ‘Information Age’. It will be necessary to ‘wake up’ their right brain thinking prior to such an exercise. 

Our brain has two halves that work together, not independently. The left side of the brain hears the words that someone says, the right side creates meaning. Damage to one side of the brain impacts our entire being. We aren’t ‘half brained’ even if we pull on skills associated with one side of the brain more – both sides of our brain work together. 

So, this leaves me asking questions: what are the implications for businesses stacked with left brain thinking? What are the risks for organizations that value sequential thinking over the holistic and pattern thinking? What are the potential impacts to long term success if organizations dissect the problem without synthesizing the bigger picture?

Can a business that values both its ‘right’ and ‘left’ brain be more successful?

… I’d love to hear what you think.   

Do facilitation skills help your career?

June 23, 2015

Facilitation skills may be the secret sauce!

I’ve certainly had my share of good and bad moments as a leader and professional, but I think my best moments have happened when I’ve been in a facilitative leader mind set.

Umm.. what?

Merriam-Webster defines facilitator as: “one that helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision”. Roger Schwarz defines it as “…substantively neutral… intervenes to help a group improve the way it identifies and solves problems to make decisions”. The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) defines the role in this short short video as part architect, part process driver and part guide.

In summary, a facilitator is one who remains neutral, enables a process, and helps bring about an outcome. To do this, a facilitator must be open minded, transparent, curious, and draw on the expertise of a group. A facilitator believes the a group is capable and competent and able to participate in its own solutions. The problem solving insight comes from the group, not the facilitator. A facilitator also works with a group to jointly design a next step.

While there are many definitions (and this is greatly simplified), leadership is fundamentally about achieving goals and inspiring people along the way by harnessing people power. 

Under these definitions, the overlap between facilitative mindsets and facilitative leadership are more obvious: both are about achieving goals; both are about accessing the knowledge and expertise in the room (organization) and both are about believing in the capacity of the group (team). Many leaders will say they hire good people and get out of their way so that they can do what is needed.

The term ‘facilitative leader’ is used quite frequently by the facilitation community. So what does it mean? A leader with a mindset that says there is wisdom in this room embraces a facilitative style; a leader that ensures everyone has a voice that that every voice is heard demonstrates a facilitative style; a leader that is open and transparent about what they think, why they think it and actively invites alternate viewpoint portrays a facilitative mind set. A leader who listens well, clarifies understandings and tests assumptions acts in a facilitative manner.  

Whether 1:1, 1:several or 1:many – facilitation skills say a lot about whether your leadership style is autocratic, participative, inclusive, or hierarchical. How you handle a group discussion is very illuminating.  

After 25 years in the workforce and many years facilitating, both formally and informally, I’ve come to the conclusion that facilitation skills should be taught in virtually every educational program out there: engineering, science, business, arts, education, etc. How much better would the workplace be if more leaders embraced a facilitative style? 

Got strategy? Try story telling.

April 30, 2015

A brilliant strategy fails to resonate with the client, in spite of your diligence, analysis and expertise. Why?  

A recent post from Bilal Jaffery spoke to the importance of story telling. Once upon a timeMost marketers, he says, are shouting, not empathizing. Business storytelling misses the point. Messages that are communicated are more reflective of internal process, and fail to capture the hearts and minds of the buyer (client).

While that post was aimed at marketing communicators, the applicability to business strategy was immediately apparent. Timely too – given a recent experience delivering a cleverly crafted, well researched strategy that utilized core work methods and utterly failed to resonate with the client. Ugh! 

Did the client miss the plot? Was it over their heads? Did they not pay attention?  

Maybe. A more likely scenario is that the strategy didn’t tell a story that was client centric. The client couldn’t see themselves in the message. They couldn’t see how it would improve their day to day efforts. Greatness was shouted but empathy for their circumstances was missing. Why should they care about ‘core’ work methods?

If I think about leaders that have most captured my imagination, they have had something in common: story telling. They were communicators with an ability to deliver the dull corporate strategy (think monthly town hall meeting) in a compelling, engaging way. They put their message into a context that I cared about, more importantly they told me why in a way that mattered to me.

It’s worth noting that this concept is also at the core of Simon Sinek’s work “Start with Why”. Too often we lose the plot by being too caught up in what we do or how we do it. We don’t get to the why – ours, or the client’s. 

The moral of this story: if you want the client to ‘get’ your strategy, put it in a story they want to hear. Leave your brilliance for the epilogue!   

                

It’s not the money, it’s the principle

April 14, 2015

We humans are not as evolved as we might like to think, and we instinctively care about fairness.

Research on brain functionality suggests that much of our motivation driving our social behaviour is governed by the principles of avoiding threat and seeking reward. Interestingly, our brain uses the same networks for social interactions as for primary survival needs.

According to David Rock, our primary survival needs are governed by the more primitive parts of our brain and operate in a fairly binary mode: feel good -> move toward reward and feel threat -> move away. Our primitive brain networks process threat and reward cues almost instantly and tell us what is meaningful. The layman would say this is a ‘reflex or instant reaction’. To put this in day to day terms…meeting strangers at a cocktail party activates the same brain networks as if we were being approached by a woolly mammoth…threat is imminent!

The SCARF model (David Rock, 2008) identifies 5 domains of human experience: Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others and Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between peopleWhen any of these domains is threatened our primitive avoidance responses kick in (withdrawal, retreat, anger, threat).  Check out his TED talk.  

Fairness is a domain that is particularly acute. In fact, research suggests that fairness is so essential to humans, that we will give up money in exchange for a perceived ‘fairer’ outcome. How many times have you heard the expression “it’s not the money, it’s the principle”;  “it’s not what he did, it’s the principle”.  Fairness is a significant and primitive motivator for people.

In a sports context: a red team plays a blue team.  The red team wins. At the conclusion of the game, the blue team identifies and awards an MVP (most valuable player) to the red team. The player happens to be the coach’s child. The award feels fair. We are happy, we congratulate the MVP.  

On the other hand, if the red team’s coach selects the MVP award and it also goes to his child – it feels unfair. We have an immediate threat response which may be anger, disbelief, or frustration. In these two situations, the outcome is the same but the manner in which the event occurs creates a completely different response from our brain. It’s the principal that counted. Fairness mattered. 

In your day to day office environment, how often is perceived fairness threatened? What effect does it have on dialogue and understanding? What about collegiality? decision making? What can you do to minimize the threat/avoidance response in your team? (spoiler alert – performance reviews are huge ‘threats’ in corporate life).

So what are the implications when facilitating?  How do you encourage people to share openly and freely? How do you prevent someone from feeling threatened and ‘shutting down’? If you spot someone demonstrating signs of feeling threatened, what can you do to make it neutral or rewarding? 

This is a key reason facilitated workshops spend time on icebreakers, warm ups and introductions. We are less ‘threatened’ when someone is no longer a stranger. Another techniques is to record the words of people ‘as is’;  avoid paraphrasing and repeat as many specific words as possible. This ensures people feel heard, thereby lowering threat response.

I’d love to hear from you – what do you do, in your meetings, workshops, 1:1’s to reduce the ‘threat’ response?  

Sources:  

David Rock

http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

Social Neuroscience, SCARF Model and Change Management

http://thehypertextual.com/2013/04/23/social-neuroscience-scarf-model-and-change-management/