Fostering a Speak-Up Culture with Facilitative Leadership

The history books are littered with incidents that could have been prevented if people in the know had been empowered to speak up and decision-makers had acted differently based on the input. For example, the Titanic, Columbia, and Challenger disasters could all have been prevented had leaders listened to subordinates and taken their concerns more seriously.

Facilitative Leadership

One management style that encourages collaboration within a work group is called “Facilitative Leadership.” Ed Halpin, owner and CEO of Halpin Leadership Industries Inc., a leadership consulting company, explained the concept behind the technique. “Facilitative leadership is the definable, repeatable, teachable behaviors that lubricate the wheels of collaboration, and teach people how to co-labor and work together,” he told POWER.

Halpin doesn’t just speak from a theoretical perspective; he has nearly 40 years of experience in the nuclear power industry including at the South Texas Project (STP), a dual-unit nuclear facility located about 90 miles southwest of Houston. “I worked in South Texas for 25 years. We were shut down in 1993 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because we did not have a good safety culture and we did not know how to collaborate,” Halpin said.

Facilitative leadership helped to get STP headed back in the right direction. “It is this toolset that we introduced that allowed us to turn that culture around and then operate with excellence for several years,” said Halpin.

Michael Reidy, senior consultant with Interaction Associates, suggested facilitative leadership improves communication, which leads to positive outcomes. “Leaders who are leading with a facilitative mindset, heart set, spirit set, and skill set are making it easier for people to be part of the process. They’re making it easier for people to be part of decision-making. They’re making it easier for people to speak up when they have a problem. They’re making it easier for people to name their own needs and their own concerns, particularly about safety,” he said.

Reidy witnessed a cultural transformation brought on through the use of facilitative leadership at the Seabrook nuclear plant, a single-unit station located in New Hampshire, about 40 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. He said the change began when Ted Nichols, who was a technical support manager in charge of equipment reliability, initiated the process in his department at the plant. After he demonstrated successful results, the model spread throughout the whole Seabrook facility.

Culture Can Adversely Affect Performance

In most cases, savvy managers can easily recognize when an organization’s culture is sabotaging results. “If you look at safety, reliability, and affordability metrics—all those high-level indicators—if they’re not going in the right direction, guess what, something’s probably wrong with your culture and your ability to act as a team to execute on your plan,” said Halpin.

“Productivity is a big indicator of whether a culture is on track, so measuring results is essential,” Reidy added. But, he suggested, you have to do more than simply measure results, you also have to understand how you got those results. He said it’s important to have a culture that allows for honest speaking. “I don’t think facilitative leadership does that overnight, but I think it builds a container in which it’s possible.”

“The one key indicator I use, and have used for several years, involves just going into and watching a meeting take place—observing a meeting—because meetings are a microcosm of organizational culture,” said Halpin. “If you go into a meeting and people are there rolling their eyes or they’re not sure why they’re there, or you’re not sure what the desired outcome is, it’s a key indicator of a culture that is rudderless,” he said.

Effective meetings leave people feeling good. Workers feel safe speaking up and raising issues without leaders shutting them down. However, it’s not necessarily easy to implement. Leaders must know how to deal with issues that arise using what Halpin called “open-narrow-closed techniques.” They must be able to reach agreements through a defined decision-making methodology.

Implementing Change

Many of the organizations Reidy has worked with over the years had an established “command and control” culture prior to his arrival. He said that management style can work quite well when things are going smoothly, but it may not be sustainable in the long run. “Increasing and balancing the level of involvement in decision-making is one of the great gifts that facilitative leadership brings to nearly every organization that I’ve had the privilege of bringing it into,” he said.

“Finding a way to increase the level of involvement in decision-making promotes ownership,” Reidy explained. “If you have given people a buy-in opportunity—a genuine opportunity of involvement in the decision-making—they own it differently, and they will actually implement it with greater gusto and greater commitment.”

To get started, Halpin suggested organizations focus on effective meeting management. For example, leaders should require agendas be developed for meetings, with specific desired outcomes that are well-conceived. They should ensure the decision-making methodology is clear, and roles and responsibilities are identified. They should verify meeting attendees are the right key stakeholders. Furthermore, it is important for facilitators to be trained to use open-narrow-closed techniques.

“These are very simple techniques as a part of facilitative leadership,” Halpin said. “I would focus on having effective meetings that bring out the best in the team and move the needle on performance. Meetings are a microcosm of the organizational culture. If you have great meetings, your culture is probably great.” ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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