October 23, 2020

On a Hiding to Nothing? The Impossible Quest for Neutrality

Is acting as a neutral vessel when facilitating truly a realistic aim? Facilitators are typically trained they should be neutral, staying out of the content of what’s been explored, focussing instead on the process. This makes good sense because group process is so often where things fall down at all manner of different scales: from developing organisational culture, capability and capacity, to specific tools and approaches used to find solutions for specific problems. Organisations can be full of the best minds in the world, but successfully creating value working together is so often where there’s grit in the oil. Good facilitators will help smooth (and often accelerate) the journey. If it’s on the agenda, good facilitation can help people actively engage in making a positive difference to their company, its customers, their colleagues and the communities they serve. Facilitation can play a very powerful role in organisational and cultural change.

The challenge is, anyone who’s been around facilitation for any length of time will know that being 100% neutral is impossible.

Take my sentence above about making a positive difference: what to me is a positive difference may not be to you. I’m taking sides by virtue of my values. We can’t not approach an intervention (and let’s face it, even an off the record discussion with an employee is an intervention) without our frames of reference, our values base, our knowledge and skills having an impact.

We also can’t ‘un-know’ something that we know. When a client comes asking for help supporting some work where they’ve already chosen a linear, engineering response to the challenge, but the challenge exists in the complex domain, I can’t not know that they’d likely end up with a whole load of unintended consequences, and would really be on a hiding to nothing taking the approach they’ve chosen. Here we get caught between facilitator and consultant roles: we add value by educating, and demonstrating in this case why an alternative approach would be more appropriate, but we’re no longer being neutral.

By the way, this is currently a very real challenge: many organisations have been working the way they have for years, have their set best practices and methodologies, and continue to apply them despite the fact that the context they now find themselves in is completely different. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more – it could be what keeps you afloat in challenging times.

Then take for a moment the work we choose to do. At times, for example, we’re approached to do things where it’s clear the sponsor’s strategy is more one of covert coercion than a transparent engagement with the people involved. Do we take the work on because of financial drivers, or share our thoughts and risk not doing the work in order to stay true to our values? Either way, our personal ‘map of the world’ is influencing the system.

When starting out in facilitation around 20 years ago, I was asked to facilitate a medium-term project in a large company. The sponsor’s goals for embarking on the project were well aligned with the company’s strategy, the project leader was very enthusiastic and nice, though perhaps a bit green, and all the key movers and shakers were in the team. All seemed good, so off we went.

Despite strong engagement with all the set-up activities prior to our first meeting, the meeting itself was a bit of a car crash. Lots of very big alpha male characters clashing with each other, and a project leader who seemed out of her depth. A distinctly uncomfortable experience, but some seeds of creative possibilities were emerging.

I discussed the situation with the project leader afterwards, and we decided to meet with the sponsor so she could share progress. He said what we’d experienced was to be expected, don’t worry, they’re always like that, herding cats etc. So, we forged ahead with meeting 2 once the actions from the first had been completed.

It wasn’t a big surprise when the second meeting continued in a similar vein, and I had to reflect some of the behaviours that were impacting progress back to them all. This helped short term, but 20 minutes later the patterns emerged again. Suffice to say progress was challenging.

After a painful workshop I picked up the phone to the sponsor. “Don’t worry about it,” came the reply, “I only did this so I could get sufficient evidence to fire the project leader!”

Oh, how easy it is to fall into the trap of the strategic and political use of facilitation within an organisation. My eyes have been much wider open since. This rather painful lesson made me aware that when it comes to being neutral, we need to keep in mind the political use of our skillset. Again, we can’t not have a degree of influence here, by virtue of the work we choose to do, and the work we turn down. For the more astute and experienced, this is likely a conscious decision, but at times we may still get played.

Then there’s the political side of the organisations we do and don’t work with. Research suggests all organisations are political by virtue of things like the ways conflicts and decisions are managed, who is and is not involved in decision making, and who controls resources (Lawton and Rose, 1994). Power is entrenched in the relationships between actors, and politics come into play as actors mobilise power (Hardy, 1994). When we work in an organisation, we get involved with those who have power, and those who don’t, and have an influence on the relationship between the two, impacting the socio-political dynamic.

Years ago, I helped deal with some conflict between a senior manager and his team. The organisation was cutting its cost base, meaning this team no longer had a room to work in when in the office. They were field based in the morning, but came to the office in the afternoon to deal with paperwork. However now, all they had was the busy contact centre to work in, where they needed to keep quiet. Not a great environment for people who typically needed to blow off steam after mornings working solo extracting rent arrears, during which they’d sometimes get assaulted, or even held hostage. Most were ex-squaddies, great characters doing a very difficult job, but their manager was gradually squeezing them more and more, making their life very hard, and then giving them hell every time they weren’t perfect.

The politics playing out here were around a senior manager doing what he needed to retain power, further subjugating his team. As I spent more time working with the salt of the earth characters involved, I found out what was really at play: the married-with-2-kids senior manager had slept with one of the team, and was now forcing her out. The rest of the team were best mates with her, so he was doing all he could to push them too. Oh boy. He had no intention of stopping the conflict, and engaging me was more an act of being seen to be doing the right thing, when behind the scenes he was sabotaging everything. A very clever political animal, I believe he’s still in power some 16 years on.

What emerges here is the need for transparency. If the quest for neutrality is impossible, the next best thing is to be transparent about our intentions, our reasoning, our decisions, beliefs and values. With an appropriate approach, we can also draw out much of what lies beneath the surface, bringing things hidden in the shadows into the light. In doing so we add huge value.

The organisations we facilitators work with won’t always be transparent, so we’re still at risk of being political pawns, but exercising care, being reflective, and acknowledging that we only have partial awareness are key here. In all my time working in complexity, the one thing we can be sure about is that something we didn't know will emerge.

So how are your skills for developing transparency? If you’re a facilitator, manager or leader who’d like to know more about this fascinating area and the positive impact it can have on your work, do get in touch.

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