Sometimes as a facilitator you find yourself in a situation in which you are simply out of your league. Typically there are circumstances you haven’t encountered before and you do your best to cope. Sometimes it works out. Other times it is a disaster. In the case I’m about to describe, disaster would be an understatement. The good news is, afterwards, you’ll have learned approaches that would have been great to apply in the situation…if you only knew then what you know now.

The Session Falls Apart

When I was a member of a national consulting firm, and before learning the material in our The Effective Facilitator course, I was working with an oil and gas exploration company in the southwest. We had been called in to guide an in-house team commissioned to implement an executive information system. The executive information system had been requested by the CEO. The system would be used initially by the top executives: the CEO, the COO, and each of the eight Vice Presidents.

During the first phase of the project, we interviewed the executives individually to identify the type of information each desired in the new system. We aggregated the information from the various interviews and convened a facilitated review session with the executive team. The purpose of the session was to confirm that all key information needs had been identified and to determine which needs would be included in the first phase of the system. I served as the facilitator for the group review.

Early in the session I noticed that each time the COO spoke, the CEO would shift in his seat, fold his arms or exhibit other signs of uneasiness. As the session progressed, I noticed the CEO becoming increasingly more irritated when the COO spoke. The good news is that I noticed the behavior. The bad news is that I exercised the technique used by most facilitators when faced with the early signs of dysfunction: I used the ostrich technique – I put my head in the sand and hoped that it would go away.

Following a short break, the session continued. When the Chief Operating Officer made his next comment, the CEO exploded, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. It’s limited thinking like this that has caused this company to be in the shape were are in!” The room went silent. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone looked at me, wondering what I was going to do. I had no idea what to do. I asked, “Any other input?”

The session rapidly disintegrated from there. For the rest of the session, the COO didn’t say a word. Every time the CEO spoke, the VPs all nodded their heads in agreement. No one wanted to be the next person blasted by the CEO. It was awful.

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

In The Effective Facilitator, our facilitation principle number six reads: “Dysfunctional behavior: conscious prevention, early detection, clean resolution.” So let’s take a look at what steps I should have taken based on this principle.

Conscious Prevention

According to our course, you can consciously prevent dysfunctional behavior by first doing your preparation work to learn the potential dysfunctions that can occur. Then, you execute prevention strategies.

In my case, I had done my prep work. I had learned that the CEO had been appointed less than nine months before, by the parent company. The business unit had been growing modestly and the parent company felt that it should have been growing by leaps and bounds. So, they brought in a person from one of the major oil companies to bring this about.

What happened to the prior CEO you might ask? The prior CEO had been demoted and was serving as the Chief Operating Officer (COO)! A ripe scenario for dysfunction, yes?

This is something that I had uncovered in my prep work. Unfortunately, according to The Effective Facilitator doing your prep work isn’t enough; you have to use that prep work to design and execute prevention strategies. What did I do to prevent the dysfunction? Nothing.
What should I have done? When we do strategic planning we generally ask CEOs not to be the first or second or third person to speak on any issue. We tell CEOs to let their people speak first to avoid shutting them down.

Knowing what I know now, I would have applied this same strategy, but differently. I would have gone to the COO (not the CEO) and used our four step formula for addressing dysfunction.

  1. Approach privately or generally. I would have done it privately in a one-on-one discussion with the COO.
  2. Empathize with the symptom. “It says a lot about you that you care so much about the company that you would be willing to step back and apply all that you know to helping the company in the role of COO.”
  3. Address the root cause. “During the session you will likely have many ideas about what information we should be looking at. At the same time, this session is the first opportunity for the CEO to let the executive team know what he believes is important. So during the session, it may be important for you to give the CEO a chance to let his thoughts and desires be known.”
  4. Get agreement on the solution. “My thought is that I would appreciate it if you would make it a point NOT to be the first or second person to speak on any issue. You should put your thoughts out there of course, but it might be helpful if you spoke third or fourth, rather than first. Are you comfortable with this?”

If the COO had said yes, the dysfunctional outburst would likely have been completely prevented. Unfortunately, conscious prevention I missed.

Early Detection

I noticed the unease of the Chairman from the start. Unfortunately it is not enough to detect it, you have to take action, and I did not. What should I have done? As we teach in our facilitation, a mini-round robin could have handled the situation well.

After the first or second display of discomfort, I could have asked the following, “Let’s get some input on what we are hearing, Joe, what do you think…Jane, what about you…Ray (CEO) your thoughts?” This would have helped the uneasiness to come out in a functional way rather than a dysfunctional way. Perhaps the CEO would have said, “I think we are looking at the wrong stuff. Focusing on this information isn’t going to address the most important issues facing this organization.”

And then, I could have easily replied, “You may be right. What information do you think we should be focusing on instead?” He would have answered. We could have talked about it. Dysfunction avoided. Unfortunately, with early detection my ostrich technique was not helpful.

Clean Resolution

I had my first chance to address the issue through conscious prevention prior to the session. But I missed it. I had a second chance through early detection during the session, but I missed it. Because I missed prevention and missed the early signs of the dysfunction, when it came roaring back it was quite ugly. I had a much bigger problem because I didn’t address it early.

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. It’s limited thinking like this that has caused this company to be in the shape were are in!”
Once the blow-up occurred, I still could have addressed it at least two ways. The first approach is direct and head on. I could have responded, “Wow, that was spoken pretty passionately. Help me understand, what do you think we should be looking at…? Why are these things important…? Let’s go around the room and see if there are other things like this that we should consider.”

After the round-robin, I would then take a break to meet with the CEO, who in this person’s case, would have been more than willing to come back and publicly apologize for his behavior toward the COO.

Another way to address this issue is to respond with, “Wow. That was spoken pretty passionately. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m a little uncomfortable right now. Rather than continue as though nothing has happened, if it is okay with the group, I think we should take a few minutes. I would like to go around the room starting with Chris, and have each person answer a simple question. Given what just happened, what are you experiencing right this minute? Some of us will be feeling a variety of things. But please, share whatever is top of mind and we will keep going around the room. Chris get me started, be as honest as you can, what are you experiencing right this minute…?”

After going around the room…”Okay, we’ve talked about what’s happening with everyone, now let’s answer this next question. What needs to happen to allow us to proceed…?” After more discussion… “Okay, we are clear what needs to happen for us to proceed. Why don’t we take a break now and when we come back, let’s see if we can proceed.”

If I only knew then what I know now I could have much more effectively addressed this situation. The dysfunction could have been totally prevented, and when it did occurred, it could have been easily addressed.