swiss flag to signal neutrality

ROI Is in Improved Trust and Collective Intelligence Within the Team

This post is the 2nd in a series that dives into the Cornerstones of the Agile Team Facilitation Stance.

This element, Maintaining Neutrality, being the toughest to embrace and employ, is where we’ll begin. Ready?

The Maintaining Neutrality Concept

In its simplest terms, the role of a facilitator in a collaborative meeting is to bring an objective and unbiased view to a group process – so that all voices can be heard and that the team can access its collective intelligence.

One of the best ways to achieve this is for a facilitator to maintain neutrality by owning the process, of the meeting and let the participants own the content or topic.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it?

In theory, it is easy.  It’s dead simple.

In practice? No. Not easy.

Most agile teams have someone who steps into the role of facilitator to help guide the group through practices like team start-up, retrospectives, release planning, iteration planning, etc.

Because this person is often part of the team, in some way, they likely have an opinion about what the team is doing.  This can make it difficult, but not impossible, to actively achieve and maintain neutrality during the course of a meeting where the person acting as the facilitator has an opinion on the topic or content being discussed.

The cornerstones in the facilitation stanceThe cornerstones in the facilitation stance. See the first post in the series. 

Why You’d Want To Maintain Neutrality

True neutrality builds trust within the group.

It’s the subtle reflection to a team that they have the wisdom needed to find the right solution or path. 

Neutrality is free from judgment about good or bad, right or wrong. And there is an openness in neutrality that makes room for more than one truth and more than one solution.

So, with more trust within a team, comes more effectiveness, better solutions…and more options.

With more trust, comes more confidence for each member in the group as a whole. With more trust comes improved solutions, velocity, and an ease and eagerness to continue the momentum.

Facilitators: a Part of The Team, Yet Apart From The Team

Team leaders or agile coaches are often part of the team, in some way.

On occasion, they may even have a stake in the outcome of the meeting.

This is at the heart of what makes maintaining neutrality difficult.

Neutrality offers the gift of “not knowing” and being able to take a different perspective, to see another way, to dance in the space of not knowing. 

As a Facilitator’s Work Is Different

Presence and awareness for the way the group is proceeding through the agenda or problem at hand is the facilitator’s domain.

In many groups, a leader may, instead, get caught up in offering solutions to the content being presented, rather than staying curious and asking questions of the group.

Why Does This Happen?

There’s a myth, based in fear, about being perceived as not contributing value in the facilitator position. Often unspoken, there’s a belief in many individuals that they can only bring value to a group by contributing verbally or sharing their opinions or suggestions on the topic.

Some individuals equate neutrality with passivity.

Neither of These Fear-Based Beliefs Are True

The work of a facilitator or leader is different. It’s active, but the active attention is on asking questions and trusting the group to provide their answers. You’re also watching for hidden dynamics in the group and you’re more focused on inquiring, staying with curiosity and inviting participants to dig deeper for more and better of themselves.

An Example

A facilitator has just taken the group through an exercise. There are large sheets, scribed with details and feedback from the exercise, hanging on the wall. Everyone takes a breath and reviews all of the content on the sheets.

The Facilitator’s Immediate Instinct?

Perhaps it is to summarize what she sees, which comes from a place of knowing, instead of a place of inquiry.


Perhaps – as a content owner, but the facilitator is the process owner.

A neutral tack would be to ask: “What do you see?

Subtle? Yes.  
Powerful? Definitely.

Shifting your focus from the topic or content, or what the group is working on,  to the process, or how the group is working.

The value you bring is in owning the process and in holding the space so the group can do its best work.

Minding The Inherent Power in Leading

Teams can be greatly influenced by a slight comment or over-attention to one idea over another. When you’re trying to pay attention to the content in the process, there’s a danger you’re missing what is happening inside of the process.

Fully standing in the space of neutrality says to a group “I’m your ‘sherpa.’ I’ll guide you up this mountain, there is a specific process we will follow. And in the end, you’ll get to do the work.”

What else? You may not be entirely sure you can maintain neutrality in your group. But given the payoff of improved group trust, that shouldn’t stop you from trying it out.

From The Field

Having taught facilitation to many leaders and coaches, this is the one guiding principle, where I notice the most immediate resistance and push back.

It gets right at the heart of how we traditionally feel we add value in a conversation. It can also be greatly influenced by the culture in the organization and how people are rewarded. This is also the principle that most everyone will say to me at the end of a three-day course ‘I never realized how important or valuable it is to be a neutral facilitator – but I totally get it now’.

Offering advice or jumping too quickly to problem-solving for a team increases their dependence on a facilitator. It sends a subtle and unstated message that says  “I don’t think you’re capable of this…”.  Over time, it undermines the confidence of the team to access and voice their collective intelligence.

Maintaining neutrality is about putting your own ego aside. We can easily fall into a trap of believing that the only way to provide value to a team is to problem solve for them.

My First Time as a Facilitator

The first time I facilitated a group of 25 people I was scared to death. My fears were about wanting to be prepared, wanting the meeting to go well, wanting to provide value, wanting to show my expertise.

I could probably continue that list of fears, but you might notice the theme of my fears were all about me. So I spent quite a bit of my preparation time mapping out a detailed plan, having a back-up plan for every possible event, and doing my homework on the topic so I was knowledgeable about some of the issues that might come up as questions (so I could have an answer).

I have been practicing facilitation for 22 years. I have strong beliefs in the power of collective intelligence and the benefits of not letting my own opinions get in the way of being able to hear the collective voice of the group and yet there are still times when I want someone else to hold the process so I can fully be in the content.

Favorite Exercise

You can easily provide contrast and share the work of facilitation by rotating other team members into the role of owning the process.

By rotating, each person will notice the need to pay attention to so many different things:

  • Individual dynamics
  • System dynamics
  • Interpersonal communications
  • Watching for who are stepping forward to participate and who are withdrawing, or stepping back
  • Group awareness
  • The difference between what’s being said, and what isn’t.
  • Looking for signs & indicators that we just bumped into the elephant in the room – are we really ignoring that?

These are the subtle yet critical elements, the work, a facilitator maintains in order to hold the space for their group. So the group can focus deeply on the content and dig for their solutions with more trust.

Internal Assumptions and BeliefsPractices
  • I am active and engaged (not passive)
  • I own the process, they own the content
  • I add value by reflecting back to the group what’s actually happening
  • I am open minded and see value in all voices
  • Polarities in opinions offer opportunities to find common ground
  • I am vested in helping the group achieve their desired outcomes
  • Critique about the group process is not a critique about who I am  
  • Say what you see, in a factual, non-judgmental way
  • Take a systems perspective
  • Bridge competing ideas
  • Listen for the 2% common ground
  • Offer ideas with no attachment to the outcome
  • Inquire by asking powerful questions
  • Seek to understand and deepen the group’s understanding
Not Neutral –
Driving your Content
  • I am valuable because of my superior capability, experience, or insight
  • The group will make the wrong decision if I don’t add my experience
  • I can’t facilitate because I am too biased and have too much at stake
  • My value is determined by my ability to add value to these discussions
  • Neutrality means to be passive, so if I can’t offer my opinion, I won’t say anything
  • Using your positional authority of leading the meeting to contribute your idea
  • Commenting positively on contributions made by some and not by others
  • Disregarding input from those who don’t align with your thinking
  • Allowing your design to reinforce biases (i.e., only hearing from those who like to talk)
  • Over contributing content

Starting the Practice:

In a collaborative meeting, try on 100% content-neutral facilitation.

No matter what’s being said or presented, you step into your own leadership of the process, not the content. You are clear about the outcomes for the meeting and your focus remains on HOW the group is working.

It’s the participants who own the content, the suggestions, solutions and decisions.

Another strategy is to partner with another facilitator, not on your team, to co-design and co-lead the session. It’s a great way to learn facilitation and have someone who can see places where you might have slipped out of neutrality.

After the meeting, get feedback from your team on the impact the meeting had on them individually and their overall objectives. You can ask them to write the answers to these on a card as they are leaving the room or create a quick web-based survey after the session.

You might ask questions like:

  • Overall, how did the meeting go?
  • Did the team accomplish the outcomes it needed?
  • What was effective about the meeting process? (not content)
  • What was not being discussed in the meeting, but maybe needed to be?

Developing the Practice:

There’s a natural progression, an unfolding, in developing your own version of neutrality. The key to developing neutrality is building your self-awareness and self-management about how you show up in leading a meeting.

Consider using the same tools you utilize in leading a group and ask questions of yourself. And have patience; developing this practice is like building a muscle. You will grow and improve over time.

In a collaborative meeting, when a desire to jump in arises, ask yourself

  • Why do I want to offer content?
  • Am I trying to elevate my position in the group?
  • Do I have a different perspective? If so, can you inquire from the group if anyone has a different perspective?
  • What could be a consequence of jumping out of the process and into the content?

Another great practice is journaling and self-reflection after a meeting. Make notes of where you wanted to jump out of the process and over to content. What was behind that desire? When do you get triggered by topics or patterns in how the group works? What biases do you bring to the team you are working with?

Mastering the Practice:

Again, more questions than answers in mastering the practice. Consider documenting the following answers for your organization:

  • How would you define your stance on neutrality?
  • What are the circumstances where you might provide content?
  • How do you provide the content so it’s clear to both you and the team that you are stepping out of neutrality?
  • When might you hand a process over to someone else in the meeting?

Can You Ever Get “Good Enough” To Hold Both Roles?

It depends on the complexity and the importance of the meeting, overall. There are times & places where you can do both, hold both roles.

One group I work with, over time, they’ve gone to full neutrality and are now moving closer to center – each team member is finding their own version of what neutrality means and when they offer their opinion or perspective. As you grow the practice, you’ll find a natural cadence and volume for how much content you may bring in vs. owning the process & maintaining 100% neutrality.

No matter what balance you find, always be clear about boundaries of the hats you are wearing and be sure to make it transparent for both you and the team.

No matter what, going forward, it’s the organic development of what works best for the group/organization at hand is what will bring each participant to a deeper level of trust in the group.

That deeper level of trust is where traction & buy-in lives with all participants in a team.

And we’re rooting for you to get there.

In the next post we’ll cover the cornerstone of Standing in the Storm. Be sure to stay tuned here or on LinkedIn so you won’t miss it.

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