Some time ago, I was running a workshop on leadership for charity bosses. During the conversation, one of the participants told us about the time when her charity lost a big government contract. It had to lose over half its staff. At the time, they worked in two rooms: a large, airy one and a smaller rather more dingy one. The reduction in workforce gave her no choice but to locate everyone in the smaller room.
The weekend before the Monday that the move was due to take place, she and her husband and children went to the smaller office, redecorated it, put posters up on the wall, and put a flower on every person’s desk.
Rarely does one come across such a literal expression of the phrase ‘facilitating environment’, but here was this manager—let’s call her a leader—doing the best with the space and time she had to make the environment in which her remaining staff were to work as conducive as possible to a positive attitude.
In other words she was creating the best physical environment she could: one which would facilitate the best performance from the team.
Creating a ‘facilitating environment’ is a key component of leadership. And, because I suggest leadership is an approach, an attitude, rather than a job description, it is something any and everyone in the team can contribute to.
The point of developing and nurturing a facilitating environment in the workplace is that it is the approach more likely to encourage (ie, facilitate) the success of the individual, of the team and of the enterprise than any other approach.
There is certainly a physical component. People have to have comfortable chairs that support their bodies, natural light, a view out of the window or at least a decent picture or two on the wall, adequate desk and storage space, adequate recreational space—even if it is only somewhere to make coffee and tea and get water. Some thought should have been given to the decor and to the artificial light that will be needed in winter.
Mostly, however, the facilitating environment is about the way that people work together. This is likely to change from team to team, and from time to time in any one team’s life. However, there are some general points which must surely apply to any well-led team:
The leader discourages a blame culture. People should take responsibility and learn whatever they need to from situations that don’t go well. It goes without saying that a leader accepts responsibility when appropriate. Apportioning blame to others is always about making oneself better than the other person; whilst some people find this entertaining, it does the team and the enterprise on which it is engaged not a jot of good.
The leader is always accessible, and makes sure everyone else is, too. Of course, that does not condone constant interruptions: work and time should be planned and managed properly.
The leader adopts a coaching approach with his or her colleagues and encourages them to do the same. Telling people what to do (whilst appropriate in some situations, such as a battlefield or operating theatre) places them in a dependent position.
Leaders do their best to ensure that their colleagues have the resources they need to do the job.
With a fellow manager, I once worked for a senior manager in Marks and Spencer. His frequently stated position was that he acted as an “umbrella”, keeping the rest of the business off our backs. Given the very politically sensitive nature of the project we were working on, this was both necessary and much appreciated.
Leaders foster relationships with their colleagues which go beyond the mundane nuts and bolts of the job in hand. They consciously extend the scope of their relationships with them to encompass their interests outside work, their lives and families, to the extent that the colleagues are willing to share this information (most of them are).
That senior manager in M&S (previous paragraph) used to do a “ward round” every afternoon he was in the office. He would go to each group of tables and chat to the people working there. Never about business (if a conversation about business were needed it deserved a proper meeting), but about the weather, or sport, or the news, or just the view out of the window. Tiny little acts in themselves but, repeated over months, they created strong bonds of loyalty.
Leaders encourage everyone else to do the same.
Ultimately leaders create leaders by showing by example. (And gently nudging those colleagues who don’t always get it.)
At bottom, the facilitating environment is the outward manifestation of the leader; the projection of his or her personality and work ethos.
The “facilitating environment” is a rather clunky term (and not the only one) coined by the paediatric psychiatrist, DW Winnicott. It refers to the context or environment which a “good enough” mother is able to create for her baby to live and grow in; the idea being that this is sufficient in itself to facilitate the baby’s maturation. Note that neither the mother, nor the environment she creates, can do the maturation for the child. Note, too, that the child only needs the mother to be “good enough” (another Winnicott term), though “good enough” does include the word “good” and not the word “rubbish”.
However, as the child grows, so the environment becomes less and less significant and eventually falls away. A mother with a number children of different ages has to juggle different facilitating environments for the different children: the sort of thing which, if she were actually aware of what she was doing, she would probably become so self-conscious that she’d drop the babies.
The parallels with project management are immediately clear, surely. The facilitating environment in work is the outward manifestation of the leader, just as in the family it is the outward manifestation of the mother’s capacity for nurture. The leader only has to be “good enough”, too:
(a) perfectionism is eithe a block to prevent the individual moving forward (“I can’t go onto the next thing, because I haven’t got this one right, yet”) or an expression of the individual’s over-weening belief that they are always right
(b) most businesses only need a good enough performance most of the time.
Ultimately, if a team were stable for long enough, one can imagine the leader’s involvement diminishing as the team got better and better. In reality, teams aren’t that stable for long periods, so this never happens.
A leader is best when people barely know he exists;
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him;
worst when they despise him;
but a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say ‘We did it ourselves!’
(Lao-Tzu, C6BCE, Tao te ching, ch 17)
But, in principle, just as mothers create people (all of whom having the capacity to be parents), so leaders create leaders.
> Leadership guide [all articles on this site on leadership]
> What do managers who are leaders do… [the key article]
> Purpose and outcomes
> The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (DW Winnicott, Hogarth Press, 1965) [this is a specialist psychology book, but still approachable by the lay reader]
by Jeremy Marchant . © 2016 Jeremy Marchant Limited . uploaded 27 august 2015, last edited 7 july 2016. image: Free images
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