Even brilliant bosses should think twice about facilitating large groups

Did you see this Douglas Campbell article from The Guardian?

Apparently, some senior health service managers were “forced” to chant “we can do this” in a large group conference by an NHS Regional Director. The Director apparently asked them to chant louder, to “take the roof off” with the noise.

This left the managers, including CEOs of Trusts feeling “bullied, patronised and humiliated”. One said “it was awful – the worst meeting I’ve been at in my entire career”.

The Director has apologised: “If anyone found my session inappropriate I can only apologise – it was meant as light relief rather than brainwashing”

It strikes us as a sad tale all round.

The meeting clearly left a lot of people feeling bad. The Director’s relationship with the people concerned has very likely been damaged. That the incident has attracted press scrutiny is unwelcome to the NHS.

Yet at its heart this was a story of a senior man who is clearly very passionate about the NHS trying to lift the spirits of other senior colleagues. At heart, this was a well-intentioned intervention.

And that’s the point. There is so little room for misjudgement in large group events, especially when the agenda is difficult or politically charged.

Large groups of people can behave very oddly, as the whole field of organisational group dynamics reminds us. Everything a leader does, or does not do, in such an event is amplified. Groups will often react very strongly to what feel like insignificant or innocuous gestures on the part of the person leading a session.

That’s why it is important not to go into the design or facilitation of large group workshops unprepared.  And preparation is very different from planning:  the facilitators of such events need to be aware of large scale group dynamics, as well as having the ability – and confidence – to work live with the energy and mood of the event.

Sometimes the main job of a senior leader is to know when it isn’t your job to facilitate a meeting.

Even when you want to keep costs down, sometimes bringing in a large group specialist to design and facilitate your event is the best option. This should include preparation and briefing with any senior managers involved so that they can participate widely and with their eyes open.

Facilitating large groups is a specialist job.  Viewing it as something else can cost you more than money.