Facilitative Leadership and the Middle Manager’s Relationships

By Oliver W. Cummings


Skillful Facilitative Management: The Core Leadership Competence

What makes a successful leader? I believe that skillful facilitative management is the core leadership competence a manager needs to lead a team to succeed in business today.

Much of the literature on facilitative management focuses on facilitation skills such as establishing agendas, communication skills, rapport building, structuring and recording meeting outputs, effective questioning. Facilitation skills are important, but they are not management. I think that management skill is the critical skill. Facilitative[1] is a qualifying word describing the approach to management taken.

The facilitative manager makes it easier for employees to succeed in their roles, easier for the unit to operate in the context of the parent organization, and easier, in the end, for executive management to support the unit’s plans

The ultimate goal of the facilitative leader is to achieve a client-centered business and employee-centered management. This goal can only be achieved through relationships, and the strongest relationships are built through facilitative behaviors.

A manager who authentically has and displays a facilitative mind-set will enjoy better work relationships and, consequently, higher levels of employee loyalty and productivity in the unit. The potential rewards are great, not just in improved leadership performance, but more importantly in renewed excitement and enjoyment in the process of work itself.

A facilitative manager is better able to get things done through others—the ultimate duty of the manager. The manager will best accomplish this goal by moving business relationships higher on the Manager’s Relationship Pyramid described below.

Manager’s Relationship Hierarchy

A model, my colleague, Virginia Blackwell[2], and I developed illustrates the levels of relationship that can be developed between middle managers and their business associates—executive management, clients, peers and subordinates. There are many benefits to the manager who develops a facilitative mind-set that fosters moving relationships up the pyramid. At every step up in level of the pyramid, interactions with others are richer and, therefore, more enjoyable. Strong, positive relationships make work a lot more fun!

For maximum effectiveness the manager’s goal should be to develop relationships to the highest possible level in the hierarchy. The strongest relationships enable the leader-manager to realize the big-ticket management outcomes for the unit: high productivity, responsible risk-taking, adapting to change.


 At the lowest level of the hierarchy, relationships are simply a matter of acknowledgement based on position. The employees acknowledge that the manager has the positional authority, for example, to make an assignment. All relationships for new employees begin at the acknowledgement level of the relationship hierarchy.

The manager’s goal should be to quickly move the relationship beyond this base level. This level inspires compliance, but falls short of inspiring commitment to the unit or organization. A relationship that gets stuck at this level yields an employee who has little respect for the manager, but feels compelled to follow orders.

Recognition and Acceptance

As the manager demonstrates competence, business relationships move up the hierarchy to recognition and acceptance. Here, the manager must demonstrate competence in a number of areas: for example, technical ability, interpersonal skills, project management expertise and general business knowledge.

As an employee observes competence in the manager, the employee is much more likely to take on some level of ownership over the work activities involved in carrying out an assignment. Conversely, to the extent a manager is perceived to be less than technically or interpersonally competent or less skilled in project management or business in general, employees will accept less overall responsibility as a defensive measure to protect themselves from potential project failure.


The next level of relationship, trust, is a complex and critical pivot-point in the relationship hierarchy. The development and maintenance of trust is essential in order to achieve higher levels of relationship. Trust is based on the perception of the manager’s integrity. Trust cannot be built on competence alone. Competence is a prerequisite, but integrity allows others to believe that the manager will act consistently and fairly in any situation. Trust takes time to develop, must be constantly tended—and any betrayal of trust is very difficult to repair.

Facilitative behaviors begin to make a significant difference at the trust level of the hierarchy. A facilitative manager believes that employees want to act in the best interests of the organization. The manager who has internalized a facilitative mind-set demonstrates trust towards others and is rewarded with trust in return.

At this level, the manager has more reliable information on which to make judgments because subordinates trust the manager to hear the truth.


Confidence, the next level in the hierarchy, results from the fair use and exercise of power and judgment. To the extent that confidence is more highly accrued to the manager, there will likely be a greater alignment of individual, unit, and organizational goals and consequently more productive use of energies all around.

An employee may trust the manager but not have confidence in the manager’s ability to employ power and judgment. For example, a manager may be trusted personally, but be perceived to be ineffective on behalf of the employee because of weak reporting relationships or reputation within the organization.

Facilitative behaviors become critical at this level of the hierarchy. Confidence does not develop in isolation. It grows to the extent that the manager demonstrates a deep respect for the opinions of others and a belief in shared decision-making. The facilitative manager finds implementing a decision and managing the change process easier because he or she involves key stakeholders in choosing a course of action and builds support for the new direction from the outset.

Mutual Commitment

Finally, if the manager exhibits consistently facilitative behavior, the highest level of the pyramid can be reached: mutual commitment. The end-game in this level of relationship is true shared goals that address both business and individual needs.

Mutual commitment requires a vulnerability on the part of the manager that could never be possible without mutual trust and confidence built up over time. The employee, by virtue of their position, is vulnerable to the manager, but the manager in a mutually committed relationship is also vulnerable to the employee through their interdependence. Each has the other’s back. Mutual commitment yields the best of working relationships.

How is mutuality of interests expressed in your organization?

Can you describe a manager who has achieved a high level of relationship or been stuck at a level and was seemingly unable to move up the hierarchy?

Does the overall relationship hierarchy make sense to you? How should the idea be refined?

[1] Facilitative: to make easier : help bring about. Retrieved 1/15/2020 at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/facilitative.

[2] Virginia Blackwell, President of 10 o’clock, inc., is a seasoned, independent communications consultant, offering consulting and writing services in strategic planning, communications assessments and marketing.

Reader Interactions


  1. Bill says

    Considering the eagerness of emerging leaders to take on more responsibility and move into the rank of middle management, how long is the typical journey up the pyramid? Months? Years?

    • Oliver says

      Thanks, Bill. You ask a good question with no definitive answer. As I see it, the journey for the facilitative manager is dependent on two main factors:
      First, the more naturally inclined the leader is to be genuine with others, to be focused on important business issues, to be a supporter, to be open and exhibit integrity, the faster relationships can be formed.
      Second, every person that is on the other side of the relationship with the manager is different. The more open and proactively competent that other person behaves in the relationship the faster the journey can develop.
      The timing for moving up in the relationship hierarchy differs and some reasonably successful business relationships do not progress beyond the trust level. However, the most successful relationships are at the top of the hierarchy and these develop through a lot of mutual experience.

      • Bill Welter says

        So, it would seem to me that the speed of the rise to the top of the pyramid would be (is) hampered by living in a virtual world. Face-to-face dealings would seem to be better. Agree?

        • Oliver says

          Having worked with virtual teams in two organizations (both in the early 2000’s to the mid teens, so the technologies to support such teams was pretty good), I can say that it was well worth the cost, time and effort to hold in person team meetings on a regular basis. In one of the teams, there were regular group meetings using online, twoway video and audio and an annual meeting. The work was pretty distributed, so individual contribution was the most important part of the work and group or paired efforts were minimized. I found this group to be less integrated and, frankly less effective than the other team. The second team was involved in content and technology development function and the core group, which was all located in the same city, but in with no common offices, met on a regular basis and sometimes spontaneously to deal with specific emerging issues. In addition, I and the rest of the team met on a quarterly basis face to face, and of course regularly in conference calls or video chats in between. This team was very engaged in the strategic planning for the group and the products under development and was very effective in problem solving as the various projects progressed. So, short answer, yes face to face time is important, since that is the way to know a person viscerally in addition to intellectually. However, the relationships at the top of the hierarchy can be built to strong levels in a virtual team, albeit a more complex problem in that environment and can depend, in part on team factors, such as project interdependence, need for creative solutions to problems, and so on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *