How to Be a Facilitative Leader

A woman leads a discussion with a group of people. They are looking at a wall with multi-colored sticky notes. Image by Paul Voulgaris © Hailey Group 2022

Image by Paul Voulgaris © Hailey Group 2022


Visual Thinking Strategies might sound like it has something to do with drawing or visual design, but it’s actually a discussion method born from the art world that can help teams have deeper, more meaningful conversation and collaboration

We talked with Dabney Hailey, founder and principal of Hailey Group, about the Visual Thinking Strategies (or VTS) method, why it works, how to bring elements of it into your daily practice, and why leaders should shift to the facilitative leadership style this method teaches. Here are six takeaways from our conversation. Listen to the episode on IDEO U’s Creative Confidence Podcast to experience a short demo of the VTS method and hear more from Dabney.


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1. Facilitative leadership is about asking the right questions, not having the answers.

“No one leader can know as much as a group of people who can listen to each other.” — Dabney Hailey

Facilitative leadership is a modern approach focused on unlocking your team’s potential—a shift from a more traditional and authoritative leadership style. Success is about enabling others to do their best work by asking the right questions, not having all the answers. Facilitative leaders are good at framing work as a learning process for their teams, stepping back, and holding space for others. Try using this question VTS facilitators rely on to invite inquiry and participation: What more can we find?


2. Comfort with ambiguity leads to better outcomes.

“If we want people to think more deeply, be more innovative, hear each other, then we have to keep them looking and thinking and not landing yet.” — Dabney Hailey

VTS has been taught within medical education for almost twenty years. Studies show it helps doctors and nurses develop comfort with ambiguity, enabling them to explore multiple options longer and decrease misdiagnosis by removing the urge to have an answer quickly.


3. Thinking together is a productive act.

“You can speed things up by making everyone on the team feel they belong and they matter.” — Dabney Hailey

We tend to value productivity and action over pause. This bias toward action often leads to skipping over behaviors like deep listening. But conversation and discussion are not less valuable than “doing.” If you designate a note taker for a VTS session, Dabney says you’ll usually end up with lots of action items and next steps. We’re just not used to behaving in this way, so it takes time to reframe the value of discussion. Take a moment to go slow in order to go fast.


4. Withhold judgment, both good and bad.

“Listen to understand, and that’s it. It sounds so simple but it’s really hard.” — Dabney Hailey

We all know saying “eh, bad idea” in a brainstorm can kill the energy in the room. But “great idea!” is also a form of judgment. As a leader, it can be difficult to withhold your opinion, but in doing so you create the opportunity for your team to share more deeply. In VTS, withholding judgment leads to participants sharing in order to engage with each other—not to please the moderator. Try out a few different go-to phrases and reactions in lieu of “great idea.” “Thank you” works well, as does paraphrasing what you heard and using conditional language to keep the idea open. Try seeking evidence by asking “What do you see that makes you say that?”


5. Encourage equal participation by clarifying the process and roles.

“We become hyper aware through VTS what it means to really be heard, how much we like it, and how wonderful it is to access our colleagues’ thinking.” — Dabney Hailey

It’s easy to let more vocal folks take center stage, but it’s the leader’s responsibility to offer the opportunity for equal participation. You can do this by clarifying your role and that of the participants right at the beginning. Start the meeting by outlining the kinds of behaviors you’re expecting. It often comes down to confidence—being brave enough to experience some tension for the good of the group.

Put your own spin on this script Dabney shared: “This is an important problem. It’s my role to help us move through this meeting. I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks, so let’s create space for everyone to share. Forgive me if I interrupt at any point, but it’s in the best interest of the group.”


About the Speaker

Dabney Hailey Founder & Principal, Hailey Group

After fifteen years as an art museum curator, Dabney founded Hailey Group, a consulting firm bringing a research-based discussion method used in the art, healthcare, and education worlds—Visual Thinking Strategies—into organizational development and leadership. She works with companies from Fortune 500s to nonprofits across a range of industries (IT, financial services, retail, design and others). Her firm helps clients meet fundamental organizational goals, such as developing great leaders, creating a genuinely collaborative culture, and inculcating strategic and innovative mindsets. She is deeply motivated by the transformative possibilities of art experiences—particularly when we look and think together—to help us improve how we relate to one another and tackle our toughest challenges.

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