Academic journal article Group Facilitation

A Critical View of Facilitating Labor-Management Collaboration

Academic journal article Group Facilitation

A Critical View of Facilitating Labor-Management Collaboration

Article excerpt


Much of the collaborative rhetoric in the management field focuses on the synergy that can occur through the building of cross-functional teams-the creation of semiautonomous and autonomous work teams, and the participation of employee unions in management decisions via ownership or other power sharing arrangements. Each of these endeavors relies on some form of intra-organizational collaboration to coordinate the actions of employees. That coordination typically takes the form of meetings to the extent that organizational meetings "represent a primary means of communication and coordination within and across work units" (Niederman and Volkema, 1999, p 330). Team meetings, however, are fraught with potential problems:

An asymmetrical distribution of power (teams consisting of a mix of organizationally powerful and less powerful individuals) that leads to the domination of the powerful over the powerless even under the guise of seeking input and consensus. Consensus is the uncoerced agreement of all parties involved in a group decisionmaking process, whether task/project related or conflict related. Consensus does not assume perfect accord from the outset nor is it expedient agreement to end the process of evaluating alternate decision options. Rather, consensus is the agreement that results from a group's free, rational, uninfluenced and thorough consideration of alternative propositions.

Embedded hierarchical relations that impede the consensus process-for example, an organizational hierarchy that enables threatened middle managers to withhold or delay critical information or a decision process within the hierarchy so convoluted that joint initiatives are delayed or suppressed.

False consensus-a consensus based on intentionally or unintentionally distorted communication.

Unfortunately, as a result of these conditions, the outcome of many intra-organizational collaborations is a false consensus that too often results in alienation, distrust, and conflict. Avoiding and surmounting this problem by engaging in a critical dialogue is the primary focus of this paper. Creating the opportunity for such a dialogue is one of the great challenges facing facilitators.

Both the increasing demand for team-based decision making and the problems inherent in the team process have resulted in a need for group facilitators with highly developed skills. As important as skilled facilitators are, though, there is relatively little research on the "formal role of the organizational facilitator in preparing and executing meetings" (Niederman and Volkema, p. 330). Particularly lacking is research that would lead to useful guidelines for working facilitators.

Guidelines formulated specifically for facilitating consensual intra-organizational decision-making are hard to find. Perhaps one reason for this difficulty is because most of the research on consensual decision making (Destephen, 1983; Hill, 1976; Knutson, 1972; Knutson & Holdridge, 1975; Knutson & Kowitz, 1977) has relied on self-report measures of consensus gathered after a group has reached a decision. Moreover, even dynamic measures of consensus (Spillman, Bezdek, & Spillman, 1979) rely on self-report instruments administered while a group is making a decision. This line of research treats consensus as an important outcome of group discussion, but it does not directly examine how the process of discussion affects consensus. However, by applying a descriptive framework and a critical communication theory perspective to selected cases of labormanagement decision making, we derive and explicate a set of directives for facilitating consensual intra-organizational decision-making.


First, we establish the definitions of some terms common to facilitation that will be used throughout this discussion. These terms assume that consensual decision making often involves conflicts over tasks, processes, and other matters. …

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