Think of the last time you had a dinner party. Perhaps your spouse invited the boss and his family and now you’re faced with figuring out the menu. You ask your spouse what to serve, and he or she says, “It doesn’t matter, you decide and I’ll be fine with that.” Okay, you’ve been given authority. So you make a decision to have steaks cooked on the grill and you’re about to head to the market to buy the meat when your spouse says, ever so gently, “You know, the boss is a vegetarian.” Your authority to make a decision has gone right out the window. Your spouse’s boss has power to call the shots even without being party to the discussion, simply by virtue of being the keeper of your spouse’s job. And so, based on your spouse’s influence, you opt for a vegetable lasagna and green salad instead. You could, in fact, put your foot down and say, “We’re having steaks – it’s too hot to turn on the oven,” but you know that even though you have the right to make that call, it’s not in your best interest to do so. And so is born the power-authority-influence conundrum – who’s really in charge?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a small committee meeting to plan a single special event at your workplace or getting stakeholders together to discuss a multimillion dollar community development project, the dynamics required to achieve success depend in large part on who does or doesn’t come to the table to take part in the discussion. A good facilitator will try to assess who holds the power, authority, and influence in the group that he or she is facilitating, but without the right people at the table, it may be difficult to facilitate the group to a successful conclusion. I’m measuring success, of course, by the ability to achieve the objectives set forth by the group.
Power, authority, and influence are very different things and although some individuals or entities that make up your planning group may fall into more than one category, chances are good that most will land squarely in one and only one. Over the life of any project or meeting, players may even shift from one category to another depending on the specific issue on the table at the time.
Skillful facilitation requires recognition of who falls into what category and then using that knowledge to help achieve the objectives of the group overall.
Authority gives someone the ability to sign off on and take responsibility for various decisions. This person might seem to be the most important player at the table because he or she has the right to make decisions, but that’s rarely the case in actual practice. The person with real power may be the one who holds the pursestrings or some other valuable resource, without which the project cannot be completed. Unfortunately, sometimes that person or entity realizes the strength of their position and uses it as a bludgeon to get their way, in effect holding the authority figure hostage so that he or she must make the decision the power figure desires, regardless of whether it is good business to do so. But that’s where influence comes in. Influence might be exerted by a single individual (for example, the person who was the founding father of a program or place, which causes people to listen and consider what he has to say before making a decision). Or it might be exerted by a stakeholder group such as consumers, supporters, or friends. In either case, influence may sway the course of a decision depending on how persuasive the argument becomes.
Ideally, these three individuals or entities will work together to arrive at consensus or general agreement about how to proceed in any given situation. A good facilitator can help that happen, but if one or more of the three groups (or individuals within those groups) simply refuses to participate or cooperate, be prepared for a project to stall or end without achieving its objectives. To avoid that situation, think ahead about the individuals or groups that should be invited to meetings and at what time in the process to create the most desirable discussion and decision-making environments. Crafting the right team and keeping all members of that team engaged at critical points along the way is vital to success.