Depth Insights – Executive Team Building

Experience has taught me the following important things about using depth facilitation to building teams at the executive level:

The stakes are high

Executive team members have a lot to lose, ranging from losing a well-paid position, to losing the respect of their colleagues, to losing face in front of a leader. As the facilitator, I need to be aware of the risks they face, and not be driven primarily by my own need to perform, or achieve a certain outcome.

Members carry a large burden of responsibility

Members of executive teams carry significant organisational responsibilities, and so much of their available energy (“headspace”) is already allocated. They may not be receptive to the onerous nature of depth engagements with their fellow executive team members. They will need some convincing about the benefits of devoting emotional energy to deeper conversations with the team, and so the process of building their trust in me as a facilitator is critical. As the facilitator, I need to exercise the metaskill or attitude of being of service to the group, and avoid being critical of their reticence.

Vulnerability is necessary to improve the group dynamics

The dynamics, or more particularly, the psychodynamics of organisational teams can either obstruct or enable their effectiveness. However, psychodynamics only improve when the team members become aware of them, and are able to consider and discuss their own contribution to dysfunctional patterns of engagement. This necessitates individual vulnerability. People can only become vulnerable if they feel emotionally supported and safe. As the facilitator, my role is to create a holding environment of emotional support, never rushing or judging, but rather nudging and encouraging the group to have the deeper and more difficult conversations.

But, the power dynamics can block authenticity

And of course, for executives to be vulnerable, they need to not only feel safe with the facilitator, but also with their fellow team members, as the political stakes are likely to be high. If the power dynamics are unbalanced, or not all the participants are in good faith, then it could be harmful to encourage vulnerability. If there is great resistance to having more authentic and vulnerable conversations, it may be that it is genuinely too risky to open up. Having detailed interviews with team members before the team session may help the facilitator to identify potentially dangerous power dynamics. If these exist, the best course of action is to avoid individual exposure, and settle for a safe, although sadly not transformative, outcome for the session.

Don’t unmask team members

Depth work should always be voluntary. We have masks for good reasons, and those masks are often essential for survival. Whatever the reason for the mask, it is never my job as the facilitator to unmask an individual. Rather, what’s required is the delicate task of gently making someone aware of the nature and impact of their dysfunctional behaviour. The facilitator needs to remember that often destructive behaviours were learnt in an environment where they seemed to be the only functional response. As children, we learn what to do to survive best, and sometimes later, our strategies are inappropriate in a healthier environment. The real work is to help someone feel sufficiently supported and understood so that they will risk showing what lies underneath their defenses.

The leader sets the level of depth

Finally, the leader’s willingness and ability to do depth work sets the example for the rest of the team. If the leader is unable or unwilling to show vulnerability, the rest of the team will likely follow suit. This means that it is necessary for the facilitator to build a good relationship with the leader before the session, and ensure that the leader is fully informed about the requirements of successful depth work. The leader needs some warning about the possible pitfalls of deeper conversations, and needs to know that the facilitator will be equally supportive and neutral to everyone in the team.

Facilitation Skills Training in Prince Albert


Offered by Helene Smit of Feather Learning (Pty) Ltd, in association with the Depth Leadership Trust:

Facilitation Skills 1

18th-21st June 2013

This course is designed to introduce participants to facilitation and equip them with a comprehensive understanding of the role, metaskills, skills and tasks of a facilitator in organisational and group settings.

Participants will develop a solid and rigorous theoretical foundation from which to begin work as a facilitator. They will be equipped with the essential skills required to run group processes, particularly concentrating on helping a group to achieve its agreed upon goals. After attending the course, the participant will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the role of facilitation in organisational processes
  • Identify the main theoretical perspectives out of which facilitation has emerged
  • Understand and apply the differences between the roles of a facilitator, a leader, a chairperson and a participant
  • Understand the basic frameworks underlying the various schools of clinical and organisational psychology and how to use variables of each to manage human behaviour
  • Understand the main differences between individual and group behaviour
  • Practise techniques for managing their own psychological responses to facilitation situations
  • Begin to develop the metaskills required to facilitate effectively
  • Develop their communication skills with a particular emphasis on the ability to listen and use appropriate verbal skills.
  • Apply basic facilitation skills
  • Embrace the professionalism and ethics required to function effectively and with integrity as a facilitator
  • Understand the main tasks of a facilitator
  • Ensure that groups achieve their objectives during meetings, workshops or other group sessions
  • Use a range of facilitation aids
  • Understand how to document a facilitated session.

Facilitation Skills 2

16-19th July 2013

This course follows on from Facilitation Skills 1 and teaches the skills of working with both “on the surface processes” and “beneath the surface processes” in groups. The participant will develop the skills required to safely bring underlying issues to the surface and to assist the group to resolve these issues. In particular, the participant will develop the ability to:

  • Understand the idea of the group “psyche”, or the group-as-a-whole
  • Understand the nature of group processes, and the relationship between on the surface and under the surface processes
  • Help groups to explore under the surface processes in a constructive way
  • Help groups to identify, interpret and draw meaning from the group dynamics and associated processes
  • Understand power dynamics in groups and how to facilitate in the face of power differences.
  • Identify and work with group roles and archetypes during group processes
  • Understand how to identify and work with a variety of signals in a group
  • Work with group leaders and the role of leadership in groups
  • Understand the scapegoating process in groups and have the skills to assist groups to avoid scapegoating
  • Understand the impact of diversity issues in groups and use appropriate facilitation skills
  • Understand the nature of conflict processes in groups and have the skills to assist groups to resolve conflict

Venue, Bookings and Cost

The courses will be run in the small town of Prince Albert which is situated on the edge of the Great Karoo at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains. The cost for each course is R5700 including VAT. This cost does not include accommodation. A variety of accommodation options are available at affordable rates.  To find out more, or make a booking contact us at 0235411114, or email Helene at

Upcoming facilitation workshops

Helene Smit and The South African College of Applied Psychology


Facilitation Skills 1: 22nd – 25th November 2011 

Facilitation Skills 2: 24th-27th January 2012

These two four day courses follow on from one another and are designed to teach participants how to ensure effective group functioning, and if needed, effective group transformation. Facilitation 1 teaches the core skills of group facilitation and how to manage yourself as a facilitator. Facilitation 2 teaches how to manage under the surface group processes.

More details are given in the links to the brochures below. (If you have any difficulty opening these, please let me know and I will email them to you:

Facilitation 1 brochure

Facilitation 2 brochure