Some Pitfalls for Action Learning Facilitators — and How to Avoid Them

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    I have facilitated Action Learning groups for several decades and taught others to facilitate, as well. While there are numerous pitfalls that action learning facilitators can fall into, here are some of the most common, especially among new facilitators. Each of the pitfalls can detract from the participation and responsibilities of members in the Action Learning group. Each usually occurs because facilitators mistake their own needs for those of the members. Near the end of this post, I share my ideas for avoiding or recovering from these pitfalls. I encourage you to share your ideas, as well.

    Refuge In the Role of Expert

    There is tremendous inertia among new facilitators to fall back on the “expert” role, which shores up the facilitator’s confidence, but too often cultivates passivity among group members. Usually, a facilitator is perceived as an expert during the training about the Action Learning process. Therefore, it is natural for members to continue to perceive the facilitator as sharing wisdom from a training role — a role that can inadvertently cripple the success of the facilitation when it should be bringing out the wisdom of the group.

    Hijacking the Action Learning

    Similarly, it is very seductive to begin padding the Action Learning process with seemingly small and incremental “assignments” which, while shoring up the confidence of the facilitator, also insidiously mutate the Action Learning process into a traditional instructor-led training program. For example, consider an Action Learning program designed to resolve a complex issue in an organization. The new facilitator might have read various articles about a certain new organizational change model that seems very interesting to the facilitator, but that the client and sponsor insist are not compatible with the nature and needs of the organization. Still, the facilitator assigns the model to the group members.

    Rescuer Syndrome

    This occurs when a facilitator succumbs to the urge to “rescue” a group member who is struggling with a particularly difficult issue. This can occur especially when the struggling member is considering thoughtful questions posed by other group members in a meeting. On those occasions, the facilitator might mistake the struggle to be the result of the failings of his facilitation, the Action Learning process, or of other group members. So the facilitator might rescue a member by asking very leading questions or even answering the questions for the member.

    Loses Love for Learning

    Sometimes a new facilitator also takes refuge in using the same, very comfortable techniques and tools. For example, the facilitator finds a particular set of coaching questions to be especially comfortable and so he consistently asserts that set for the group members. Perhaps Hughes, in Pedler’s “Action Learning in Practice” (p. 109), puts it best, “If and when I begin to … become expert, thinking `I’m getting competent/good/slick at this Action Learning set advising business’ then I think it will be time for me to stop, for certainly, my own learning will have stopped then.”

    Abandoning Group Wisdom

    It is natural for facilitators to have bad days — days when it is very difficult to feel centered when facilitating. On those occasions, it is also natural to sense issues in the group where those issues might not even exist. For example, because the facilitator is feeling especially irritable or impatient, he might conclude that members need to “go deeper” in their questioning. He might interrupt them to insist that they do a better job of questioning because “there’s a deeper level that you’re not reaching yet.”

    Some Suggested Practices to Address These Pitfalls

    The following practices can help facilitators and group members to avoid, or address, all of these pitfalls.

    1. When training group members about Action Learning, empower members to regularly share questions and opinions about the quality of the a) Action Learning program, b) facilitation, c) resources/articles, d) meetings, and e) individual results.
    2. Build time in each meeting for members to share their opinions and reflections about the above aspects.
    3. Build intentional and systematic program evaluations near the middle and end of the program, that ask about the quality of the above aspects.
    4. When training about Action Learning, also clarify the differences between the roles of the trainer and facilitator, and when each role is best used.
    5. When training group members, show them examples of when the facilitator’s intervention is helpful and when it might not be so helpful.
    6. Review ground rules at the beginning of each meeting, including a ground rule that all opinions are honored.
    7. Have a very brief portion of the agenda dedicated to sharing interesting materials that are not directly related to the program, when needed, but be sure to clarify the purpose of the materials and review them outside of the meeting.
    8. If the facilitator senses that the presenter is struggling or is not getting value during a meeting, then ask the presenter, “Are we being helpful to you?” and then let the presenter reflect on the quality of the help that he is getting. The presenter might be finding tremendous value, even though the facilitator does not think so.
    9. If the facilitator is asked by the group to train about a certain practice that typically is not part of the Action Learning program or process, then he should make time outside of the meeting to do that training. On those occasions, the facilitator might say, “I’m putting on my ‘trainer hat’ for now, and will put on my ‘facilitator hat’ when we’re back in our Action Learning session again.”
    10. When the facilitator feels excited about offering a new article or another resource, he should always collaborate with the client, sponsor, and group members to be sure that the resource is focused on the aims of the program.
    11. Join a peer group of facilitators to share feedback and learn from these experiences and pitfalls.


    Paulo Freire, in “Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea-Bissau” provides what might be the most accurate description of the most effective form of help provided by the facilitator role: “Authentic help means that all who are involved help each other mutually, growing together in the common effort to understand the reality which they seek to transform. Only through such praxis — in which those who help and those who are being helped help each other simultaneously — can the act of helping become free from the distortion in which the helper dominates the helped.”

    ? What do you think? Are there other pitfalls? Other ways to avoid them?

    Thank you!

    Here are more resources on Action Learning

    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD is a principal consultant in Action Learning Source, an alliance that offers Action Learning workshops and services. For more information, see