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To be a good leader you need to be a good beginner

Most people will have experienced group facilitation predominantly in a classroom setting which is the likely reason why it is for difficult for many to recall a standout lesson; successfully facilitating groups is not easy, even when teaching a class of highly capable postgraduate level students. From experience, it is a common occurrence to sit in a class of ~30 students and have roughly 10% of participants engage with the facilitator when prompted for questioning. From the facilitator’s perspective (and from my own recent personal experience facilitating a class in a guest lecture) this is not the most comfortable scenario; ~27 blank faces staring unnervingly back at you, these are postgraduate level students, why are they not completely engrossed and engaged with this lesson and champing at the bit to answer your questions?


Why facilitators fail 

The fundamental reason why most classes are like this is because the facilitator did not include in the lesson plan a warm up activity to enthuse participants. The lesson began sans a good beginning so class tempo remains low and participant disengagement flourishes. Only the most ambitious participants will engage at this juncture and goading the quiet ones to join in eventually leads to resentment and further non-participation (this is most likely why class attendance wanes over the course of the university semester). Studies have also shown that the first day of class impacts students in such a way that it can negatively affect their entire term (Wilson & Wilson 2007). Tertiary student withdrawal rates can even be minimized if they have a positive engagement experience during induction to university (Edward 2003).


How good are good beginings?  

Getting off to a good start in a group facilitation setting is crucial. A good facilitation beginning subsequently sets the tone and mood for participants’ behaviour. Eller (2004) even suggests that when facilitating groups that have had difficulty in the past with engagement that agenda items be omitted to make way for more time and activities to “warm up” group participants. As a former English teacher to high school students in Bangkok, I can attest that the power of the warmup is indispensable to positive participant engagement throughout a lesson. No amount of energy enthused by the facilitator into the group can make up for a bad beginning. When the group loses faith and respect in the facilitator, it is very challenging to restore trust.


Good beginings set the tone 

A good group warmup also serves other useful functions. The expectations of participants’ behaviour and the mood of a group affects group members’ behaviour which has an impact on social interaction (Kelly & Spoor 2007). A groups mood develops through social interaction (Schuman 2010). A good beginning to a group facilitation enables positive social interactions and aids all group members willingness to participate. It is the facilitator’s job to ensure participants are relaxed and at ease. Circumventing the warmup and jumping straight into a lesson or agenda item from a cold start is going to cultivate anxiety and lead to nonparticipation amongst most group members. A likely consequence of a cold start is that the dominant participants in the group will seize the facilitation and groupthink will flourish. These dominant participants will be the same three people in that class of 30 who are the only ones that respond to the questions posed to the entire class. Allocating time for a warmup activity that allows all participants to find their voice will aid participation from all members.


Warmup to good behaviour 

The warmup process also allows social norms to be established among group members which sets up behavioural expectations from the participants and the facilitator. If counterproductive group norms such as rudeness or bullying are allowed then this may stifle group development, group work or individuals in the group and hinder progress (Prendiville 2004). During the warmup is an opportune time for the facilitator to be vigilant and intervene if deviant social norms are beginning to retard the groups progress (Prendiville 2004). Nipping bad behaviour in the bud at the warmup phase when the facilitator is developing control over the group is somewhat easier than confronting it when perverse social norms have become more entrenched.
A study by Tuckman & Jenson (1977) found that when individuals are transitioning through the forming stage of group development they are typically characterised by fears and anxiety and a mixture of curiosity and confusion. Curiosity is the most useful emotion for the facilitator to attempt to elicit. Fear and anxiety lend to non-participation. Setting good beginnings at the forming stage of group facilitation is critical; impressions are formed by the presence and influence of others (Thomas et al. 2002). Most people will not engage unless they feel comfortable to do so in front of others. Management of participants stress levels when encountering others will also consolidate a lasting impression as social norms and new alliances are formed in the group (Lass-Hennemann et al. 2011). If beginnings are managed poorly, conflict may arise and the facilitator may lose control of the group. Acceptable group behaviour must be established from the outset. Developing an agreed upon set of ground rules near the beginning of the facilitation is an effective way to curtail potential conflict. It is also good practice to keep those ground rules visible to the group at all times.


Using music to manage group behaviour 

Facilitation is also more likely to be effective if a common language is shared between facilitators and the participant group (Wardale 2013). From experience as a participant and as a facilitator, the use of music as that universal language (Cohen 2008). Music can be used to help establish good beginnings. It is a highly effective tactic to set a groups mood and social norms. One of the standout lecturers during my undergraduate degree would always have music playing at the beginning of her class. Hearing music from down the hall as you approached her class had the effect of putting you at ease. Her eclectic taste in music also spiked curiosity which put class attendees in the mood for learning.


Experimentation with music as a part of the facilitation process is becoming a useful tactic to enhance mood and is often used at the beginning of the facilitation and as a segue between breaks (Schuman 2012). As a former group facilitator in kindergartens in Guangzhou and Doha, music was always played when dismissing the class for break times. It is likely that most group participants were trained in the same way to respond to music from kindergarten age and that they will still predictably respond in the same manner. If the facilities allow, using appropriately selected music as a group warmup is an easy way to foster an upbeat mood and control order.


Good leaders know your name 

Learning participants’ names quickly obviously contributes greatly to a good facilitation beginning as people appreciate being called by their own name. There are several tactics that can be used to expedite the name recall process if remembering names is not your talent. Drawing up a seating chart or having a roll of participants’ names is useful but when partakers are strangers, nametags are better. A personal tactic developed while facilitating groups in Bangkok and then honed while facilitating in Khartoum is to write participants names up on a whiteboard or blackboard if one is available. Having names visible like this will also help participants to get to know each other’s names. When in multicultural groups name spelling and pronunciation can be difficult and it helps to write it down to say it right. A good beginning for a participant can turn sour with awkwardness if a name is not pronounced correctly (I personally get very upset when Tim is mispronounced). It is also useful to have a list of names written down on public display as a tactic to be used to manage participant behaviour. People will predictably respond in a particular way if you put a tick or a cross or tally some points against their name.


Good leaders always start with a warm up 

As group participant, there have been occasions when I have questioned whether participating in a warmup activity has been a valuable use of my time. The sophistication level of the group and the warmup activity chosen must be in sync with the group’s expectations. It is still preferable to conduct a warmup activity to establish a good beginning than to have no warmup at all. The ideal warmup activity will energize all participants and have their mood enhanced to a point where it is almost too difficult to contain. Having 100% of students with raised hands wanting to answer questions posed by a lecturer would be a compelling scenario and highly conducive to participant retention.


Don’t just wing it!

Facilitating a group is a skill that develops over time with experience. Research has yet to ascertain whether facilitators are acting with intentionality or intuition when facilitating (Thomas 2008). Therefore it can be concluded that most facilitators seem mediocre because they are merely “winging it” with no preparation made for a warmup; they are mostly relying on intuition to get through the facilitation. Planning a warmup that establishes a good beginning is an act of intention. A facilitator that has an extensive repertoire of warmup activities they can utilize for good beginnings will be more successful and more likely to enjoy facilitating groups. Unless you like looking back at the blank stares and emptying seats overtime as participants abandon your class, it is best not to just “wing it” with no preparation for an intentional good beginning when facilitating a group.



Cohen, C 2008, ‘Music: A universal language’, Music and conflict transformation. Harmonies and dissonances in geopolitics, pp. 26-39.

Edward, NS 2003, ‘First Impressions Last An Innovative Approach to Induction’, Active Learning in Higher Education, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 226-42.

Eller, J 2004, Effective group facilitation in education: How to energize meetings and manage difficult groups, Corwin Press.

Kelly, JR & Spoor, JR 2007, ‘Naïve theories about the effects of mood in groups: A preliminary investigation’, Group processes & intergroup relations, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 203-22.

Lass-Hennemann, J, Kuehl, LK, Schulz, A, Oitzl, MS & Schachinger, H 2011, ‘Stress strengthens memory of first impressions of others’ positive personality traits’, PloS one, vol. 6, no. 1, p. e16389.

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Schuman, S 2012, The IAF handbook of group facilitation: Best practices from the leading organization in facilitation, vol. 1, John Wiley & Sons.

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Thomas, SL, Skitka, LJ, Christen, S & Jurgena, M 2002, ‘Social facilitation and impression formation’, Basic and applied social psychology, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 67-70.

Tuckman, BW & Jensen, MAC 1977, ‘Stages of small-group development revisited’, Group & Organization Management, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 419-27.

Wardale, D 2013, ‘Towards a model of effective group facilitation’, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 112-29.

Wilson, JH & Wilson, SB 2007, ‘The first day of class affects student motivation: An experimental study’, Teaching of Psychology, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 226-30.

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