Leader Role in Problem-Solving Discussion

Leader Role in Problem-Solving Discussion

In general, leaders clarify the meeting objective and decide the structure which follows ”ways in which discussion proceeds. However, if groups make suggestions on modifying procedures, leaders can certainly accommodate them. Often groups are content just with being asked. Being consulted by leaders about meeting process increases feelings of commitment to the meeting outcome. Following this, the actual problem-solving discussion takes place. Then, in closing the meeting, leaders ask participants to reach conclusions based on their discussion. Leaders should listen for key ideas and points made during the discussion and RESTATE THESE IN SUMMARY FORM. This calls for skill in leaders, but is quite important in terms of everyone's understanding of group conclusions or recommendations. This is a "big picture" of what transpires in a problem-solving meeting.

The Climate

Discussion leaders are responsible for establishing the correct atmosphere for problem solving. A good climate to establish is one in which respect for persons and opinions is evidenced, and one in which groups cooperate in an open , warm way. Sarcasm, even the kind intended to be humorous , is out of place in this atmosphere, as is anger. The atmosphere must be positive! How to ensure this? Establishing ground rules and having a copy posted at each meeting is one part. Introduce people if they don't know one another. Clarify meeting roles. Be positive yourself, rather than complaining about problems. Be prepared for the meeting in terms of supplies and information.

The Agenda

The most important part of presenting meetings is the agenda! At the start of a meeting, review the agenda, making sure the meeting objective is clear and what the expectations are for the meeting. Agendas don't have to be long and formal. Short lists for simple meetings are fine, but if a meeting is fairly complex, the agenda should reflect this. Agendas should be detailed enough that a leader can use them as an outline for conducting the meeting.


The Discussion

The next concern is the downfall of most meetings. With no planning about how a discussion is conducted , most people allow random exchanges of information and commentary , which consume meeting time and result in no accomplishment of purpose. Without clear procedural directions from leaders, attendees may think, "We're going at this all wrong. I want no part of this!" Then they won't accept any decisions made because the procedure seemed flawed, OR they think their input doesn't really matter and stop participating. With either response, meetings and results are not well considered , and meetings-are-a-waste-of-time thoughts begin to work their way into the organizational culture. People who truly are interested in furthering the goals of the organization become frustrated with process and people. It does make a difference how groups study problems through discussion! Here are some steps to include.

First establish a basis for the discussion. Have a review of an information meeting, make a prepared statement, give highlights of a written report, ask a resource person to establish facts or reasons, or do some activity that brings a picture to the minds of the attendees. Clarify the meeting objective! Examples include, "to solve the problem of " or, "to deliberate the issue of " or, "to consider the pros and cons of ."

Then, use one of the following development ideas:

  • If a topic has pros and cons, have two people with known responses speak first; then open the floor to a general discussion.

  • Ask someone to make a prepared statement (or make one yourself) and set aside a time only for clarification questions. Then follow with a time period for exchanges of agreement or disagreement of participants.

  • Ask each participant to make an initial response to the meeting objective, and ask for exchanges from all attendees based on what they've heard .

  • If only one differing viewpoint emerges, role play to bring out more.

  • Divide the group into subgroups representing differing viewpoints of the problem (customers, employees , management; or teachers , parents, students; or community residents, local administrators, real estate developers). Ask each group to prepare a positional statement and perhaps some questions for others. Then have a general exchange between all people.

  • Divide the group into subgroups and ask them to produce an agreed-on number of solutions or recommendations which answer the question posed by the meeting objective. Follow this with a summary of points.

When dividing the whole group into subgroups, provide a list of key questions to answer. Sample questions could ask for:

  1. Relevant facts for this stand

  2. Key reasons for this stand

  3. Probable consequences of the group stand


  1. Essential features affecting the view of this group

  2. Main causes for the problem from the standpoint of this group

  3. Actions which would eliminate the problem

  4. Other problems which might occur if particular actions were taken

Depending on your topic, it is possible to inject a bit of humor in subgroups and their vantage points. If the meeting objective is to discuss problems with a cafeteria in an organization, the subgroup representing the chef and the kitchen staff could wear chef's hats or white coats. Food suppliers for the kitchen could wear delivery hats, while supervisors could wear sheriff's posse hats or white ten-gallon hats (to represent the "good guys"). Dressing the part helps establish connection to the role or vantage point being expressed and adds to the esprit de corps of the groups. Props can also help make a point: having attendees wear earplugs during a discussion of ways to reduce workplace noise is quite effective.

Discussion Formats

Discussion formats used most often in group meetings are: ordinary group technique, brainstorming, and nominal group technique.

ORDINARY GROUP format is most common. It is an effective way to get a full discussion of the issues, since attendees pay attention to the discussion flow and have easy access to "the floor." Issues get full consideration because of the interactional nature of this meeting process. In ordinary group format, the leader chooses a structure for the meeting and leads the whole group to reach consensus. Without firm leadership, however, things can go wrong: discussion can drag on beyond utility, vocal people can dominate the discussion, members can be swayed by social pressure to agree with the majority opinion rather than sticking up for a minority one. As a result, fewer alternatives may be developed, but in a skillfully led meeting, all sides of the picture are represented, participants feel "heard," and the summary of meeting outcomes truly represents the thoughts and feelings of the group. Success of ordinary group format is highly dependent on the leader's skill and ability to get everyone to participate harmoniously.

BRAINSTORMING is a format which encourages the generation of lots of ideas, some of which may be useful. Rules for this format are:

  1. Many ideas should be encouraged.

  2. Diverse ideas should be encouraged ("wild, crazy" ideas are OK).

  3. "Piggybacking" on each other's ideas should be encouraged.

  4. No ideas may be critiqued or criticized.

Participants enjoy brainstorming in small groups (three to five people), but it can also be done in a larger group with a leader (six to ten people). People appreciate being asked for viewpoints and feel a sense of accomplishment in contributing. Brainstorming sometimes doesn't produce a large number of ideas in practice, because people self- censor their ideas or fear others will reject them and so don't offer them in the first place. However, this social pressure to conform to majority opinion occurs far less in small groups than in large ones, such as the ones used in ordinary group format. Especially if groups are cohesive, fledgling ideas emerge and are nourished in this format. Groups that work together over time learn the strengths of each member and encourage better idea creation with good nurturing.

It's important here to write down everything anyone says and not comment on the merits of any suggestion. (No killer phrases, like "That's not going to work," or "People will never do that.") It's also important not to think of implementation of ideas, a how-would-our-organization-do-this approach. The sole purpose of brainstorming is to hatch ideas, never mind how popular or doable these may seem initially. Frequently, wild ideas turn out to offer more to the solution than people originally think. Another caveat in brainstorming (and the other formats as well) is not to stop thinking when a good idea emerges. Linear-thinking persons can usually create one or two good ideas, but they have a tendency to think "problem solved !" after this, content with one or two ideas. This is NOT brainstorming in its finest form!

NOMINAL GROUP TECHNIQUE, developed by Andre Delbecq at University of Wisconsin, is a stylized form of brainstorming. Four stages include:

  1. Statement of the problem followed by participants individually writing down alternative solutions (semi- adhesive notes are good for this);

  2. Participants take turns reporting their ideas while a recorder writes them down or the adhesive notes are grouped according to ideas. This can be done singly or in small groups or in a large group;

  3. A brief discussion clears up ambiguities or misunderstandings;

  4. Participants are asked to select the best ideas represented. This can be done several ways: participants can be asked to distribute, say, 10 points between their choices, or they could be asked to vote for three choices. If no clear outcome prevails, more discussion is held until consensus emerges.

A variant of this is the gallery technique. Individuals' written ideas are copied on a chalkboard or large sheets of paper and participants are given stars or stickers with which to select the best ideas. In essence, they circulate among the ideas rather than the ideas circulating among people (although this happens anyway). Persons selected as discussants in one location could interpret ideas for strolling attendees and perhaps create a summary of thoughts or suggestions as a part of the meeting process. In this version, people enjoy circling the meeting room when several "idea locations" are established, engaging in one-on-one discussions or listening to others weighing pros and cons. Leaders should ensure that the ideas are discussed at some point, either just after they are written individually or after they appear on the large lists, so that all understand each suggestion or idea. Selecting the best ideas for further consideration can be done by counting the number of stars or stickers, or having discussants present an overview of comments heard from the strolling participants. In nominal group discussions, people produce a large number of good ideas.






Number of ideas




Quality of ideas




Social pressure




Time/money costs




Potential for inter-personal conflict




Feelings of accomplishment

high /low



Development of "we" feeling




Discussion Focus

Keeping attendees focused on meeting objectives is a major task for leaders. To do this, leaders need practice in contributing to discussions themselves , summarizing the contributions of others, and focusing on meeting outcomes.

Leader contributions can make or break meetings! Leaders must decide before-hand how to contribute to a discussion without dominating it. After all, problem-solving meetings are called to gather group input, not to dispense views held by leaders only. Ask yourself whether you'll be the authoritative resource for the group. Who will track comparisons and explanations ? Who will serve as group memory? Who will summarize group thinking on issues? If the answer to these questions is you, then you might well be dominating a meeting, not conducting it. Look at this scenario.

Meeting Objective: To Discuss Implementing the New Call Schedule

Trent, a sales supervisor for a "baby Bell," opened a department meeting for employees making sales calls for the company. For the first five minutes Trent gave performance statistics for the preceding week and asked for questions. No one spoke. Trent then launched the topic of the meeting, which was to examine a new way to schedule sales calls, an idea advanced by a vice president of sales. Trent thought a problem-solving meeting would give employees a chance to troubleshoot potential glitches and to react to the new procedure.

Trent started, "You all received the memo from our vice president about the new calling schedule. This is going to change the way we do business. I have some ideas on how we can work into this new system, but I'd like to get your ideas. Anyone care to contribute?" No one spoke. "OK, here's what I think we should do ," and Trent outlined his plan. No discussion ensued after that, so Trent adjourned the meeting.

When Trent's boss asked how the meeting went, Trent said, "My people never have any ideas at meetings. I give them a chance, but I end up doing most of the talking. They just don't care!"

What is Trent doing wrong? The idea of having this meeting is good, the meeting objective is concisely stated, and attendees had a memo as preparation. Trent failed to plan and execute a discussion procedure. One of the discussion development ideas given earlier in this chapter would have worked. For example, Trent could have asked each employee to make an initial response and then ask for exchanges of information and ideas. He could have divided the whole group into sub-groups and asked for five or ten suggestions for implementing the new schedule. He could have asked specific questions concerning key implementation problems, causes for these problems, and actions that would eliminate these problems. He could have used any of the three discussion formats: ordinary group, brainstorming, or nominal group. Although Trent's purpose was to conduct a problem-solving meeting, he actually had an information-giving meeting.

Confronting Issues

One way to ensure participation from participants is to assign them roles in the meeting itself. Giving people specific things to do during a discussion maximizes their involvement and improves the quality of the discussion. Having an attendee present a position paper, asking someone to be the first speaker after your introduction, asking someone to serve as resource person, assigning the responsibility for summarizing periodically and/or recapitulating discussion results at the end, asking others to keep track of time spent, to record meeting transactions, and to greet/seat people as they arrive are all ways to improve discussion structure.

The Meeting Roles chapter delineated four activity roles: Leader, Facilitator, Recorder, and Participant. In leading problem-solving meetings, use at least a Facilitator and Recorder.


A Facilitator's sole purpose is to ensure a smoothly run meeting. Facilitators can do the "heavy lifting " during a meeting. Leaders can ask them to do whatever needs doing, but their customary roles are detailed in the first graphic on page 69. Good Facilitators are observant, noticing the silents or shys in groups and asking for their opinions or participation. Facilitators should have the moxie to tell authority figures if they are breaking ground rules and when they have a turn in speaking. Among peer groups, Facilitators will call for quiet in a meeting, block dominators from affecting group members, gain cooperation from reluctant participants, and shut down silly behavior. In problem-solving meetings, Facilitators will listen in on group discussions to make sure they are on track with the meeting objective. They can also carry a portable microphone to speakers in the meeting. They can conduct some steps in the meeting if the Leader asks. For example, they can coordinate participation in the gallery technique by keeping people moving, ensuring that all suggestions are included, and asking people to speak up if their voices are too soft for all to hear. Facilitators may be asked their opinions, but since they are supposed to be unbiased , good ones will decline answering.

A caveat here is a caution against acting like a militant constituent when facilitating meetings. None of the foregoing activities needs to be done in an unpleasant or unnecessarily abrupt manner. Smile and use a pleasant voice. Be firm, fair, and consistent in dealing with people.


Now, what does a Leader actually do when it comes to contributing to discussions, summarizing the contributions of others, and focusing on meeting outcomes? First, please know that a Leader can't just sit back and let whatever happens happen. The Leader is conducting an ensemble of participants by interacting and being attentive and prepared to participate.

When meeting attendees ask for information or an opinion, Leaders should contribute. The art comes in not contributing too much or too often. The center of attention should be the participants themselves and the intellectual task which lies before them.


Especially when confronting and clearing up issues, Leaders should offer mini-summaries of the discussion from time to time (or designate someone to do this). After several people have spoken about a problem segment, condense what has been said or indicated by body language or tone of voice. Reflect the emotions described and the content. This has the effect of crystallizing the thought processes, sometimes giving participants common terminology which they can use to further the discussion. To do this:

  • clarify points made by people;

  • reflect the impact of their remarks;

  • offer alternative meanings for speakers' comments.

In doing this, try to find merit in others' ideas, make sure you understand others' main points, and check your understanding by stating their views back to them without implying criticism. Don't interject your own ideas until you have fully understood what others have said.

In summarizing the contributions of others, Leaders must be good listeners and be skilled in helping people express themselves. One way to do both is to ask questions. Here are some questioning techniques:

  • Testing the water to discover the group's feelings:

    "What would your reaction be if we went to this new system?"

  • Getting participation from the group:

    "We've heard from Kent and Kristen. What do the rest of you think?"

  • Getting specific facts:

    "What were our final sales figures last month? Does anyone have this?"

  • Getting the reluctant attendee to talk:

    "John, you've been here for ten years . What do you think of these ideas?"

  • Clarifying/ elaborating on someone's point:

    "Can you give more information on that issue?" or, "Are you saying ."

Focusing meeting outcomes is another task of Leaders in confronting and clearing up issues. Sometimes discussion drifts so gradually, it's hard to recognize. However, a Leader must not only recognize it, but put it back on its intended course or direct it on another path that seems desirable. The Facilitator can assist in detecting meeting drift also. Both must keep in mind the meeting objective and the point of the discussion.

Leaders can connect previous statements or summaries with current ones to direct the meeting toward a specific focus. It's important that Leaders give reasons for refocusing on the original objective or emphasizing a different part of the meeting purpose. This makes logical sense to participants and keeps everyone posted on current deliberations. If a group is "spinning its wheels," repeating the same ideas without advancing the discussion, Leaders can make a negative statement or exclude something that is not adding to the discussion. "We won't consider that aspect of the problem now, but we do have time to talk more about ." In this way, Leaders make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on an overall plan for the meeting and the needs of the attendees.

Encourage lots of ideas and consider differences of opinion as creative opportunities. When you disagree or have another opinion, state it, but once you've made your point, don't harp on it. Don't get vested in your own position, but don't support ideas you can't live with, either. Above all, don't get overly emotional; maintain a sense of calm and reason, even when exchanges become heated.

In guiding meeting focus, Leaders should:

  • keep the discussion going in planned directions, always trying to make progress in discussion, rather than rehashing issues

  • set limits on what can be discussed

  • connect the needs of participants to the overall discussion plan

Questions to ask in focusing /refocusing are:

  • "We've heard all the cons of the new system. What are some pros?"

  • "Let's stop discussing this one aspect and consider instead how this new system will affect quality."

  • "What would happen if .?"

  • "We've discussed this issue pretty thoroughly. Are you ready to move on to issues we haven't talked about yet?"


Ground Rules

The next items in THE RULES have been discussed in previous chapters. The negative behaviors that disrupt meetings are familiar and must be dealt with when they occur in meetings. Some of these behaviors are:

  • attacking people and their ideas

  • competing for group attention with boasting

  • dominating "air time"

  • horsing around or clowning

  • making irrelevant comments

  • speaking sarcastically

  • going off on tangents

  • withdrawing by acting indifferent

Some of these behaviors can be checked by establishing and enforcing ground rules. Ground rules establish ahead of time what is expected of attendees. If people tend to talk among themselves a lot at meetings, make a ground rule about speaking only when called on by the Leader. If people tend to go on and on and on once they start speaking, limit each speaker to one minute at a time and have the Facilitator keep track of time and silence speakers once the time limit is met. Some people tell "war stories" or recite "pity party" tales ("bitch" sessions) when they meet, so make a ground rule that no problems are brought up for discussion without presenting solutions. Eliminate personal agenda discussions; these occur when a person or persons have a singular viewpoint and keep expressing it over and over in different ways. Once they've been heard, keeping refocusing on the meeting objective itself and stop calling on these people unless they offer new insights. Also, rule out "they" statements in attributing blame. Finally, insist on no killer phrases, belittling remarks, and abrupt subject shifts. Control your meeting through ground rules. A sample follows.


Summarizing the Discussion

Finally, THE RULES call for ending the meeting appropriately. If you have achieved the goals of the meeting or if people run out of energy or interest or if you run out of time, close the meeting. It's better, however, to have your Facilitator track time well enough that you have sufficient time to close the meeting in an unhurried fashion.

Leave time in the agenda for the end phase. A discussion without an appropriate end leaves participants with uncertainty about what they accomplished, plus a feeling of dissatisfaction. Also called closure, ending a meeting or closing discussion calls for a recapitulation of the key points of the discussion. The Recorder can do this, provided the Leader has asked periodically for recording of mini-summaries. Leaders can also ask participants to draw conclusions, and the Leader can summarize as well.

In summarizing, define areas of agreement and disagreement between people or groups and synthesize the major ideas advanced into five alternatives you can take into your next meeting, decision-making.

Synthesizing means looking at everyone's suggestions and deciding which ones represent the major ideas of the participants. If there is a minority opinion, decide how this can be expressed. If there is general disagreement about ideas advanced, consider how to phrase the major outcomes so that the diverging ideas or opinions are clearly included. This is especially important when differing viewpoints from the factions involved in the problem have been considered. For example, customers, employees, and management may have very different ideas about solving a problem common to all. The summary demands that Leaders think on their feet!

In closing a discussion, Leaders should convey a sense of firmness so that attendees know this is the final overview, not a bid to open up more discussion. If interaction occurs at this stage, people lose their focus because they are hearing that the meeting is over. They've closed their mental notebooks and are thinking of their jobs, or what they're having for dinner, or where the nearest bathroom is; they don't want to reopen the discussion.

Another tip is to make the closing quick. Don't take this time to fill the group in on personal perspectives, and so on. Be brief in opening AND closing. A final act can be to ask the participants where they want to go from here ”suggested activities for the future, or a to-do statement. Complimenting the group for providing excellent points for discussion is in order. Then, true to your word, close the meeting.