Consultants Should Not Lead Change for Their Clients

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Consultants Should Not Lead Change for their Clients

I don’t think it is the consultant’s job to bring change to our clients’ organizations. It’s their organizations, so they get to decide. The decision to change or not change is a leadership function. Once we start making those calls for them, then we are acting in a management role. And I think that’s inappropriate.

But giving advice on what and how they ought to change can be pretty tempting since we often have experience with similar changes that allows us to see possible train wrecks in the making. And giving advice can be a tempting for our clients as well. First, they don’t have to grapple with their own reluctance to change because they can push back at us. (By the way, I believe that whenever there is a strong want, there is a strong resistance trying to protect the status quo.) When they resist us, they fail to own their own resistance to change. Or 2. If they do accept our advice, they’ve got some one to blame if it all goes wrong.  I recall some managers telling me that they would always hire premier consulting firms, so that the risk of failure was carried by those outsiders. “I know the project failed, but we brought in Acme Consulting, so we had the best working on this. Nothing else we could have done.”

I have been greatly influenced by The Paradoxical Theory of Change by gestalt psychologist Arnold Beisser. (1970) He writes that we can’t make anyone change. He suggests that the therapist or the consultant in this case, “. . . rejects the role of ‘changer,’ for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by ‘trying,’ coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is. The premise is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.”

So, if I follow his advice, I respond to my clients’ requests. They called me for a reason. As reluctant as they may be, they do want something. I use that vision/concern/whatever to begin to help them see all the forces at play vividly. I especially want to help my clients see the forces that maintain the status quo. I may “insist” that my clients pay attention to the data in front of them. I encourage them to look closely at the survey data, financial analyses, trends, and so forth. I may even offer my opinion, but it’s not my job to try to make them change.

The paradox is that this approach often allows clients to get excited about possibilities. Resistance diminishes since no one is trying to tell them that their view of the world is wrong. (Don’t we get angry when someone tries to tell us that they know better than we do? I do, at any rate).

I find the Paradoxical Theory to be liberating for me and my clients. Instead of trying to get them to do something, I can work at helping them see the situation with greater depth and clarity. When this happens, it is common to see clients get excited and start taking action on whatever prompted this conversation in the first place.


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