Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I often find that I, as a consultant, am brought in as an expert, but as I attempt to guide clients toward a different way of thinking or problem-solving, they take it as a threat to how they currently do things. A power struggle ensues because they think my recommendations are an attempt to change them. Isn’t that what they hired me to do?
How can I get them to understand that my recommendations are meant to help, that we are heading toward the same goals, and that they hired me to help them fix something that isn’t working? How should I respond when someone asks for my advice then gets offended when I give suggestions?
Trying to Help
You’ve come to the right guy! After years of answering questions, I finally get someone asking me about consulting! Thank you, thank you.
In addition to the ideas I’ll share below, I encourage you to read the reader comments below my response. I know many of our 169,000+ subscribers are consultants (internal or external), so I hope they’ll share a boatload of wisdom as well.
So how can you increase the chance that your ultimate recommendations will be seen as helpful thoughts rather than annoying criticisms? Here are a few practices I use:
Contract up front for commitment from the real leaders. When you’re contracting for the work, be sure you’re reporting to a group that wants change. Often, at the front end of a project, I talk with a senior person who is motivated to lead change, but as things progress the work gets delegated to those with more parochial agendas. I’ve learned that I have more influence before I promise to take on a project. After that, you begin to get consumed within the system that everyone else gets stifled by. So, I take advantage of that “influence window” to contract with the real leaders of change for the amount of time and access I will need in order to accomplish the result they are asking of me. Then I hold them to it.
Clarify and document the mission. I’ve found that in longer-term projects you can easily get mission drift—especially in my work. Leaders say, “We want to change the culture.” With a charter a mile wide like “changing culture,” you’re bound to get people who criticize most anything you do—as it doesn’t match their image of what these vague “results” mean. I am very careful to ask leaders up front to clearly articulate, publish, and document the mission. What behaviors are you trying to change? Why do you want them to change? What results will that produce? How will we measure success? If I’m sloppy about clarifying, documenting, and socializing the results at the front end, it’s easy for people to take offense or disagree with what we ultimately produce.
Honor what’s working before talking about change. In Crucial Conversations, we teach a skill called contrasting. Essentially, we teach people to avoid giving unnecessary offense by helping others understand not just what you mean but also what you don’t mean. When someone like you or I comes in spouting off about change, it’s easy for people to feel like their important contributions are about to be lambasted. That’s not your intention. You aren’t trying to show disrespect for the thousand positive things that are working well. You’re trying to offer ideas for how to improve a dozen or so things that aren’t.
Be sure to explicitly acknowledge best practices that are working well as a way of contrasting to ensure you maintain a sense of mutual respect and mutual purpose with those who have created what you are criticizing. If you sincerely acknowledge what’s working, you make it easier for them to see that your motive is to help, not just to make yourself look like the only smart person in the room.
Build motivation by calibrating to their ability. This is a tricky one. You want to be sure you’re honest about what needs to change, but if your recommendations seem overwhelming, even well-intended leaders will lose motivation to consider them. You have to calibrate your recommendations to their ability to absorb them. Sometimes their rejection of your proposals is a reflection of your failure to present them in a hopeful way rather than an overwhelming concern that leads to more work.
Involve them in the journey. I left this one for last because it’s one I want you to remember. As I said in the previous suggestion, your job is not just to offer right-headed ideas, but to do so in a way that builds motivation to address them. The best way to do this is to involve your clients in the discovery process. If you do too much of the diagnosis with little or no involvement on their part, then you’ll be left to use verbal persuasion—PowerPoint presentations filled with sterling logic and compelling data—to make your case. And as we teach in Influencer, verbal persuasion is the least effective tool you can use. Direct experience is the best.
When VitalSmarts conducts assessments, we never do interviews without partnering with the leaders who will be responsible to implement findings. We know that having them hear key concerns firsthand affects them emotionally in a way PowerPoint never can. Be sure your consulting process builds motivation along the way and you’re less likely to be surprised by resistance at the end.