Whether you consult with teams within your company or with outside clients, the chances are fairly high that at least once, you’ve left a meeting frustrated by the actions of others, even asking yourself: “why would they do that?”
It’s easy to walk into a project thinking of it as a simple matter of “they brought me in to fix a problem.” But the reality is rarely so simple. Consulting with other teams always entails organizational and emotional nuance that you may not be privy to.
Every interpersonal relationship is unique, and hopefully the circumstances I’m discussing won’t apply to many engagements or projects you take part in. However, when you do end up in a difficult consulting situation, it’s helpful to have a bit of empathy for those you’re working with.
I’ve found that remembering these 3 points can help me put myself in the shoes of my point of contact and interact with them in a way that is sensitive to what they may be dealing within their environment.
1. Your point of contact may not have asked for your help
It is entirely possible that the person you are trying to help may not want to be helped.
Management has its own ideas sometimes and internal communication isn’t always perfect at any company. This can lead to situations where your point of contact may feel defensive, especially if their job functions seem like they might cover what you are consulting on. The best intentions of a manager who wants to help by bringing in more resources may look like distrust or undermining to the employee who didn’t get a say.
At one point during my stint as an in-house SEO, I actually found myself in this exact position. Leadership brought in an outside agency to help with SEO during a domain migration, and while their intentions may have been to provide more help, they didn’t effectively communicate that to me.
As a result, since I was the one who was responsible for that area, it made me feel insecure about how management viewed me and my skills. I was lucky enough to work with a great consultant who was able to support me and help move forward the many projects that were already in-flight. But because I initially felt like they were undermining my credibility by being involved in the first place, it took a while to build that trust and be able to get things done effectively.
The best way to deal with this potential issue is to ensure that you respect the context and institutional knowledge that the team you are helping possesses. Work to have a collaborative relationship instead of an authoritative one. The more context and communication you have, the better the recommendations you can contribute.
2. If they did ask for help, they may be feeling vulnerable or insecure
Step back for a second and think about why a team might bring in an outside consultant, to begin with. There are tons of specific issues they could need assistance with, but all of this boils down to a problem that they presumably want or need help to solve — a problem that they couldn’t solve on their own. Regardless of whether they couldn’t solve it because of knowledge, resources, or even office politics, your contributions add something that they couldn’t contribute themselves — and that can be hard to deal with.
This isn’t something that needs to be discussed with the client or another team, but it is something that you should acknowledge and keep front-of-mind when you communicate with them. Respect the vulnerability of seeking out help, and appreciate the trust that they have placed in you.
3. Your client is accountable for the results of their project
When planning a long-term strategy, making tactical recommendations, or accessing the results of a marketing campaign that you helped execute, it’s easy to feel invested or accountable for the results of a project. However, it’s important to remember that your point of contact is usually far more accountable for results than you are. Their job, success, and emotions are all on the line much more than yours.
As an outside subject matter expert, your job is to give them all the information and resources to make the best decision. At the end of the day, the choice is theirs. I know how hard it can be to see your recommendations or projects rejected, but it’s important to try not to take it personally if they, having all the facts, make what they believe to be the best decision.
If they seem like they are questioning everything you say, maybe it’s because they want to be 100 percent sure it’s the best approach. Perhaps their micromanaging comes from a place of good intentions — just wanting to follow through and get the best outcome with every aspect of a project. Even what can come off as argumentative or difficult could be them playing devils advocate to ensure that everything has been considered.
All this being said, perhaps none of these circumstances apply to the client that you are finding it hard to work with. People can have bad days, hard years, or even just generally prickly dispositions. But more empathy and compassion in the world is never a bad thing. So, I would encourage anyone who works with other teams to avoid the impulse to judge a harsh response, and instead, consider what may be behind it.
Have you ever been faced with a complicated consulting situation? Share what helped you navigate it in the comments below!