In Defense of Being “Helpful”

I want to write in defense of being helpful. And I want to distinguish it from rescue.

There have been times in working Flawless Consulting Workshops that I have heard being “helpful” disparaged a bit with a phrase like, “We don’t want to be helpful. We want to be useful.” Since we are in a “helping profession,” this has always rankled me just a bit.

The distinction I make is between helping and rescuing. Rescuing is part of what Stephen Karpman described as the “drama triangle” in the 1960s. It looks like this:

The emotional price for all involved in the triangle is anxiety, which is rarely helpful in any context. Since organizational development emerged to deal with the unintended consequences of industrialization, we as practitioners can get caught up in it.

If I view the client or “system” for which I am consulting as a persecutor, I run the risk of viewing some in the system as victims and want to rescue them. Sadly, this is a role I have taken on in the past when working internally for large systems. When I did, I was prone to lapse into cynical commentary like, “What’s the difference between [our company] and the Boy Scouts? The Boy Scouts have adult leadership.” That was neither endearing nor helpful. But I thought it was clever!

On an individual coaching basis, if I stay in the rescuer mode, I may not challenge the person with whom I’m working to deal with what they can choose to change. There is always something someone can do to improve their own circumstances. Reinforcing a feeling of powerlessness is not helpful.

Seeing situations as involving persecutors and victims reflects a mindset that leads to conversations that lack any sense of possibility. One way we can be helpful is to invite those with whom we work to see possibilities they either can’t or have chosen not to see on their own. It’s part of the “clear picture” we strive for in consulting flawlessly.

I have worked for—and with—bosses who are doing things that are ineffective, unproductive, and even damaging. I have yet to work for one that is intentionally doing that. This is where compassion comes into play. When I operate from the perspective that this person is doing the best job he knows how in this situation, I create a mindset for myself that lets me see more possibility to help the client self-discover more possibility for himself.

Early in my career, I worked with a colleague in Western Electric (then the manufacturing subsidiary of AT&T) who used the phrase, “God is in a helping relationship.” That stuck with me, and probably explains why I am troubled with phrases that disparage helping. The God I know wants us to learn and grow, and will not rescue us from our choices but rather help us learn from them. That’s the power behind the feedback statement model in Flawless Consulting that goes, “Chris, when you do ‘X,’ it has the following impact on your organization—and the result is ‘Y.’”’ To my frame of reference, that simple, direct statement is being helpful.

Later, in another part of AT&T, I encountered Robert Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership. The “servant” part of that phrase is sometimes misconstrued as connoting weakness or subservience. Greenleaf’s behavioral test of a servant leader is far more rigorous, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” This, in my view, could also be the test of a flawless consultant.

To do this, we must stay out of the “drama triangle.” How can we help vs. rescue? I think we can do this by presenting valid data and leaving the client free to decide, being open to the giftedness and possibility in each client and, as we teach in Flawless Consulting, letting go of our personal investment in the outcome.

Jeff has been affiliated with Designed Learning for more than 20 years.

Having held leadership positions in marketing, sales, organizational development, and HR, Jeff brings years of large-system experience in internal consulting to his work with Designed Learning. Jeff believes that when the human spirit thrives, organizations thrive as well.

Collaborative Consulting: Three Degrees of Difficulty

Consulting—especially collaborative consulting—requires artful presence and, consequently, is inherently difficult. It requires us to manage at three levels simultaneously: the consulting process, our relationship with the client, and ourselves.

In my view, Peter Block’s description of a practitioner-based process represents one of the great contributions of Flawless Consulting. Collaborative consulting requires paying attention to the process while simultaneously being willing to improvise within it. This represents the first degree of difficulty.

W. Edwards Deming, in his quality control work (and I think he is not fully appreciated as an OD practitioner), discusses “natural” vs “special” variation. Collaborative consulting has a lot of natural variation resulting from organizational complexity and the uncertainty of human behavior. The problem with behavioral “science” is that the standard deviations are significant. Little we do is 100% predictable, yet there is an underlying process we as consultants are responsible for knowing and following.

Can I use the contracting conversation to open the doors to discovery and the meeting for decision? Can I renegotiate my wants when the scope and scale of the work changes? Can I confront the client with how his behavior affects the situation we are discussing? Can I identify the real client?

Each client is unique. Do I have the interpersonal flexibility to adapt to and connect with my clients? Can I interact with compassion and authenticity? So, managing the client relationship in a way that engenders trust and openness represents the second degree of difficulty.

Personally, I apply Carl Jung’s principles (and teach them) as part of my consulting and coaching practice. My personal favorite is Insights Discovery—but the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, and others all rest on the same foundation. What clues to the client rest in the physical appearance of her/his office? Is it neatly arranged and orderly with a lot of manuals? I’m probably going to need to be precise and detail oriented in my approach. Is it more casual with toys and a playful feel? I probably need to dial up my extroverted-feeling energy. In adapting, I have to remind myself that introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, sensing/intuition are preferences I’ve developed and not hard-wired characteristics.

 If I want to connect (and we teach the principle of connection before content in our work), I will be more successful if I can move closer to the client’s preferences.

Managing myself in the face of client behavior, emotional resistance, lack of responsiveness, indecisiveness, and intellectual challenges represents the third degree of difficulty. For me personally, attitude toward authority is something I must continually monitor. There is a part of me that wants to find those who have power wrong simply because they have power. There is a part of me that wants to be viewed as capable. There is a part of me that wants to be seen as helpful. When I indulge any of these wants uncritically and without awareness, I can get in trouble as a consultant. If I am sitting in judgment, true connection will be unlikely. If I want to be seen as knowledgeable, I can get into expert mode. If I am intimidated by the client’s power, I might withhold valuable feedback or lapse into a pair of hands work because it feels safer.

How we handle these personal issues materially affects how we do our work. Let me conclude with a reference to Shakespeare. There are clients who want to seduce us into offering “expert” advice that supports their view of the world. This is captured in Julius Caesar in Act 2, Scene 1, when Metellus says:

“Oh, let us have him, for his silver hairs
Will purchase us a good opinion,
And buy men’s voices to commend our deeds
It shall be said his judgement ruled our hands.
Our youths and wildness shall no whit appear,
But all be buried in his gravity.”

My translation: the change agents (Metellus, Brutus, and their confederates) recruit an “expert consultant” (gray-haired Cicero) to cover for their insecurity and sell their change strategy (assassinate Caesar).

Jeff has been affiliated with Designed Learning for more than 20 years.

Having held leadership positions in marketing, sales, organizational development, and HR, Jeff brings years of large-system experience in internal consulting to his work with Designed Learning. Jeff believes that when the human spirit thrives, organizations thrive as well.

Ruminations on Influence

The heart of consulting, as Peter Block has so succinctly put it, is “influencing without direct authority.” That holds for those of us who work as external consultants as well as anyone in a staff role working internally. Therefore, it seems worth thinking about the source and process of influence.

Since I hold a master’s degree in “science” (yes, the standard deviations in our science are large), let me try a simple formulation:

Influence ƒ Expertise x Relationships

What I like about this formulation is that, if either value is low, our influence is low. And if either is “zero”—our influence is nil as well.

Let’s take a brief look at both. Generally, we get hired for our expertise either as internal or external consultants. There seem to be two corollaries around expertise:

  • I have to continually work to continue to develop my expertise. Just think about how emerging technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence will impact the field of OD.

  • I have to be able to explain how my expertise benefits the client I am working with. Those of us in OD love our models and theories. The client wants to know how our theories, applied to her organization, will help her run a better organization. In my view, “help” represents lower cost, more revenue, or improved customer service. We’ll have more impact when we talk in those terms.

  • Our expertise is one thing if measured by the standards of our training and discipline. It’s something else when the client perceives it as a business building asset.

Relationships most frequently represent the greatest opportunity for us to improve our influence. Consider some of the following aspects of self-management that affect the quality of relationships.

  • Can I talk to the client in terms of what’s important to her? Or have I fallen in love with my theories and models?

  • What is my attitude toward authority? Am I working out unresolved issues from the past? (As a confession, there was a point in my career where I made the boss “wrong” simply because he was the boss. Obviously, that got in my way.)

  • Can I accept the fact that, no matter how damaging the client’s behavior might be, he’s doing the best job he knows how? Or do I sit in judgment?

  • Am I willing to be open and direct with the client? Or do I get “strategic” and cautious with what I say?

A tool I learned several years ago that helps me in regard to the questions above is Chris Argyris’ notion of the “left-hand column.”[1] When a conversation doesn’t go well, the tool can be used to diagnose why. Here’s how it works. If you’re reflecting on a meeting or conversation that did not go as you wanted, take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. In the right hand column, write down what was said, trying to keep all the quotes verbatim without judgment or interpretation. In the left-hand column, write down what you were thinking but did not say. More often than not, those unsaid thoughts transfer into the actual conversation.

For me, the most difficult issues in managing a relationship has been at times managing myself, and moving from judgment to compassion and from wanting to look smart to wanting to serve. These are still tendencies. I’m still a work in process.



[1] I learned this concept while working in a training and development capacity at ATT from a consulting partner, Innovation Associates. Their work focused on Peter Senge’s writing in The Fifth Discipline, which in turn was strongly influenced by Argyris, who was then teaching at Harvard Business School.