When facing change, you don’t need an expert. You need partnership.
Your company probably looks at change with a mix of excitement and fear. And while you may want certain parts of your organization to change, it is scary to take on the actual responsibility of making it happen. It is much safer and easier to delegate the actual transformation to someone else. This typically is where consultants come into the picture. And why not? Experts are constantly touted as the only ones knowledgeable and powerful enough to lead.
But there is a catch.
Relinquishing responsibility to an expert breeds an unhealthy dependency. When problems inevitably come up again you won’t know how to confront them yourself.
There is also a problem for the consultant. If you’re the consultant, this tendency also makes your job harder. Removing the client from the problem-solving process makes it more likely the changes you recommend will be resisted.
So what is the way forward?
The answer is opting for partnership instead of relying on experts.
Experts merely seek to solve the problem. But partners bring change in a way that makes you take ownership not only for the solution but for the problem itself.
Partners effectively and compassionately dissolve unhealthy reliance on the expert. The result is that clients gain sufficient expertise to diagnose and solve future problems on their own.
But how does this partnership consulting work?
A partner’s first task is to confront you with the true nature of your problems. Often you already know this, but you either don’t realize it, or you find it so hard to deal with that you struggle to admit it without provocation. This confrontation is often uncomfortable. But new wisdom cannot be formed without it.
The best analogy for this is how pearls are made. Two things are required to form these valuable prizes: sand and oysters. Sand gets into the oyster and rubs it the wrong way. The oyster reacts by trying to get rid of the irritant. But in the process, something beautiful and precious is formed.
Don’t get the impression that this is easy. Bringing any kind of meaningful change to an organization requires a high investment of emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical rigor. The culture and habits sustained in an organization are often ferociously rooted and feel “right” from the inside. And so the only way to shock the oyster out of its comfort is to throw a little sand in its shell.
Partnering consultants must first, therefore, bring the sober truth about the organization’s dysfunctions.
This is a painful process. But the reward is invaluable for the organization.
Just like making pearls, partnership is difficult to practice. First of all, it is hard to convince clients that they are getting their money’s worth. They often have a rigid expectation that they are bringing in an expert who will simply fix things and move on. On the other hand, it can be just as hard to convince consultants their task is anything but fixing things themselves. The secret here is to accept that as a partner you have to sacrifice that latent desire to take full credit for creating the solution. That’s not sexy, but it is ultimately better for both parties.
Another common pitfall is what is known as professional codependence. Just as clients can become dependent on the expert, the professional can become codependent on the client.
Professional codependence when the professional–consciously or not–begins to create client needs in order to prove their own worth and make ends meet.
One way that this manifests is when, rather than identifying opportunities for growth, consultants begin to see client needs as deficiencies. This is more than a labeling problem. This often leads to anticipating problems that don’t exist. Such a dynamic all but guarantees dependency because it presumes that the client lacks what they need to get rid of the deficiency. And even more than this, it then positions the expert as the only one who can determine whether the solution has been effective.
So how can you pursue partnership without the pitfalls?
Developing partnership while avoiding dependencies on both sides is challenging. Let’s explore this challenge through the lens of parenting. To raise responsible adults, parents experience the tension, on the one hand, between protecting their children by sheltering them and telling them what to do…while on the on the other hand allowing their children to have self-discovery and learn on their own. Choosing partnership will often feel the same for the consultant.
It is essential to guard yourself against your client’s codependency even if this seems unloving at first. If not, you run the risk of getting lost in your expert role and short-circuiting the client’s growth and freedom.
Perhaps more than ever, society constantly reinforces the notion that experts are the only ones who can be trusted to solve your problems. But blindly signing over authority and action to experts only stunts your growth. You can’t learn how to think for yourself when you constantly rely on others to tell you what to think.
This doesn’t mean you will never need assistance. What it means is that you need to do the work to become your own expert even while you seek expertise from others. This is the promise of partnership.