The working rhythm you’ve established with your in-house team can often experience a hiccup or two when a consultant is added to the mix. Often this is just the routine adjustment everyone experiences when making room for someone new—but there can also be times when you might trace the ripples back to yourself.
If you’ve been team-leading for any serious length of time, you know when to speak up to your team and when to just let them do what they do. But, when a consultant comes aboard, managers often have an impulse to handle that person differently. The worst manifestation of this is micromanaging the consultant’s work. This can lead to a bad working relationship with the consultant, a waste of money if the consultant doesn’t feel enabled to the job correctly, and a lot of wasted time giving detailed instructions to someone who doesn’t necessarily need them. Here’s how to avoid micromanaging your valuable consultants.
You often have little in common with consultants other than the work. You don’t have the usual familiarity that is available to those who share a workplace over long periods of time. So there is a tendency to overinvest in discussing the work in order to get a good read of the newcomer, and in that overdiscussing, you may be laying out too much of your own point of view. You may not mean to be telling the consultant how to do the job, but the result is still the same.
This is an innocent mistake, but one that can be grating to the consultant and—worse yet—put a damper on the consultant’s performance. The more open-ended you leave the consultant’s path to project solutions, the more creative and effective the consultant can be in design and problem solving. And for what you’re paying, you want maximum creativity and effectiveness.
This is how we've always done things
One path that leads to overdirection is an impulse to explain to a consultant how things are usually done in your shop. It’s easy to justify this impulse by saying that you do it as a help to the consultant, to make that person feel at home.
But that’s not the end result. This type of behavior can become a controlling mechanism that will stifle the consultant’s productivity. Any decent consultant, when tackling a new assignment, has enough presence of mind to ask others nearby to learn how something is done.
Watch how you say things
You might not always notice it, but managers usually develop a kind of private language among themselves and those they work with. When you’ve spent months or even years together in an office, you know others well enough that a sort of “shorthand” evolves between you and your team.
Using this shorthand with a consultant who is unfamiliar with your team’s lingo can foster the consultant’s perception of being micromanaged. For example, you might offer suggestions but use language that makes your suggestions come off as directives. As managers, we often assume our people know what we’re trying to communicate, because they know our tone, our moods, and our body language, and we know theirs. But a consultant doesn’t have this common ground, and what may be offered as a list of suggested approaches concerning a design issue might sound like a list of instructions that the consultant feels bound to follow. And, often, a consultant may simply proceed on that basis, not wishing to make waves. Some consultants might not even mind. But this may curtail more efficient and creative approaches that the consultant may have pursued had your suggestions been taken as nothing more.
There’s a simple solution. You obviously need to communicate with consultants to become more familiar with them and to show them what they need to know. But instead of risking the micromanagement pitfalls I’ve listed above, don’t offer any answers unless you are specifically asked for them. Your end of the conversation with the consultant needs to be almost entirely composed of questions, not answers. Meet both formally and informally, as needed, but go into those discussions armed with questions. And be sure your questions are of the “What would you recommend …” and “How would you handle …” variety.
Also, if you want to make consultants feel at home, the best thing you can do is just turn them loose. Give them everything they need to do their job, make yourself available to answer questions, point out resources, and leave it at that.
The upshot is that the whole reason you’re shelling out big bucks for consultants is because they know more than you do—so you don’t need to be telling them how to do their job.
To get the most out of any consultant, you need to foster a sense of trust in the consultant's abilities to get the job done. Micromanaging achieves exactly the opposite. So be prepared to help when asked and then let the consultant work—that is, after all, what the person is being paid to do.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.