As a consultant, you’re constantly finding yourself in new situations, among new faces, thrown every few months into a new mix of personalities. It’s the nature of the job. It’s also a lifestyle that isn’t without hazards. A failing of the working world is that as young people, we’re given no real sense of the professional culture we’ll be joining when we choose a career. We’re thrust into the lion's den without warning, and for consultants, it’s much worse: We get a new lion’s den with each new season.
From the first day, you notice a range of reactions. Some of the in-house staff members are glad to have you and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Others practice a sort of aggressive indifference: They have no quarrel with you but have no more investment in your presence than in a messenger delivering a package.
But some workers may just not want you there, actively resent you, and have issues of their own that become tacked onto you. In this case, you have a malevolent competitor. Failing to spot this problem and deal with it could harm your effectiveness and your reputation. Here are a few profiles you may encounter and how I recommend dealing with each.
The all-knowing sage
The all-knowing sage has been on the in-house staff for decades. This person knows every system, every piece of code, all the dirt on employees and managers, and claims an understanding of all the latest technology. Yet this person is a midlevel authority at best, and it is clear why he or she has risen no further. These competitors resent you because they feel they have the expertise that management sought in leasing you.
The all-knowing sage isn’t trying to have you fired. This person is about credit and will steal it from you at every turn, most often publicly.
I had this problem on a hardware-intensive development project I supervised four years ago. I was dealing with an industry veteran who considered all my ideas old-hat. Everything I proposed, he claimed to have already thought of.
If you’re in this situation, remember that you’re not the only person who has spotted this tendency in your competitor. What is the solution? Share the wealth liberally.
Acknowledge this individual in meetings. Give them the nod when explaining your reasoning on a design point. The lateral personnel will glance at each other knowingly, and the manager you work for will see that you are generous of spirit and sensitive to his workforce, and appreciate your grace. What do you lose? Not a thing. Everybody involved can see what you’ve brought to the table.
The embittered wanna-be
The wanna-be competitor has few illusions about expertise, or the need for a consultant. While this person might acknowledge that they need a consultant on a project, it’s not you. For whatever reason, you aren’t good enough, and they will find ways to let others know it too. The truth is, these kinds of people want to have your knowledge and experience (and paycheck) and are upset that they simply aren’t of your professional caliber. They would treat any other consultant just as shabbily; it isn’t personal, even though it seems to be.
The embittered wanna-be isn’t about public acclaim. This person knows they don’t have what you have and will find ways to tear you down, including attempts to have you fired. Most often, this will take the form of behind-the-back criticism and gossip, some second-guessing, and wide broadcasting of any mistake you make.
I faced this on a (thankfully) short-term SAP implementation not long ago when filling in for a colleague. My competitor had gone to great lengths to reconcile with my predecessor and was not at all pleased to suddenly have a new face intruding. She began a campaign of criticism that was easily ignored at first, until it touched employees directly under my supervision.
At that point, I initiated a heart-to-heart talk. My strategy was simple: I knew I wouldn’t force a confession of any sort, but if I could wrest out a single issue (which she offered up, just to end the conversation), I could pledge to address it, which would allow me to assure our mutual boss of its resolution. She offered up that issue, I accommodated her, and I did indeed report on our cooperative success to our mutual manager. Knowing that this channel between the manager and me was now open, she immediately backed off.
The turf warrior
The turf warrior competitor isn’t about expertise or his own relative adequacy. This person is all about his comfort zone. He’s invested considerable energy in drawing boundaries and setting up clearly defined relationships with everyone else, and you are simply in his space. Oddly, professional considerations such as the good of the project or the will of management never even enter this person’s mind. He’ll give you a hard time for no better reason than his inability to accommodate others. He’ll actually work harder to get rid of you, or to push you away, than he would need to work to get along with you.
The turf warrior is more of a tremendous inconvenience, not a political threat. This person will respond slowly to your requests and limit your access to things you need. The turf warrior is ultimately not about credit or image, but about control. This person is only comfortable if he has an unusual amount of control over his space.
You don’t need to address anything here other than that need. But be warned: You’ll only make things worse if you try to exert your authority. You can safely accommodate by changing your form of communication with this person. How?
I don’t address them in meetings unless they wish to be addressed; if I need answers from them, I take care of them beforehand and publish them in handouts. I don’t stop by their office much; I communicate as much as I reasonably can through e-mail, even if they sit eight meters away from me.
Why go to this trouble? Because e-mail returns to this person some of the control they feel they’ve lost by having me around. It’s a subtle (maybe even stupid) thing, but the bottom line is they’re permanent; you’re on “their” property.
One last thing: Copy those e-mails visibly to your mutual manager, to ensure prompt response. Otherwise, your problem with this competitor will just bleed over into e-mail. Give some ground, but not at the expense of productivity.
Riding into the sunset
We learn to remember whom we work for. The development team we join for a season isn’t signing our checks. The managers of its managers are signing our checks. Our presence is justified before we report for our first day’s work: We’re there because they don’t have anybody on staff with our skills or experience. We receive more money because we have the ability to create something that is mission-critical to our client. The battle to justify the consultant’s presence is, by definition, already won before the work commences.
Remembering this, the social inconveniences of a consultant’s daily life are reduced from battles to skirmishes. The trouble is, some of those skirmishes can get ugly and interfere with work. But they don’t need to.
The bottom line is that the competitor is going to win: Someday they’ll be “rid” of you, no matter what happens. In the long run, you really don’t care, and you’re as glad to be rid of them. Your sole concern in dealing with such people is to keep productivity and progress up in the face of their passive-aggressive behaviors. You’re a real pro, and they demonstrate by their behaviors that they aren’t. A real pro is all about getting the job done. If that means you need to offer a few strokes, or a little compassion, then so be it. It’s that kind of generosity and dedication to completing the job that will bolster your reputation as the ultimate team player.
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.