CXO

Patience is key when dealing with a difficult consultant

How do you handle problems with a consultant who is managed by an outside firm? Scott Robinson takes a look at four types of problem consultants and offers strategies for dealing with them.


Consultants sometimes face hostility from members of your team because the staffers view the consultant as a turf invader. But managers with any tenure at all know that discord works both ways. Sometimes the consultant is the source of discord.

I wrote about the consultant's plight in a previous article. When the tables are turned and the consultant is causing difficulty, you have a different set of problems. The symptoms of the problem may seem similar, however. The response from your staff to a problem consultant will look much like the response you would from staffers having problems with a coworker. There can be resentment, resistance to the consultant through lack of cooperation, unconstructive politics, and even open dissent.

A troublesome consultant is a more difficult problem for a development manager than a troublesome staffer, however. The consultant is only tentatively under the manager’s authority; the arrangement is temporary, and the consultant is insulated because the only corrective path between manager and consultant is through the firm supplying the consultant. In short, there is little in the way of consequences that a manager can employ to correct a consultant’s negative behavior. What you can do, however, is minimize the effects of the consultant’s trouble making—and, in so doing, conserve your team’s overall productivity.

As in the case of difficult staffers, troublesome consultants come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here are some of the types to look out for:

The Lone Ranger: This consultant simply won’t work with others. They know everything, and when they don’t, something gets fumbled. They don’t cooperate and offer little to other team members. Why? Like stage magicians, they are jealously guarding their expertise (the basis of their high rates) and resist working with others, for fear that the tricks of the trade they have mastered will leak out and reduce their market value.

What can you do? Let them have their trade secrecy. If the consultant is expert in proprietary ERP technology, let them code in private—but team them with in-house personnel for all design tasks and put your expectations for the team’s performance in writing. As a line manager, you’re task-parsing for the consultant anyway. Do it in such a way that accountability is established up front, creating a mutual dependence between consultant and staff, but without threatening the consultant’s autonomy or proprietary self-image. If they seem a little neurotic in this respect, well, what harm does it really do? Just be certain you’ve created a path to the consultant that your staff can navigate.

The Buck-Passer: Part of the consultants’ mystique is knowing everything, and of course your in-house staff isn’t fooled. The finest consultants are the ones who don’t indulge in this game, but if you have a consultant who does, you often see this individual handing off the blame for any mistakes. This consultant harbors the pointless insecurity that a lack of perfection diminishes his or her value. You as a manager know better, of course, and such behavior will really anger staff members, who don’t much like being tagged as scapegoats.

Few consultants set out to pass the buck. It’s a reflex, a reaction rather than an intention. You can offset it early on in team gatherings. Praise accountability and make clear that you give points for mention of project missteps, even when the misstep was the work of the person pointing it out. The consultant will realize that there is nothing to be gained by ducking a problem.

The Credit Thief: This type of consultant will anger your staff even more than the Buck-Passer, for obvious reasons. The agenda here isn’t keeping black marks off the record, it’s getting brownie points on the record, even when they’re lifted from others.

There’s often a personality factor at work here. The consultant who indulges in this practice needs an unusual amount of affirmation and may have a somewhat skewed value system. In the long run, your investment in the consultant isn’t of the same magnitude as your investment in your staffers, so there’s no fixing this problem. What you can do is eliminate credit so that the consultant can’t steal it.

Make a point to de-emphasize individual accomplishment in team meetings. Instead, focus on team successes and collaborative action. When consultants are paired with staffers on a task, managers should speak of the team, not its members. You’re not taking anything away from the consultant, whose self-image issues aren’t your problem, and you’re removing the opportunity for hogging the credit.

The Politician: This consultant is all about creating perceptions and using them to manipulate others. This individual is the subtlest and sometimes the most dangerous of passive-aggressive invaders. If you’ve suffered through this, you know that such a consultant often isn’t worth it: the job got done, the project was a success, but the damage done to the environment leaves that success in doubt, in your mind. The politically minded consultant, in an effort to curry favor with senior management or to transition to easier work once the contract is signed, is capable of shaping the impressions of in-house personnel both above and below. You find yourself reacting, and you would rightly resent being placed in this position.

The best way to combat this tendency is to simply put a lot of noise in the consultant’s path. Practice some noble politics of your own: it is said that openness is the most effective weapon of a free society, so be open. Communicate freely and openly about project objectives, tasks, assignments, and schedules, copying memos and e-mails upward and downward. Turn all the lights on. Minimize the opportunities for the consultant to subtly influence the perceptions of in-house personnel as to their role. At the same time, give the consultant every acknowledgement that’s due.

Hang in there
It’s important to remember that no matter how bad a situation gets when a consultant causes discord, it is ultimately a temporary condition. Your staffers want them gone, and in the end, your staffers will get what they want. All contracts eventually run out. Your job is to optimize the work done by the consultant while minimizing the negative effect they are having on your staff. Keep a watchful eye on things, take action when necessary, but above all, be patient. You know things will be back to normal, and your patience will spill over to your staff, where you need it most.

 

About Scott Robinson

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...

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