Project Management

Five strategies for winning over a client's employees

If clients' employees feel threatened by your presence, they may resort to sabotage. Read Chip Camden's consulting maxims for getting employees on your side.

An excellent discussion formed on Toni Bower's post Consultants must meet deadlines when a reader asked what to do if you missed the deadline because of sabotage by a resentful employee. For me, this raised the larger issue of the consultant's relationship to client employees.

Wouldn't you feel a little threatened?

Bringing in a consultant is rarely a group decision. A C-level often engages the consultant, usually without asking the employees about it. Unlike with new employees, a consultant may not even get to meet existing staff before starting to work. Employees might therefore speculate that the entire engagement is just the boss's panicked reaction to what seems like a hopeless state of affairs — that is, an attempt to clean up the mess that the employees couldn't handle on their own.

If the employees had previous unpleasant experiences with consultants (such as a consultant leaving an even bigger mess behind for the employees to clean up), it only makes matters worse. It's no wonder that any opportunity to sabotage the arrangement seems appealing to employees.

Can't we all just get along?

We must be able to work with these people. On some projects you may be able to just do your bit and git, but if you ever want to develop an ongoing relationship with your client, then you must become a player in solving their larger problems. Those solutions require the cooperation and backing of everyone involved. So how do you win them over to your side? Here are five maxims for handling the situation.

It's not your side, it's your client's side.

Don't accept the adversarial role in which they may be trying to cast you. You aren't there to prove that your advice is correct or even important — you're there to help solve the client's problem. In all discussions, try to keep focused on that goal, and discuss pros and cons of all sides without trying to paint yourself as the expert. Any and all disagreements need to be pulled back into the light of what matters to your client.

Acknowledge employee contributions.

Resistance to consultants often comes from a perceived loss of status: "We couldn't handle it, so they called in the expert." Point out what they've done right, as well as what they've done wrong. When you address past mistakes or bad choices, make sure everyone understands that everybody makes mistakes. The occasional anecdote about the missteps you've made and learned from in the past can help break the ice — especially if they're recent events. You want employees to see you as someone who can mutually teach and learn with them, rather than a know-it-all with whom they could never hope to keep pace.

Recruit the troublemakers.

This suggestion from TechRepublic member bspallino can be used to nip the problem in the bud. Not only does it add pressure to make the obstructionist want the project to succeed, it's possible that the acknowledgment of their potential worth to the project could convert them into an ally instead of an adversary. It's important, though, that their involvement is more than a mere formality — you have to really bring them in and listen to them, which may be taking a tiger by the tail.

Make yourself unnecessary.

Take pains to plan for successfully handing off the project when your engagement is over, if not sooner. Demonstrate egolessness by making the project something that anyone with proper training could carry forward. Not only will these actions work to avert employee suspicions that you might be trying to replace them permanently, but it could also almost paradoxically help to insure that you will be kept around, because you obviously place the company's best interests first.

Add humor.

The hardest things to hear go down better with a laugh, especially if the joke is self-deprecatory. Be careful not to bully employees with sarcasm, but keep a lighter atmosphere and foster a sense of community by joking around together.

Have you been a victim of employee sabotage?

Have you ever faced a situation in which you felt that the employees were out to sink your battleship? If so, how did you handle it? What would you do differently now?

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Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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