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Five tips to help you deal with people who love to hate consultants

As an outsider coming into a company to make sometimes unwelcome changes, consultants can often find themselves the target of office politics. Here are a few survival tactics from a consultant who has been there.

As a consultant, you're often looked upon as an outsider, an unwelcome intrusion to the departmental clique at the client company. Perhaps you were brought in by upper management and touted as the savior of a project that is falling behind on critical due dates -- sparking anger and resentment among the in-house team that may have fathered the project. It's an occupational hazard -- IT consultants often find themselves mired in ugly office politics.

There are a variety of reasons why people love to hate consultants. Many people -- especially those in leadership roles -- do not look favorably upon others who exhibit more initiative and drive than they do. And in my experience, even a little initiative puts you ahead of 90 percent of the current workforce.

Often, your client's staff is actually predisposed to finding fault with you, and personality conflicts will arise from those feelings. Some people will take an instant dislike to you, and to make matters worse, some of these people may be in a position to dislodge you from your job.

So how can you turn a no-win situation into a productive one for both you and the company? In this article, I'll describe a few techniques you can use to protect yourself when you find you're labeled as "the enemy" at the client site.

Tip #1: Document your work with e-mail

All correspondences should include e-mail to avoid any "he-said, she-said" arguments. Whether you have a telephone conversation, a quick hallway chat, or a meeting -- all of those discussions should be followed up with an e-mail that summarizes what was discussed. For particularly heated issues, I recommend avoiding telephone conversations because e-mail provides better documentation of exactly how the other person interacted with you.

Make sure that you Cc those who may be an ally in the chain of command on all e-mail correspondence. And, of course, you should not delete anything, as you may find a need for it later.

Tip #2: Send e-mail to shed light on people who are missing deadlines

You may find that certain employees involved in the project at the client site are missing deadlines, which, in turn, affects your ability to complete the project on time. To address these issues, it's best to confront the employee through e-mail correspondence -- once again, for the benefit of keeping records. Your correspondence should be diplomatic and politically correct, but you should also use it to force your adversaries to address specific job-related issues, even though this may not cast them in a favorable light.

Keep in mind, however, that this method is not always effective. Some people will see through this tactic and will respond to your e-mails with dissemblance, giving the appearance of their desire for teamwork -- while maintaining their adverse behavior toward you.

But there are situations in which this method works well. I chose this course of action recently during a stint as a program manager with a communications conglomerate. I deliberately continued to ask a difficult employee for the status on due dates that had been missed, I questioned issues that were addressed late in the project, and I asked about items that I knew were in this person's area of responsibility. It worked like a charm. Oftentimes, if you give them enough rope, they will hang themselves.

Tip #3: Maintain your professional composure

Often, the advice that sounds the most obvious is the most difficult to follow in real life. Avoid any animosity or anger toward people who are deliberately working against you. Don't let their errant behavior influence yours. It will only serve to be your downfall and put you at their level. A reaction from you is what they are usually after. Maintain a professional approach -- especially around coworkers who may be friends of your adversaries.

Tip #4: Allow actions to speak louder than words

Perform only what is within your job responsibilities but be willing to go that extra mile. It can only help to solidify your position with the company and make it that much more difficult for the troublemakers to usurp you. Here again, in doing so, you run the risk of coming across as an overachiever. This won't score you any points with the "in" crowd, but you weren't hired to be popular. You were hired because your record showed a clear propensity for accomplishing goals and for getting things done.

Tip #5: If you can't beat them, try to befriend them

If the situation doesn't appear to be getting any better, but you feel the job is worth salvaging, try a new approach. Make an effort to ingratiate yourself with the troublesome individuals and reason with them. Ask them specifically what it is that you may have done to draw their disfavor and how you can make your relationship better for the sake of the company.

Don't discuss their rude and unprofessional behavior, because this can be counterproductive. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but you need to ask yourself if sacrificing a little dignity might be worth what you may gain in the long run.

I don't advise going directly to the employee's supervisor. Remember that the people you have a complaint against are permanent employees. It's infinitely easier for the company to select the fast-and-easy way to eliminate complaints by getting rid of you. Don't shoot yourself in the foot.

If you must resign, leave with a good attitude

If all else fails and you still find yourself on the slippery slope out the door, be confident in the fact that you did the best job you could under difficult circumstances. Regroup and learn from the experience. Using those lessons to your advantage down the line ensures that you will always come away from every job with something useful.

14 comments
randy_davis
randy_davis

Overall, this appears to be 5 tips on how to really mess up on a project. Emailing and CC'ing everyone as the first attempt to communicate is a poor style that will be resented by all parties concerned. Better to verbally address the issues in the proper forum. Just as the management team has to verbally address the issue, then document, then possibly suspend the person, you too should follow a progressive style. I think you confuse initiative with being abrasive and obtrusive. My clients are swamped with the day-to-day tasks and I am there to assist with the extra effort required to run a project successfully.

Mr L
Mr L

When you walk in the door with this kind of chip on your shoulder: >> There are a variety of reasons why people love to hate consultants. Many people ??? especially those in leadership roles ??? do not look favorably upon others who exhibit more initiative and drive than they do. And in my experience, even a little initiative puts you ahead of 90 percent of the current workforce. >> And you're not alone or unique in my experience. I don't really know how you expect not to garner ill-will when you have insulted 90% of the current workforce before you've made it in the door. Maybe Tip #1 should be moved to Tip #2, and Tip #1 should state: Respect the people paying your salary until they give you a reason not to, and avoid pre-judging those who enable your livelihood.

steve.hards
steve.hards

If employees have issues with you as a consultant, it is quite likely they have issues with their manager too. I remember before I became a consultant the shock and anger I felt when, as an employee with a new project I was getting just my teeth into, a consultant was 'parachuted in' without involving me in the decision. As it turned out I quickly realised that I could learn lots from him and my resentment abated, but it could have been quite different. So I always make a point of talking early on to the people whose noses may have been put out to check with them what they think of my coming in. Sometimes I use the above experience as a way of getting into the conversation. I also agree with reisen55 that if you have to call a meeting, bringing in cakes to go with the coffee goes a long way! Of course they see through the gesture, but it can be a source of humour and they do lift the mood! Steve http://www.opazity.com

pete_Francis76
pete_Francis76

"For particularly heated issues, I recommend avoiding telephone conversations because e-mail provides better documentation of exactly how the other person interacted with you" I just can't agree with that. In my experience sending email and avoiding face to face meetings is the quickest way to create misunderstandings and make a bad situation worse. I completely agree with sending summary emails to document conversations but when things are going wrong you need to meet face to face, not play email tennis.

reisen55
reisen55

As an outside consultant .... I am part of my client's staff and treat myself accordingly, and do not stand outside and oblivous to their concerns. This is vital. McKinsey loves to turn out consultants that become CEO level consultants and the results as disasterous. I document everything and leave on-site visit reports on the desks of principal owners whenever I am done and leave procedure notes for staff. I buy food periodically. Sounds silly but coffee cake in the morning with coffee makes friends fast. I listen to their conversation when they are talking to me about anything and everything. My world is not just InfoTech with a client. I have to know their business, their staff, how they all work together. And while I may curse stupidity outside of their office, inside is different: sweetness and charm.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Sorry Tim and Chip I dispute this quote: "There are a variety of reasons why people love to hate consultants. Many people, especially those in leadership roles do not look favorably upon others who exhibit more initiative and drive than they do. And in my experience, even a little initiative puts you ahead of 90 percent of the current workforce." If this was the case the USA would not be even remotely in the position that it is today. Even with all of our faults and miss-steps, I dare say that the US is still the greatest experiment in free trade and business that ever existed. Being a consultant myself the attitude of the customer is totally dependent on how I approach them. That is just "part of doing business." Sorry for the rant, but this statement truly did not feel right.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Maintain a friendly and confident disposition. People believe in you more if you appear to believe in yourself and don't seem defensive. I remember one time another consultant was hired on alongside me on a project. His abilities were OK, but from the start he seemed paranoid about getting sacked. I think his attitude helped to make his fears come true.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You are right. It's very difficult to impart to the written word those human signals of friendliness that come naturally to the voice and facial expressions.

wjacomb
wjacomb

One tool that I have found helpful is to seek the advice of the permanent staff on procedure. The one thing that really turn off staff against consultants is not showing respect for their procedures be it turning on a Data Point on or connecting a new printer to the network. A good line to use is that you would like to seek the benefit of their wisdom and guidance. It works like a charm. Another good phrase when you want something is not request it as of right but ask "what are the chances of .....". Also take an interest in the personal lives of those around you. Treat them as you would have yourself be treated.

elton.w.nelson
elton.w.nelson

"And in my experience, even a little initiative puts you ahead of 90 percent of the current workforce." The implicit condescension and comptempt might suggest where part of the problem rests.

mattohare
mattohare

I think the '90%' was along the lines of people that say they'll be there in 'two minutes.' Northern Irish will do the same by saying 'Take a wee seat.' but the time spent in the seat is not always short. As far as lack of initiative, I agree. The author is off the mark a bit. All permanent workers will have some non-initiative time. No one can be all-go every work day of the year, unless they get holiday time that rivals French employees. Consultants, by nature, have less time to be exposed to co-workers. They can appear to always be happy and cheerful, with these breaks that they get. However, employees do often have massive amounts of initiative. This is especially the case with an employer that takes good care of them. That is good pay, team building activities, new training opportunities, and especially an active participation in the greater business. That last part is very important. People can not begin to take initiative if they don't know what they're working on.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I suppose the 90 per cent is disputable, but I have to agree that there are a lot of chair warmers out there in the work force. And that's not only limited to the USA. It's true, though, that the consultant's attitude can sometimes change that. I can readily think of a few occasions where I went into an office and helped an old-guard programmer come to life again by introducing him to new techniques.

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