One of the reasons I became an independent consultant was to get away from the various interpersonal conflicts that recur in an office setting. Simply by putting my stakes down off the org chart, I avoid all manner of intrigue over power plays, office gossip, discontent with policies and procedures, and a whole host of other miscellaneous useless discussion that my regularly employed colleagues have to deal with on a regular basis. Even if I have an opinion on one of these topics, I think it prudent to remain silent unless asked to contribute — and even then to try to maintain as neutral a tone as possible.

But sometimes it’s not quite so easy to divide between “office politics” and the portion of my clients’ business strategies for which I bear some responsibility. The very fact that humans are involved means that many business problems cannot be separated from social problems. No matter how emotional the discussions, if the decisions that come out of them could impact the quality of the solution I’m attempting to help my client achieve, then I’m duty-bound to participate.

Some things to remember when jumping into the fray:

  1. Business first. My client is in business to make money, not to run a social club, a forum, or a charity for its employees. My suggestions need to focus on what promotes business success. Employee satisfaction can be a big component of that, but it’s secondary.
  2. Who’s your Daddy/Momma? Maybe most of the time my client’s company is one big happy family, but if it comes down to conflicts between various powerful people in the organization, then I must remain loyal to the person who controls my contract. If I disagree with them on an issue that has become inflammatory, then I’ll try to reason with them privately instead of adding fuel to the fire.
  3. Be friendly to all sides of the argument. Don’t make things worse by acting in a partisan manner. Try to reconcile the different viewpoints, without belittling the importance of any argument. Being an outsider may help with the perception of disinterested objectivity.
  4. Just add humor. Many times strong emotions can be diffused by revealing that the topic shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But sometimes that can backfire, so I have to choose my lines well. Best not to joke on the main source of contention, but rather on some aspect of it that everyone can find absurd.

I’d like to be more specific about the incident that sparked this post, but then I’d be violating rule #5:

5. Don’t blog about it. In fact, don’t discuss it with anyone outside the organization. I signed an NDA with my client, which means that they let me in on internal affairs that they don’t expect me to share. It’s not a matter of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of trust.