The hand grenade was tossed over the wall in an email.
“We decided we don’t need the consultants,” a Board Committee Chair of a multi-billion-dollar financial institution wrote.
There had been no discussion with the Board, senior management, or the consultants. Just the unilateral declaration. If allowed to stand, the decree would’ve effectively killed critical deliverables at a pivotal moment in a large-scale governance and leadership turn-around project and triggered a cascade of adverse consequences.
The situation was immediately escalated and mobilized an urgent intervention by the Board Chair and CEO.
Though the institutional guardrails worked, and the action plan was kept on track, the incident surfaced questions and issues that couldn’t be ignored: Why had this happened? What, actually, had happened? Was this a rogue actor’s intransigence? A heroic whistleblower signaling bad consulting work? The leading edge of a thicker problem?
Every consulting engagement, to be successful on whatever terms define it, requires alignment of goals and objectives. But even with that established, a million things can cause a derailment.
The issue in this situation is that the Committee Chair pulled the emergency brake out of a noble—though radically misguided—sense of duty. He strongly believed that preserving the status quo was in the institution’s best interest. In his view, the consulting work—introducing innovative tools and processes to enhance culture and governance—posed a grave threat to hallowed ways of doing things, and he could not fathom that change would be good.
That superficially explains one stakeholder’s actions. But it also opens the door to a more challenging and pervasive problem: understanding why people reject expert help for which there is demonstrable need and benefit?
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Leaders make multitudes of decisions every day. Some are low-impact; others are high-stakes. Well-functioning organizations design for the efficient distribution of decision-making authority to mitigate decision collisions, de-risk mistakes and optimize effectiveness.
As a general proposition, executives who are prepared and qualified for their roles and are operating in manageable zones of competency will usually make a preponderance of good decisions.
The accurate assessment of internal capabilities in relation to achieving specific outcomes is a feature of mature and effective leadership. No matter their experience and strengths, responsible leaders appreciate that even the most talented and capable senior teams, or even they themselves, inevitably encounter circumstances beyond their expertise. Accordingly, engaging consultants is a well-established and non-controversial practice; global consulting services revenues in 2019 (pre-Covid-19) totaled approximately US$506 billion.
Leaders Who Dismiss Assistance and Advice
Nonetheless, the world is full of people who object to or outright reject expert assistance.
Course-correcting once an obstructionist or naysayer acts-up is situation-specific. There are numerous variables influencing what transpires or not.
What’s constant is the root cause—the human dynamics that drive people to tie their shoelaces together, self-sabotage, claim (or pretend) to know things they don’t, or otherwise act against interest.
These are some of the factors often at play:
- The Problem of Asking for Help—Generally deemed unproblematic in hard operational functions—accounting, IT, compensation, legal, physical infrastructure—the need for help in so-called “soft” areas—leadership development, team dynamics, culture, human performance—is often falsely equated with weakness. This enduring stigma to seeking and accepting help can materially compromise everything and is the business world’s Achilles heel. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Best Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Ask for Help” makes the point that “hiding our weaknesses in an attempt to be strong leaders makes us weak leaders. Our vulnerabilities make us most vulnerable when we pretend they don’t exist.”
- Embarrassment—Vulnerability is a natural human experience. Everyone has a unique tolerance for feeling vulnerable. In organizational settings, people usually instinctually seek positions in which their potential exposure to embarrassment won’t be strained. A consultant’s work, particularly if involved in deep assessments as distinct from hard operational functions, could trigger a powerful defense, having nothing to do with the actual substance of the work.
- Consultant’s Deficiency—Not all consultants are competent or deliver value. Objections to or rejection of a consultant’s input or work-product can sometimes be a legitimate complaint about substandard work, unprofessional or unacceptable behavior, or some or other dysfunction in the consulting relationship.
- Fear/Anxiety—The presence of consultants in an organization can arouse fears and anxieties. Even when senior decision-makers are fully briefed on and contribute to scoping consultants’ brief of work and there are few actual unknowns, negative concerns about involvement and activity in the organizational ecosystem can churn into a disproportionately intense feedback loop.
- Stubbornness—Some people are obstinately rigid and will refuse by default to entertain the introduction of any unwanted influence or to orient toward learning or accepting new methods of thinking and operating.
- Risk Aversion—A negative reaction to possible deviations from established modes of thought and behavior. Assumptions of negative outcomes can catalyze a vehement reaction to reinstate normed requirements of security and predictability. People often energetically strive to undermine or nullify change, driven by an impassioned though confoundingly irrational imperative to preserve the status quo at all costs even if doing so is harmful.
- Power and Control—The impulse for agency and independence of thought and action—control of oneself—is central to the human condition. The drive to control others can create conflict and contravene cultural and operational expectations. Pathologically controlling people can become distraught or enraged when their outsized demands for control are restricted. The intensity of their actual reaction might be masked, but they will stealthily and passive-aggressively maneuver to restore their own control and disempower others.
- Anger/Malice—Everyone gets angry. Some people exhibit anger obviously; others suppress or disguise it. Yet others are chronically furious. Their persistently simmering rage can be unleashed without clear cause or connection to anything contemporary. Nearly every organization has individuals like this in their workforce or, more grievously, in leadership positions. They are or eventually become insider saboteurs.
- Inferiority/Insecurity—The consultant’s involvement triggers a feeling of inadequacy to some institutional stakeholder (or cabal of them) and is perceived as a reputational or positional threat that needs to be neutralized.
- Personal Needs—Preservation of a desirable position or situation, maintenance of power, prestige, self-interest or other self-focused imperative over-rides performance and fulfillment of professional responsibilities.
- Social Conformity—Yielding to an implicit pressure to abdicate individual agency and follow groupthink. Also includes the failure to speak-up or push-back against a domineering or bullying personality.
- Assertion of Independence—An expression of aspirational competence which can be productive and useful when engaged with appropriate preparation and developmental readiness. But it is often instituted prematurely to demonstrate potency despite the absence or insufficiency of it, driven by impatience, defiance, social immaturity, or to repeal a sense of inadequacy.
- Dunning-Kruger Effect—A cognitive bias in which people overestimate their knowledge and/or ability to perform a task.
Responses and solutions
The rejection of expertise and good ideas, not just from consultants, occurs in organizations every day. What can be done?
The answer, in a word, is leadership.
The most effective solution to the problem is direct intervention—sponsorship, reassurance, listening, plain-spokeness about challenges and benefits, hopes and concerns—from the senior leader that the work being done, the outcomes sought, and methods used to achieve them, are worthwhile and value-added.
Of course, exceptional leadership is about more than wielding power to summarily alter the course of things, even for good. Situations like the one described here offer a special opportunity for institutional learning and growth—a point of entry to examine what the underpinning issues and drivers are, understand how and why they’re playing out in this way, and to institute progressive responses to regressive tendencies.
There’s no organization where that won’t be beneficial. But it can be particularly important where there’s a history of avoiding challenging issues. And where the default institutional reflex has been—or, as was the case with the bomb-throwing committee chair, still may be—to preserve that status quo.