Who do you trust?

2021-02-17 This post is over 2 years old

In the short time I’ve been a consultant, I have run into a blessed handful of times when I had an ‘I told you so’ moment. With good coaching, and patience I have been able to avoid saying anything too egregious at these moments too! But they still leave me scratching my head. Why would someone who pay lots of money to a consultant with expertise an the area for advise… and then not listen or not follow-through on their suggestions?

Ignoring the obvious economic insanity of such behavior, I think there is something fundamentally human in those kinds of choices now. It took me a long while to even glimpse how this could be anything but insane! Why not trust experience? After all that’s why they are consultants! They presumably have helped more projects than just yours right? Obviously you’d trust experts right? Well, maybe… maybe not.

Let’s set aside the consulting problem for a moment. Think on this with me. Suppose you are a parent, and you’ve some young children. You and your spouse have planned a lovely evening together, and your babysitter calls in sick, just a few hours before have your reservation. After a quick powwow you and your spouse find just two options available on short notice. There is the neighborhood teenager, who you’ve seen walking back from the bus-stop every day, her folks live just down the street, and tey’re decent people. On the other hand, you have an well-qualified baby-sitter who just moved in at the end of the cul-du-sac. She’s got certifications in Baby Bach, CPR, Early Childhood development, and even a Substitute Teachers license from her previous state. Now, who would you pick?

Being a parent myself, I personally would favor the neighborhood teen. And every time I’ve asked this question that is the about the same response I get. ‘My gut would go for the neighborhood teen’. … But why? Why is it that I wasn’t willing to trust the ‘expert babysitter’ who’d just moved in? As I pondered this, I moved through some platitudes like ‘well I don’t know her’, after all I didn’t know the neighborhood teen either. Eventually I landed around accountability and perceived affinity for the long-time, local babysitter. Put another way, I think I was more willing to trust the person who I was more familiar with, and whom if trouble came, I was confident I could find again. Sure the recently arrived contender had certificates for days. But evidently I didn’t trust those too much when it came down to it.

So what about consultants? How would we expect our client’s to act in a similar case? Are they more likely to trust their own people, even if their skills aren’t top-notch and they don’t have the latest certificates? Or will they be swayed by the expertise of the expensive consultants? Taking into consideration the baby-sitter example, I begin to understand why they aren’t always ready to listen. It’s about the relationships, and about their perceptions of us. As a Consultant, my effectiveness really depends on how well I can help my clients, whether in bringing their ideas to fruition, or helping them see better options and make better choices through my experience. Being unable to rely on ‘expertise’ as the badge that will get their attention, I need to carefully consider what it is that holds me back.

Thinking back to the babysitter example, I can point to a couple portions where fear influenced my judgement. For example, while not in so many words, I might be more willing to trust the neighborhood teen because, having lived here, and like, I would expect less… unanticipated and there potentially harmful behavior or actions taken by that teen while watching my kids. Meanwhile , even though they might be experienced, I have no basis for knowing what to expect from the recently moved in expert. For all I know they might be proponents of some new fangled method of child-rearing wherein I will return to my home to find my children all walking around on their heads!

This presumed ability to anticipate and the assumed affinity for the anticipated behavior make it easier for me to choose to extend trust to the neighborhood teen, though my personal interactions with them are very limited. But in effect, they earned a portion of my trust by being well … in the situation, in the neighborhood, with me. And to re-iterate this is all about the assumption I , the parent, am making. And thus far has had nothing to do with the two potential babysitters.

Taken to the other extreme. Suppose I find there has been some damage to my home after the babysitter has gone and left. In the neighborhood teen’s case, I would be reasonably confident of being able to call them to account. After all their parents live just down the street. But if I hired the expert, how am I to know they won’t just move away, or leave now that they’ve caused some trouble? Admittedly this is becoming somewhat fanciful.

But I have observed this same kind of attitude while consulting though. Very often the local teams don’t appreciate a consultant joining the project and suggesting changes. Put another way, Consultants must work against the perception that they are ‘just mercenaries’ or contractors. Here until the end of the project, and then gone when it comes time to pay the debts. Or worse, the thought that the Consultant is just there to take a quick glance, declare how wrong they all are, and collect a paycheck. I have in fact had these very conversation several times, explaining my intent to be there to actually help, and not simply there to check the box and move on.

But words can only help so much. Actions naturally will help build a reputation, but there is an aspect which I’d like to highlight: The gut feelings that lead to my choice of the neighborhood teen over the expert were based on estimations, and concerns and conclusions I had inside my own head. They were based on my assumptions, my gut impulses, and honestly on my fears of loss. Turning now to consulting, what impact would it have if I were able to draw those assumptions, conclusions and concerns out in conversation with my client?

Effectively this is asking, what if I could listen better, and speak to the heart of the matter rather than just about the technical topics. While I am certain it wouldn’t change the baby-sitting snap decision on the first day, it might shorten the ramp-up duration for the ‘expert’ babysitter. And taking that a step further, if while listening, I were able to use my experience on their behalf, without brandishing it about like a medal, then perhaps too I could build the kind of influence for good that I am seeking for my client.

At its heart the challenge of consulting, is influence. While in logical arguments we often rely on authority, on research, and demonstrated results, when we get down to it… it’s about effectively building a work relationship which allows you to influence the decision makers and action-takers at the client so that your expertise doesn’t go to waste. It’s not about getting a perfect solution, nor as I have often made the mistake, of trying to ‘fix’ their broken process. It’s about building something better together by building the sense that you are indeed in this together.