As consultants, it’s our job to help our clients solve problems and operate at their best. Sometimes this is easy, particularly when the needed correction is related to a process or operational improvement. For example, “You can decrease your product return rate by moving the quality checks upstream in the process.” Frequently, however, the advice is harder to deliver because it’s more personal, like when a business leader needs to change a behavior or a team member is acting inappropriately. In these situations, we may think about saying something, but it’s too awkward so we don’t. We wimp out and, in doing so, we do a disservice to the company that hired us. We’re not being our best.
Over the years I’ve discovered three, three-word tricks to make delivering difficult observations and advice easier — and more effective.
1. “As a consultant…”
I’ve found that using these three magic words makes unsolicited advice less personal because it puts into a business context whatever you’re about to say.
“As a consultant, it’s my job to point out things that are…
…holding you back from achieving the goal.
…getting in the way of the team’s effectiveness.
…exposing you or the company to risk.”
By couching your feedback this way, you’re just doing your job. Conversely, when you don’t use the three words, the feedback is interpreted as more harsh or even confrontational. For example:
“As a consultant, I often notice things that may slow down a team’s progress. In today’s meeting I noticed a couple times when it seemed like you interrupted the conversation too early. This can shut down some people and leave ideas undiscovered.”
Versus: “In today’s meeting I noticed a couple times when you may have interrupted the conversation too early. This can shut down some people and leave ideas unsaid.”
2. “Even better if…”
This trick works because you start with something positive, so you get their attention without making them defensive.
“Well, that meeting went well. You really got the team engaged! It would have been even better if you had let the conversation go a little deeper when they were talking about xyz. I sensed there were some ideas that didn’t get to the surface, and a couple people looked a little disappointed.”
Speaking up is on my mind this week because of all the sexual harassment in the news and the #MeToo stories on Facebook and LinkedIn. As an independent consultant, speaking up is our obligation. Granted, we have fewer options if we witness harassment or especially if we’re the recipient of the unsavory behavior. We may feel it’s not our job to speak up or report the behavior because we’re not employees, but the reverse is true. It’s exactly because we’re external consultants that we should say something, either directly to the offending person, to the program sponsor, or to the company’s HR department. The “as a consultant” trick will help.
Which brings me to my third tip.
3. Active, not passive.
I confess this isn’t really a three-word trick, it’s more of a rule to live by. Being mindful of your own behavior is good, but it’s passive and insufficient. I’d like to think most men I work with are self-aware enough to monitor their own behavior, but are they strong enough to actually speak up and be an active advocate for their women colleagues: wives, mothers, daughters, nieces, and friends?
If you see something, say something, even if it makes you uncomfortable. It can be as simple as overhearing a couple of guys in the coffee line discussing a woman colleague. Think of a woman in your life, find your backbone, tap one of them on the shoulder, and say, “Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation and it makes me uncomfortable.” This is a non-confrontational way of making them aware of their behavior, and, of course, awareness is the first step toward positive change.
The three-word phrase “makes me uncomfortable” is effective because you’re describing your feelings; it doesn’t point the finger directly at them, and there’s a good chance they will realize they’re doing or saying something that’s inappropriate.
Be more than a bystander. Be your best. This will make you a better consultant, and a better person.
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