OD consultants: learn to challenge

In a recent organization development course I was facilitating someone asked the question "How can you challenge a leader if you think he or she is making the wrong decision about an organizational change?"

I get a lot of questions like this and it seems to me that they are really about how to recognize and use your sources of power. Why do OD consultants need to think about their sources of power? There are two main reasons. First, because often OD consultants are of a lower level in the organization's hierarchy as it appears on the organization chart than the managers they are working with. Typically organisational managers and leaders draw on formal authority, control of resources, and use of organisational structure, rules and regulations. Their status and power are signalled in the organization chart. These higher level managers have what is called 'positional power' which gives them certain privileges and responsibilities that the lower level OD consultant does not have. The closer someone is to the top of the chart the more they are perceived to have the right to ask for things and not be challenged or questioned. In these circumstances the OD consultants feel that they must do what the higher level person tells them to do without questioning it.

Second the OD consultants are usually based in Human Resources functions and managers tend to think of HR as a service function that does what it is told to do by operational managers. In this case the managers feel that they are in a position to control other parts of the organization because some parts, including HR, are thought of as 'support' functions, while others are 'delivery' functions. In most companies the delivery functions are considered more important than the support functions.

So how can an organization development consultant do to remove the barriers of positional power and control of support organizations? The first step is to recognize that organization development work always involves challenging and questioning. This means learning how to ask a lot of questions in way that is not in a combative or confrontational but careful, constructive, and confident. The second step is to develop really excellent business knowledge and, more importantly, keep it up to date.

Read this extract from an advertisement placed by a large multi-national company for an OD consultant and you will see how the challenging and questioning ability is described in terms of influencing skills:

This is largely a role of influence, balance between strategy and tactics is critical. This will be a person who leads from behind. It is critical that he/she has a customer-focused perspective and orientation to the process. To make the point again, this person must be exceptionally strong in a role of influence and flawless in their approach related to managing people and expectations.

Being able to influence without authority is at the heart of an OD practitioner's ability to challenge and question effectively – often a tricky thing to do in difficult situations where, for example, there is no opportunity for a second chance, or there is a lot of resistance from another person or group.

Further on in the job spec for the OD consultant comes the requirement for a "business-oriented" approach:

While this person will be expected to have deep technical skills in organizational development, their holistic business acumen and practical results-orientation will be critical for their internal credibility. This position's success will be measured by the job holder's business orientation and the continuing demand for their involvement by operational line executives throughout the company.

So in order to be able to challenge and question effectively the OD practitioner needs to have excellent influencing skills and a strong sense of the business. This ability to talk the same business language as line managers, and to realize that they have time, budget, and cost constraints as they try to drive performance is an essential part of OD consultants proving that they are truly business aware.

The first step in learning how to influence effectively is to find out what your current influencing capability is. There are many influencing skills surveys available and it is worth finding out more about these as a good diagnosis can help you find out where to focus your efforts to develop your influencing skills. One assessment tool suggests that there are 5 core skills required for effectively influencing others.

1. Openness which asks how well you set agendas, build trust, handle concerns, and manage the other person's expectations.
2. Investigation which assesses your ability to diagnose the situation, ask good questions to uncover needs, listen attentively, and help people take another look at their decisions.
3. Presence that examines the way you can help people consider the potential consequences of their choices and decisions and how they might benefit from exploring a range of options.
4. Confirmation that explores how well you do at handling concerns and gaining agreement even if there are a number of different ideas in the room.
5. Rapport building that considers your ability to build long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial

Once you have done this look for courses or books that will give you some information and some practical exercises you can apply as you learn to influence. A useful book on this is Influencing: Skills and Techniques for Business Success, Fiona Dent and Mike Brent, published by Palgrave MacMillan. Then keep on practicing.

To develop business acumen you need to learn about the industry sector that your company operates in, the market conditions, the competitors and so on. There are usually specialist journals by industry available. Additionally there are numerous business journals and magazines. Some to read are the Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, and strategy + business. All of these have websites that you can learn more from.

But as you are developing these sources of power remember that you already have some. You have the technical skills related to human resource matters and employment conditions. You have a certain amount of resource power – the manager wants you to do something so you are a resource to him/her and you can do the work 'going the extra mile', or you can do it just well enough.

Use your power skillfully and take action to develop your influencing skills and business knowledge. My next step in doing this is to take a program, Know the World, Know Yourself at the newly founded Global Shift University.

Good wishes for 2012.