Consulting: aloofness versus collusion

It hadn't really struck me before Thursday last week that the supervision of consultants is 'a good thing'. A few years ago David Birch and Erik de Haan wrote a piece arguing that ' consulting supervision is a distinctive field in its own right, significantly different to coaching supervision and in some ways richer.'

They suggest that the richness is due to a complexity stemming from consultants who work within 'an organisation while holding on to their outsider's perspective. Yet, as they engage with the client system, they gradually acquire an insider's perspective on the organisation's issues. Such a stance of being an 'outsider within' is not straightforward at all and carries with it all sorts of temptations, risks and limitations. On the one hand, there is a risk that staying overly analytical and detached may result in observations, ideas and solutions that are more relevant for the consultant – or for his previous clients – than for the case in point. On the other hand, consultants risk becoming over-involved if they identify too strongly with the organisation's agenda and issues, and can fall into the trap of trying to 'manage' the situation. One could call this the dilemma of 'aloofness versus collusion'.

What a great phrase 'aloofness versus collusion' and that's more or less what we discussed in our second group supervision session last week. It's an acute issue for particularly for internal consultants – as our team is – caught between aiming to develop their careers as an insider to an organisation and acting as 'critical friend' and challenger as an outsider to it. This is compounded by the fact that internal consultants are often more hierarchically junior to the people they are consulting to/with and they have perceived lower status than external consultants. It's often easier (less career limiting?) to collude than to challenge.

External consultants – whatever their age and position within their own organisation's hierarchy -have credibility just by virtue of being external. They can maintain an appropriate level of aloofness because they are not 'one of us' but we are willing to listen to, and even act on, what they say. They don't need to collude in the same way – though in my experience if they are employed as an outside voice to tell people what the client doesn't want to then they do collude.

The discussion of aloofness versus collusion for us started with our own individual wrestles with it. At our supervisor's suggestion, he used the ideas of Proctor (1986) to consider our various projects. Proctor's framework sees the supervisor acting to support individual consultant development through 3 lenses:

  • normative – the supervisor accepts (or more accurately shares with the supervisee) responsibility for ensuring that the supervisee's work is professional and ethical, operating within whatever codes, laws and organisational norms apply
  • formative – the supervisor acts to provide feedback or direction that will enable the supervisee to develop the skills, theoretical knowledge, personal attributes and so on that will mean the supervisee becomes an increasingly competent practitioner
  • supportive (Proctor calls this restorative) – the supervisor is there to listen, support, confront the supervisee when the inevitable personal issues, doubts and insecurities arise – and when client issues are 'picked up' by the supervisee

What this led to was a different and rich conversation about our internal consulting function as a whole – how are we organised? Where can we add most value? Are we located in a good structural position in the organisation? What is our 'offer'?

The same issues of aloofness versus collusion arise at a functional level. Are we seen as too aloof and how do we stop the function simply colluding in delivering what the leaders want? We already know that internal consultancy is organisationally uncertain and often difficult to sustain as a function – does a desire to survive encourage a tendency to collusion? Collectively we left with these questions (one which a paper from the Cass Business School looks at this in more depth).

What I'm wondering is whether the skills of supervising individual consultants personal development could be reframed and/or applied to supervising the development of an internal consulting function that operates in a strong, credible and independent way without being aloof or collusive.

What are your views on this topic? Let me know.

Three books worth reading on the topic: