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Office politics – a consultant’s survival guide

When a company’s affairs go a bit pear-shaped, office politics go into overdrive and this can make life very difficult for a consultant going in to lend a hand.

I have been in the shoes of the consultant and of the employee, and I witnessed the resentment that can be triggered by an ‘outsider’ coming into a business. We all know the saying “give a consultant your watch and they will tell you the time” – in other words, give up all the information they ask for and they will tell you what you could have told yourself.

Employees tend to imagine that consultants are earning a fortune, and people fear that these well-paid individuals will find fault with them. This leads to Chinese whispers circulating as various team members try to position themselves as not having been part of the problem, along with no shortage of finger pointing, bad-mouthing and avoidance tactics that can make any real assessment of the issue nigh on impossible. In other words – office politics!

Isolated and often lonely, consultants can become a target. Team members might try to curry favour by feigning friendship in an effort to obtain new information before others, while some will block the consultant for as long as possible by giving as little information as possible.

For the inexperienced, this is a very challenging time, but it is possible to cut through the smoke and mirrors by identifying the key influencers within the organisation.

Ask yourself the following questions about the people you meet:

  • Are they senior?
  • Do they influence decision makers?
  • Are they working for the greater good and the organisations goals or just themselves?
  • Are they popular and respected by the team or are they disliked and resented by the team (body language can be telling here)?

As far as your own conduct goes, you should follow these basic guidelines in order to be effective in your role as a consultant and avoid being embroiled in office politics:

  • Remain positive and upbeat, not moaning or bemoaning others.
  • You need to remain professional – your integrity and credibility are at risk. While some of the employees may not like each other, they are more likely to side together ‘under siege’ than side with you.
  • Assume that whatever you say will be repeated – accurately or otherwise.
  • Don’t gossip.
  • Rise above conflict.
  • Be assertive and confident.
  • If in doubt, say nothing!

The most important piece of advice is this: be really clear about what you are expected to deliver and then deliver it. The consultancy world is precarious at best and your failure to deliver will have a quicker impact on your demise than the failure of employees to do their jobs.

Penny Whitelock, July 2016

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