Don’t Fight Your Internal Consultant

I held my first meeting this weekend with my new Teaching Assistants for the fall. They had both taken my course this past semester. The class consistently gets good marks and I’m always tweaking and trying to improve it. Joseph, one of the two, suggested a major overhaul to the syllabus. What do you think was my gut instinct? First, a story from a few days earlier in the week…

I had been discussing the 360 leadership feedback results that one of my graduate students had received. They were excellent scores. On the other hand, her self-evaluation was quite low.  We discussed how this gap between how her observers saw her as so very effective while she did not, suggested she had a great opportunity to be more bold in her leadership practice. I said she might think of herself as a consultant. “You are still fairly new to the organization,” I pointed out, “and so your fresh perspective, like that of a consultant, could help people see some blind spots and make potentially significant improvements.

She told me her spouse had told her the same thing, offering the very same image: think of yourself as a consultant.  I shared with her the conceptual problem she would face as an internal consultant. First, newcomers like herself assume that the organization probably has reasons for everything it’s doing and so they wait and question their own judgments. They don’t want to be seen as arrogant or as upstarts.  But the second problem, I suggested, is that as human beings we have an extraordinary ability to adapt. So, we adjust ourselves to systems, no matter how foolish, unjust, or uncaring they might be. We adjust to sub-optimal or dys-functional organizations just as we did to bad teachers, rickety cars, or snowy days.

This young professional agreed and she added the third problem. The Absolute Crusher. She said that her organization had talked during interviews and continues to talk a really good game about being open. But then they turn around when challenged by well-meaning “internal consultants” and push back or simply ignore the ideas that are provided to them.

I had been planning all week to write this post from my high horse about these dangers – the reticent “internal consultant” and the “resistant authority” – but then Joseph challenged me about my syllabus.  And I didn’t even realize – so strong are my powers of cognitive dissonance – that I was going to be the Absolute Crusher and brush him off.  Initially, that’s what I did.  I had all of the mental excuses: “He doesn’t know. He hasn’t been around long enough. Changing the whole syllabus would be so hard. I don’t have time. I’d have to find a whole new flow…”

It’s seldom that a young leader is as strong as Joseph. He pushed the issue with me and asked me if I would like him to at least draft a different schema for the syllabus. I had a modicum of humility and so I said, “yes, show me how you think we could create a new layout for the course.”  It was hard to say that. Yet the logic is so easy:

From a rational standpoint if my approach makes sense, I can keep it.  Yet I only stand to learn more from him. If he has significant enhancements, I’m free to choose them. And his major change may also point to smaller changes that could generate gain.  But the worst thing I could do both for my own learning and for Joseph’s sense of empowerment, ownership and excitement would be to tell him to go away. And I very nearly did that.

Whose ideas might be new and fresh, full of possibility you do not – or no longer – see? To whom might you be giving a cold shoulder? It takes a concerted effort to welcome the insights of these great Consultants who can offer new looks at our work and our organization.

We have to get past our defensiveness and fear to hear them out and thus

Lead with our best selves.

  • Great read as always Prof. Mulhern! This has been something that I struggle with. Either I don’t push enough for a change or I push too hard and risk looking arrogant. Here it sounds like you advocate for a more socratic approach to understanding a problem and then changing it. Is it ever appropriate to try to change the Absolute Crusher (assuming there is a specific individual who does this) as the first step towards solving other problems? If so, when and what is the best way to do that?

    • Sven,
      Great to hear from you. It’s hard to crush the crusher 🙂
      When I shared my own instinct to crush, note the source: FEAR. Fear of losing control, fear of massive amounts of work, fear of judgment that what’s being done isn’t good, etc. So, many approaches to “correct” or “challenge” the figure of authority will prick the very same fear. I’m not saying you can’t approach the authority, but that it requires a certain delicacy. This is BOTH the affective delicacy of somehow making clear that you are an ally and not an attacker, and the cognitive delicacy of being sure you recognize the many things the authority is usually keeping an eye on (so they don’t think you’re naive and arrogant).
      I think a Socratic approach works best. So, Joseph could have asked, “what do you see as the value?” or “What concerns you about doing a draft of the syllabus?”
      Happy to hear your further thoughts.

  • Hello Dan! Your essay reminded me of one of my forays into internal consulting when I worked in the IT department of a certain university. I’d made some suggestions for internal communications to my direct supervisor, a programmer with absolutely no free time, who suggested I write up my ideas and take them to our department head — a PhD with a penchant for protocol. I drafted my document carefully because, as the holder of a lowly bachelor’s degree, one may only approach a PhD as a supplicant. Showing proper deference, I plead my case. He glanced at my few suggestions and said: “I am certain you know that if you don’t like the way things are done in this department, you may always leave.” That was the worst “crush” I’d ever experienced. A few months later, the university president resigned (and the resulting purge took my job as well). The department head’s paternalistic performance had been due to political pressures — burning bridges to survive the coming reorganization. But to me, it was a rejection most personal. My points: 1. You can’t always know when you are about to stick your head into a grinder; and 2. It’s not realistic to think you can remain detached, because some reactions will simply catch you unawares and send you reeling. I thought I could, as an editor, I’d been brow-beaten by the best. That was my arrogance — an attitude you likely remember from our previous contacts. Happy to hear your classes are so popular — it’s well-deserved!

  • Mick,
    It’s always a pleasure to read your stories…well told.
    I could only think upon reading your version of the Absolute Crusher, how in one sentence a person in authority can impact how the other person is shaped – perhaps for years or even a career. Authority figures forget their multiplicative effect and how a casual and OBVIOUS statement like “you can always work somewhere else” can have this crushing effect.
    Thanks for the graphic reminder (and the kind wishes).

  • Dan, what a great topic, one that I suspect resonates with all of us. Here’s another take: the leader’s role is more than responding to internal consultants appropriately; it should be to actively invite others to view their roles as internal consultants. In this rapidly changing world, in which companies and organizations need to be nimble, leaders should be constantly on the lookout for new ways to improve. Have you led workshops in which you assign everyone the task of being an internal consultant, creating a sketch of what they’d propose and how they’d move it forward?


  • Dan, I hope that It’s okay to say that you have a great voice I love listening to your RFL than reading it! Enjoy the rest of your summer, Dan!

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