Don’t Fight Your Internal Consultant

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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.