"I hesitate not to pronounce, that every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client.” A rather harsh proverb, but such things become popular because they contain an underlying and universal truth. The issue is not that an individual lacks the intelligence, the skills, or the experience to be his or her own counsel. The trouble grows from the conditions of the human psychology. Regardless of how much we desire it, rationalize it, or proclaim it to be, humans seldom can maintain objectivity. The more important the issues is to us, the more the emotional charge, and the higher personal stakes, the more likely we are to slip into subjective reasoning.
And although most of us would like to believe that we are far more objective in our professions than in our personal life, such thoughts lose ground when we consider that our careers are very important, they do contain an emotional charge and our success or failure is high on the list of personal stakes. The science suggests that ninety percent of all decision making is emotional, but that we support these choices with attempts at rational argument. The more personal the issue, the more emotional the considerations. “It’s just business” is a fine rational sounding term to use…when we are the one saying it and the outcome doesn’t directly effect our life or career.
In general, most would agree that the statement, “there is always room for improvement” is accurate. As a generalization I can appreciate it, but when the suggestion hints that “I” can improve, seldom am I willing to let it slip by without at least a little bit of a fight. Most of us can look around our organization and expound upon the need for improvement in other departments. Most of us would give little thought if a consultant came to work with one of those other departments. In fact, we would more than likely shrug and say, “well it’s just business and after all, there’s always room for improvement.”
Not the case when asked to seek out consultation for our own department. There are many reasons why the thought of strangers evaluating us incites everything from dread to down-right hostility. The most common reason is that all professionals suffer from a bias called the “curse of knowledge.” The more we know, the more intimate we are with our environment, the less likely we are to believe that someone who “knows less” can offer any viable improvements. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to suffer from another cognitive fallacy called the “back-fire effect.” Simply put, presented with information that conflicts with a person’s belief—say on something like the right way to run a department—the person’s belief in his way actually becomes stronger and more certain.
But we can’t really be objective and the longer we have been in a particular profession, the less likely we are to change the things that we perceive to “work.” Which is no problem if they do, in fact, work and…and this is a big AND…our important partners in the organization also believe they work. The truth is no one wants to admit they are out of ideas or that they have reached a point where they’ve exhausted options and can’t see through to the solution. At those times it is easy and pleasurable to shift the blame to external sources of the problem. Sometimes those external things may in fact be the cause, but the only way to certainty is an objective review.
Being your own client in certain cases will not reveal the solutions. In fact, the more often and longer we are required to scream our innocence and defend actions that are not working, the more likely that people will stop looking for the solution and start seeing us as the problem. In some circles “consultants” have garnered a bad name. In a few cases or with a few firms, the judgment may well be deserved. We do however rely on consultants for many critical aspects of our lives. We see doctors, we hire attorneys, we seek out financial advice, use personal trainers and each of those professionals see another when they need help. They understand the value of an objective opinion.
Only in the business world do we fear that consulting is synonymous with being “replaced.” Only in the business arena is a second professional opinion seen as some sort of knowledge failure on the part of the seeker. Perhaps a part of that is because consultants are paid to make suggestions so by default their counsel will in part confirm that “yes, there is, in fact, room for improvement.” But true consultation isn’t a judgment on short-comings or inabilities, it’s an objective map of the landscape and the presentation of suggestions to help achieve the particular goals. It’s not an emotional process for the consultant, it’s a rational evaluation. The truth is that there is always room for improvement and an open discussion with a professional whose success is based upon our success, is probably the best place to begin.
Of course we could just pretend everything is fine. That the performance numbers are just a fluke. That it isn’t our fault because our stuff worked before and it will work again…we hope. We could hang on to our innocence in the matter and resist information that will suggest that scary “change” word. They have a cognitive term for that approach also, it’s called: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. In laymen’s terms we call it the definition of insanity.
Authored by: Ray Esposito