Why do so many people become consultants?

Why companies need consultants

“People's greatest vote of confidence is that they seek advice from one another,” wrote the philosopher and advisor Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626). "In other matters of trust, we only leave a part of what we have to our fellow human beings ... while we simply hand over everything to those we make our advisors." The history of counseling goes back thousands of years. In ancient Greece, people trusted oracles, fortune tellers and astrologers. In ancient Rome there were interpretation specialists who read the future out of animal entrails ("haruspices") and so-called augurs, experts in bird flights, who were commissioned to determine whether the gods of a certain person were to "examine" the flight path and the cries of the poultry Projects would be well disposed. The sophists were advisors of a very different kind. Their authority did not arise from the aura of charismatic sages, but from the competence with which they instructed their students in an enlightening and pragmatic way in the art of rhetorical strategy. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the (“internal”) political advisors at court enjoyed great influence. The certificate of excellence here was membership of the elite of aristocratic councils. By the Renaissance at the latest, bourgeois scholars from outside were increasingly brought in - now it was a matter of finding a new basis for the relationship of trust between the person seeking advice and the adviser. The decisive factor here was not least the ability of the prince to see through any flattery on the part of the advisor. For Niccoló Machiavelli (1469 - 1527) in any case, the prudence of the advisor depended on the prudence of the ruler to demand “the truth”: “And if he notices that it is not being told out of consideration, he should get excited about it”. From now on, the quality of advisory expertise is determined by the intelligence of the client, the respective selection process, the temporal circumstances and the contingent conditions at the scene of the consultation.

It still seems to be like that today, in politics as well as in business. The demand is higher than ever: According to the industry association BDU, sales in the consulting business in Germany rose by around 7 percent in 2018 to 33.8 billion euros. The corona crisis with its dramatic consequences for a globally networked economy and the increasing importance of digitization and sustainability could even intensify this trend. Companies need external consultants. However, not only for rational, economically understandable reasons. Not just to uncover efficiency deficiencies and initiate change. No, the consulting performance in the company always has a twofold effect: as an objectifiable service - and as a "role play".

Power or competence?

In a rational organization, people fit into more or less ordered structures and processes. Managers and employees act accordingly. In the background, the “normative power” of the organization through “situation-behavior standardizations” ensures that “predictable performance can be expected”, as the philosopher and sociologist Heinrich Popitz explains. There is only one rationality here. The one who believes in the bureaucratic-conformist routine of efficiency, innovation and other potentially profitable factors that can be quantified and verified. This rationality is based on the consensus that you have to move things forward, that you have to meet the expectations of the stakeholders, that no mistakes should happen. So the decision-makers of the rational organization bend their heads over the numbers, data, positions and discover: something is wrong there. They conclude from the information available that they need outside help. Let us now slide a second image over this picture, which overlays the first in a semi-transparent manner. All heads are still focused on the factual arguments - but now the attentive observer of the scene can look inside the heads. And what does he see? No rationality shared by everyone, but diverse individual logics. Instead of collective authority ties, he recognizes a wide variety of power interests that are pursued under the guise of “consensus” - and turn the individual actions and processes in the company into a quasi-political event. What the British sociologist Tom Burns described as "micropolitics" as early as the 1960s is part of the instinctual organizational theater, where each actor subscribes to a different party program, where alliances, intrigues and hostilities, sometimes in the Shakespeare format, are at stake.

Power or competence, that is the question. The expert brought in from the outside who intends to work successfully in this environment must first look at both images with great concentration. He has to understand what the rational organization expects of him - and what is played in organizational theater. This means that he has two assignments to fulfill at the same time: the one he officially accepts and the one he secretly observes. While, as a member of a universally recognized elite with a helicopter view, he reduces complexity, eliminates inefficiencies, exposes operational blindness, diligently structures, motivates, innovates, and integrates, as a player in organizational theater he basically also fights for his own interests: for example, through his work appropriate fees and if possible Generate follow-up orders. In order to enforce these interests, he cannot just diligently work through the official agenda. He has to become part of the 'ensemble', through his role-play gain the trust of those in power, read their codes, motifs, emotions, rituals and weigh up when to tell the truth (and how much of it) - and when to go into flattery mode switches.

In order to meet the expectations of his legitimate authority (= legitimized by his expertise) as well as his own, micropolitically founded power interests, the consultant must prove his competence under all circumstances. He must show the client that his actions will have justified his fee in the end - not only in terms of aptitude diagnostics, for example through work samples of previous services. In order for the performance to come across as completely successful, it is important to complete the objectifiable performance with professional acting. The optimal prerequisites for “impression management” are: a male gender; a tall figure; a latently muscular, flexible body that is evidence of many years of yoga practice; prestigious branded clothing (which, however, has to undercut the outfit of the respective client in order not to symbolically undermine his authority); middle to older age, who certifies the component of empirical knowledge through gray temples and prominent nasolabial folds; a toolbox full of well-sounding words ("agile", "innovative", "synergetic"), which suggest an immediate common basis for understanding due to the endless possibilities of interpretation.

Advisor, Truth and Truthfulness

But not only What the external expert brings with him, but also what he does is crucial. After all, the organizational “theater” does not watch for him the role of benefactor, whom one embraces trustingly and gratefully. First of all, the consultant has to show himself to be grateful (especially when the theater takes place in a famous international corporation): for being granted access, listening to him, letting him do the work, employing him at all! In such a scenario, the clever advisor holds back with his cleverness and brings out the good service provider. He knows that - contrary to Machiavelli demanded - too many “rulers” turn a blind eye to the truth. It can happen that (top) managers, such as the organizational researchers Berit Ernst and Alfred Kieser emphasize, impose “the role of scapegoat” on the consultants in order to increase their power and weaken their rivals.

Should the external expert stick to Epictetus (50-138 AD): “Your task is only to play the role assigned to you well; to choose them is up to someone else ”- and stoically submit to the wishes of the scriptwriters? Not at all. The consultant's performance has a double bottom. It also makes this advisor a problem that is necessary for solving other, unofficial problems. The problems don't have to another be - those who want to be eliminated for reasons of individual power politics. A competent consultant is very well able to tackle problems that he clearly sees from his observer position, but which are (so far) invisible to the actors on the corporate stage. Through a role play that, beyond successful “impression management”, embodies and proclaims authentically perceived virtues such as trust, truthfulness and responsibility. And thus gives the powerful, as well as all those involved in micro-politics in the company, the necessary chance to make the invisible visible - to recognize their own roles as roles in organizational theater, to acquire new role competencies, to put dysfunctional power interests aside. It's just a chance. However, recognizing these as necessary and using them should always be the concern of the advisor. I mean…

A more detailed version of this text was published in HOHE LUFT compact “Metanoia - Leadership in Times of Change”.


Rebekka ReinhardDr. Rebekka Reinhard, philosopher, speaker and Spiegel bestselling author, specializes in the topics of personality, leadership, ethics and female empowerment.