Making “House Calls”: Whom Do Our Clients Expect to See When the Doorbell Rings?

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Peter Norlin and Judy Vogel challenge us to understand ourselves as marginal helpers, called in from outside the boundaries of a human system to serve people in special circumstances. Their provocative piece asks us to look at the role of projection in our consulting lives.

The Doorbell Rings

As a consultant, you probably know the feeling. You’re sitting in a meeting with a key client, and you’re discussing the contract, or the results from your data gathering, or the next phase in your work together. It doesn’t matter. What’s unmistakably clear to you, though, is that your client is now seeing you in a certain way and is expecting things of you as a result, and that this perception is unspoken. You also know that this perception and these expectations are likely to make a difference in your work together. We think you’re on target, and we want to offer you a lens for understanding this common situation and some thoughts about how to deal with it.

So what’s going on here? That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves for the last ten years, since we began thinking about the impact of marginality on our role as OD consultants. Much like EMS professionals or firefighters, we are marginal helpers, called in from outside the boundaries of a human system to serve people in special circumstances. Whether internal or external consultants, we are able to serve more effectively precisely because we are in a marginal role, since that’s the only way we can see the whole system and its complex relationships and dynamics. So marginality gives us both perspective and leverage. It also makes us the target of clients’ projections.

Projections, for better or worse, are a fact of life. They occur because of two universal human tendencies: first, to believe that our personal assumptions and beliefs are “true,” and then, to make our external experiences match our internal assumptions about the world. How? By “projecting” our assumptions out onto other people, just as if they were a movie screen, and then by responding to these folks as if they were, in fact, acting according to our assumptions.

Whether a projection itself is positive or negative depends on our specific, personal experience and the assumptions we’ve created from it. So remember—the projection process itself is neutral. The challenges? To notice when we might be projecting our assumptions onto someone else. And then, since we can’t control when someone else may be projecting an assumption onto us, to accept and manage that projection. The nugget? When we react to other people, often we’re “seeing” a movie we’ve chosen to see. Here’s where we circle back to our experience as consultants in a marginal role.

Our own observations and conversations with colleagues have led us to believe that, as OD consultants and marginal helpers, we are all often the targets of recurrent, predictable projections, and that these specific projections can be organized into clusters we call icons. These icons represent they way our clients hope and expect we’ll behave, and as projections, they frequently influence the way clients behave with us. As you review the following list, consider how these icons might affect our work.

Who’s There?

The Invited Guest
As consultants and marginal helpers, we may be seen as guests only—treated with courtesy and respect and “shown around,” since we’re unfamiliar with the environment. Projecting this icon, clients expect that we’ll stay for a time, behave politely, and then leave, unlike the client who really “lives” there. So, we must strike a balance: fitting in and challenging familiar patterns and raising clients’ awareness so that desired change is possible. Unfortunately, if we upset expectations and behave badly as an invited guest, we may never receive another invitation!

The Magical Outsider
Here, we are seen as a rescuer who comes from somewhere else, seems very different, and brings exotic and powerful skills. Understandably, clients yearn for experts. And we’ve grown up with examples—the Wizard of Oz, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and the Fairy Godmother. Each brings capabilities from outside our familiar world. Each brings magic to show the way or resolve the problem—for a time.

The Detective
Since the very heart of OD work is the shared search for learning, it often begins with data gathering. If clients see this investigation as “searching for clues,” they may see us as Sherlock Holmes or Jessica Mitford—curious, detached, objective observers, attentive to the essential nature of the system. However, detectives also look for evidence of wrongdoing—facts that demonstrate what went wrong and the person(s) responsible. Thus, with this projection, clients may also seem defensive.

If you saw yourself in this list, you know what it’s like to be a projection screen. However, these icons all express understandable human expectations at a time of need, so vigilant consultants recognize both the possibilities and pitfalls in these specific projections. The bottom line? Since we can’t avoid them, we have to manage them. What principles increase both control and flexibility?

Be curious and courageous about your own inner life. Are you sharpening your tools for self-understanding? Consider peer learning groups, experiential learning, coaching, or therapy.

Be committed to paying attention. Do you have the capacity to see human behavior—your and others— with precision, depth, clarity, and calmness? Consider personal practices, such as meditation, that increase your attentiveness.

Be careful in the moment. Can you model and maintain a respectful balance between the client’s boundaries and your own? Consider regular, frank, mutual feedback sessions.

About the Authors

Peter Norlin has spent 25 years in the human systems development profession as an internal and external consultant. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he is a principal in GreenLeaf Associates, a member of Dannemiller Tyson Associates, and an associate in Innolect, Inc.

Judith Vogel is an educator and businesswoman whose broad background includes director of OD and HRD for several major corporations, adjunct faculty in university OD programs, and consultant since 1972. She is a partner in Vogel/Glaser & Associates, Inc. Judy is a Professional Member and trainer in NTL Institute.