In order for consultants to be the most effective, a strong relationship must be formed between the consultant and the client. However, throughout the consultation process, political and ethical issues arise that can either hinder or help the relationship, and therefore, hinder or help the overall strategy. The way in which the consultant handles these political and ethical issues can strengthen or weaken the consultant-client relationship and lead to a successful or unsuccessful program.
Smeltzer, Watson, and Barker developed the Model of the Communication Consultant/Client Relationship, which consists of 24 steps that explore various aspects of the relationships between consultants and their clients. The model is based on the premise that consultants often must work in environments where political and ethical issues are raised simultaneously (Smeltzer, Watson, & Barker, 1984, p. 126). While ethical consultants “do not simply try to determine what actions are in their own best interest, but rather what actions are right or best for all parties concerned,” political issues “are concerned with the kind of actions that are most often beneficial or harmful to a person as an individual, and which advance one’s own interests (p. 126).
After the first two basic steps of the model of marketing oneself as a consultant and having the initial meeting with the client, the third step of the model is to have the client state the problem (Smeltzer, et. al., 1984, p. 127). This is the first stage that possible political and ethical considerations usually arise. “Politically, the consultant may want to see only the part of the problem which is in the domain of his or her professional expertise. Ethically, the consultant must decide if the important problem areas are outside his or her area of expertise” (p. 127). During this stage of the process, consultants must also decide whether to limit his or her investigation to the problem identified by the client, or to investigate other areas within the organization that could also indirectly affect the issue at hand. Of course, this could increase the length of time spent on the project, and the consultant may discover that other problems must be solved before the requested problem is solved (p. 128), however, this is both a political and ethical decision the consultant will have to make prior to beginning the project.
In the fourth, fifth and sixth steps of the model, the consultant must analyze and obtain data to determine problem-solving strategies. Ethically, the consultant must determine how much information is needed to develop an effective strategy for the client (Smeltzer, et. al., 1984, p. 127), and politically, the consultant must determine how much time and effort should be spend to attempt to gather the necessary data to make a sound decision (p. 128). For instance, the consultant may appear to be more professional if he or she does not require extra time to assemble more data, but ethically, if the consultant knows that a more sound decision could be made with access to more data, extra time should be taken to gather the necessary data. In the seventh step of the model, determining the possible strategies that can be used to deal with the problem, “there may be a difference between the strategy which would be the most profitable for the consultant and that which would be most effective (p. 128). In this case, the consultant would have to choose whether to select an effective strategy that may not show results right away, and a less effective strategy that may show immediate results. Being open with the client at the early stage of the process, and explaining why the consultant has opted to use the most effective strategy that is slow to show results in the short-run, can actually help strengthen the client-consultant relationship in the long-run.
The eighth step in the model addresses the various degrees of the consultant-client relationship, and “the extent to which the consultant should take over the tasks and responsibilities of the client” (Smeltzer, et. al., 1984, p. 128). In this stage of the process, the consultant and client must determine what the ultimate goal of the consultant is—whether to teach tasks, or complete them, and on what level in regards to dependency, involvement, and ownership (p.129 – 130). Dependency is the extent to which the consultant wants the client to be dependent on them. The consultant must also evaluate the client and be open and honest with the client in regards to the client’s competency level and ability to be independent (p. 129). Some clients may desire a high level of involvement in the decision-making process when determining which strategy is right for the company (p. 129). While this could be helpful, it could also cause conflict if they client requests a particular strategy that the consultant believes will be ineffective. Politically, selecting the client’s choice may have better results initially, but if the program fails, the consultant could still be held responsible, even though it was the client’s idea. Ethically, if the consultant feels as if the strategy is not in the best interest of the client, he or she should explain why, although this may result in an undesirable situation, such as high tension or the termination of the relationship. Lastly, the client and consultant must determine the level of ownership of the program and implemented strategies (p. 130). For instance, who would take credit for the success or failure of the program, and at what point? In steps 9 through 16, time and resources are evaluated for the project and the proposal is presented to the client.
Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Consultant Program
Steps 17 and 18 of the model begin the evaluation process of the consultant program. During this phase, the consultant must decide how extensive an evaluation to conduct, determine “what aspects of the evaluation should be used by the consultant for personal self-development and what should be used for organizational improvement,” and must separate objective data from subjective data (Smeltzer, et. al., 1984, p. 131). After the evaluation has been completed, the consultant must provide the client with feedback—Step 19 (p. 132). While presenting feedback may seem like a pretty straight-forward process, again, both political and ethical issues must be taken into consideration during this stage of the process. The consultant must be committed to sharing all feedback—both positive and negative results—because that is the only way the client will grow in the long run. “…special problems develop when one is aware of certain information and contemplates the possibility of withholding it. In some situations, it may be both morally and politically judicious to withhold information (i.e. confidential information from employees), but in other situations the decision is not easy) (p. 132).
Step 20 and 21 of the model describe the process of terminating the agreed upon strategy and discussing future actions. There will come a time when the strategy that a consultant has implemented has been exhausted. While many consultants see “certain actions need to be implemented, there may be a tendency to make it part of the present strategy rather than making a new proposal,” this is not always the best option (Smeltzer, et. al., 1984, p. 132). When the agreed-upon program is completed, the consultant should evaluate the effectiveness of the program with the client. At that time, if either party feels as if there is more work to be done, the client and consultant must make the decision whether to continue the relationship, at which point a new proposal should be written by the consultant (Steps 22, 23, and 24) (p. 133). If the client and consultant agree to continue the relationship, the consultant should be aware that he or she will likely face many of the same problems, but on a different level. “In fact, some of the questions become even more complicated as the relationship between a client and consultant grows and develops” (p. 133). If the relationship is terminated, materials should be returned to either the client or consultant based on prior determinations. Decisions pertaining to the use of materials and ideas after the client-consultant relationship has ended should be determined prior to the implementation of the program.
In the consultant-client relationship, there will always be instances where ethical and political issues must be taken into consideration. These considerations can lead to a strong relationship between the consultant and the client, as well as the successful implementation of the strategy, supported by objective results. However, making the wrong decision, or a decision that is not ethically or politically sound, can lead to a weak consultant-client relationship and a failed strategy. That said, even when ethically and politically sound decisions are made, there are times when the consultant-client relationship must be terminated due to a difference in ideas about where the organization should go; disagreements about the level of dependency, involvement or ownership of the organization or the strategy; or at times, simply because the contract has come to an end. Regardless of the end result, it is imperative that the consultant make a valiant effort to continuously make ethically and politically sound decisions throughout the entire relationship with the client to ensure optimal results.
Smeltzer, L., Watson, K., & Barker, L. (1984). The communication consultant/client relationship: An analysis of ethical and political issues. Communication, 13(1), 125.
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