Teach a man to fish - Understanding Process Consultation

Cindy Dean, MS., Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Senior Consultant, Grays Peak Strategies

Years ago leaders of large companies seldom turned outside of the organization for help in solving problems. Today, however, with more and more diverse work forces, changing technology and global markets, leaders need help with many aspects of organizational day-to-day functions. The list of topics for which they seek help is endless and consultation within organizations is a fast growing enterprise. Whatever the topic, it is help that is being solicited and understanding how to help is important to any consultant.

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Psychological consultation is a broad field encompassing a wide array of professional functions delivered across a myriad of settings. There are two broad roles a psychological consultant can play, that of content expert and process facilitator. A consultant acts as a content expert when he/she is asked to deliver specific answers to highly technical problems or questions. On the other hand, a process facilitator focuses on the processes necessary to identify problems and how problems can be solved. This process requires the active participation of the consultee in the problem-solving activities (Wallace & Hall, 1996).  Edgar Shein’s  (1987) model of process consultation focuses on the basic assumption that problems will be solved more effectively and stay solved longer if the organization learns to solve the problems itself. 

Process consultation (PC) is based on the foundation that consultation focuses on a helping relationship. There is a mutual nature in which the consultant works with and not for the client (Schein, 1999). This model encourages the client and consultant to act as equals. This approach is contrasted with that of the expert or doctor roles in that the consultant is not expected to arrive on the scene with answers to every problem, nor a prescription to fix whatever problem the organization has identified. The PC approach assumes that problem-identification is part of the process, and that the client may not know wherein the problem lies.

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“Process consultation (PC) is the creation of a relationship with the client that permits the client to perceive, understand and act on the process events that occur in the client’s internal and external environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client” (Schein, 1999, p.20). The PC approach is known as a more developmental approach, seeking to empower the clients to solve their own problems, and places a limit on the outsider consultant’s knowledge (Schein, 1987). PC recognizes three main principles. First, the client always knows more about their own situation than the consultant will. Second, the process requires psychological ownership of the activities on the part of the client, and third, the consultant should seek to develop the client’s capabilities to solve their own problems. The main focus is on human processes, including face-to-face relationships, communication, group and inter-group processes, and broader organizational issues such as values, culture and norms. The ultimate goal is to establish an effective helping relationship.

The Ten Principles of Process Consultation

  1. Always try to be helpful.
  2. Always stay in touch with the current reality.
  3. Access your ignorance.
  4. Everything you do is an intervention.
  5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution.
  6. Go with the flow.
  7. Timing is crucial.
  8. Be constructively opportunistic with confrontative interventions.
  9. Everything is a source of data; errors are inevitable-learn from them.
  10. When in doubt share the problem.

As with any consultation relationship, the main goal would always be to help. To effectively help, one must have a deep understanding of her own picture of reality, which would include personal preconceptions, biases, and judgments. The best helping relationship offers the client empowering strategies to own the problem, diagnose and to come to a conclusion on how best to implement the solution. Schein (2003, p. 76) stresses that no one can understand the organization better that the client. The most fundamental premise of the PC approach is that all work with human systems, whether it be contracting, data gathering, diagnosing, interviewing, testing, assessment, or surveying, is an intervention.


For many, the consultant is a symbol of change and change is often viewed as unwelcome and unneeded. According to Rumelt (1995), resistance is any conduct that tries to keep the status quo or equivalent to inertia and the persistence to avoid change. Resistance does not need to be seen as a negative aspect of the consultation process as resistance can lead to better solutions for solving problems. By looking at the reasons for resistance, a consultant can get a better idea of the true story of the organization. Almost every change requires the cooperation, collaboration, and co-ownership of others (Patrick, 2003). Much can be gained by looking at where the resistance is coming from and what can be done to dispel any false assumptions.

A consultant must take the time to become aware of and understand the organization as well as possible. In all organizations there are both behavioral and cultural norms. Therefore, consultants should be careful not to generalize norms across the organization. Understanding the cultural and behavioral norms within an organization will assist a consultant in possibly knowing where resistance will occur. Culture is what is learned over a period of time as a group learns to solve problems. The strength of the culture is partly derived by this anxiety reducing function and is similar to defense mechanisms that persist at the individual level.

Schein (1999) points out that the most important thing to understand in any type of relationship is what goes on inside the head, especially one’s own. In order to be an effective helping agent one must first understand one’s own feelings, biases, perceptual distortions, and impulses. Without understanding one’s own feelings and perceptions of the current reality, we are not as capable of offering the best help as a consultant. Although it sounds fairly simple to be acutely aware of our own feelings and perceptions, everyone observes what is happening through past experiences. We have built in filters that allow us to see and hear more or less what we expect or anticipate based on past experiences. In this same process we also filter out information that may be potentially valuable because it does not fit our expectations, preconceptions, and prejudgments.

It is important to stress that the PC approach does not preclude the use of an expert model. Often times switching to the expert mode, it is important to keep in mind that the approach is only designed to fix the problem. On the other hand, when neither the problem nor the solution are clear it appears the PC approach offers the best underlying philosophy in both a remedial and preventive outlook. Process consultation is somewhat like a journey in that the voyage is as important as the final destination. Some interventions are anticipated and others are opportunity based in nature. Change is constant and all interventions leave an impact. In the words of Ann O”Roark (2002, p.44), “ the consultant needs to know the best research on individual differences, on group dynamics, and on organizations as system”. One of the biggest contributions a psychological consultant can offer to any organization is the psychological point of view and the profound importance of the psychological causation of events internal and external to the organization.            


Whether you are changing because you want to, or because you have to, change can be difficult. There are three type of return on investment necessary to sustain successful change; finanacial, emotional, and organizational. The consultants at Grays Peak Strategies would like to be part of the processes within your organization to find the answers to the questions of what to change, to what to change to and how to make those changes successful and long lasting.


O’Roark, A.M. (2002). The quest for executive effectiveness: Consultants bridge the gap between psychological research and organizational application. Consulting Psychology Journal, 54 (1). 44-45.

Patrick, F.S., (2003). Using resistance to change to improve improvements. Retrieved July 29, 2004 from http://www.focusedperformance.com

Rumelt R.P, (1995). Inertia and transformation in Montgomery, CA: Resource-based and evolutionary theories of the firm. Kluwer Academic Publishers; Massachusetts.

Schein, E.H. (1987). Process Consultation (volume 2) Lessons for Managers and Consultants, Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Schein, E.H., (1990). Organizational Culture. American Psychologist, 45, (2), 109-119.

Schein, E.H. (1999).  Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationship, Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Schein E.H. (2003). Five traps for consulting psychologists. Or, how I learned to take culture seriously. Consulting Psychology Journal, 55 (2), 75-83.

Wallace, W.A., & Hall, D. (1996). Psychological Consultation: Perspectives and Applications. New York: Brooks/Coles Publishers.