I WOULD LIKE to review some observations I have made over the last thirty years about the process of helping human systems. I say human systems rather than individuals or small groups because much of my work as a consultant has been with intergroup and organizational-level problems. Individuals are always centrally involved, but the definition of the client can get very complicated.
In fact, the systemic approach requires one to think simultaneously in terms of three clients: immediate or contact clients with whom one is interacting in the here and now; primary clients, who are the real targets of change, and who pay for the change efforts; and ultimate clients, who are the stakeholders that must be considered even though one might not ever interact with them directly.
I make this point at the outset because process consultation has been stereotyped as something one does primarily with small groups. My own experience is that one works on a daily basis with individuals, small groups, or large groups, but that one's concerns are always systemic in the sense that one considers immediate interventions in terms of their consequences for other parts of the system. For example, one might choose not to help a manager to become more autocratic even if that was the manager's wish, if such behavior would be dysfunctional for the department or harmful to subordinates.
I have three points that I wish to develop.
- Helping is a general human process that applies to parents, friends, teachers, and managers, not just to consultants or therapists whose central role is to help.
- Helpers make choices based on key assumptions that have to be examined continuously during the helping process. These choices are primarily on-line, real-time decisions about when to be in the role of expert, doctor, or process consultant. I will explore the contrast among these roles in some detail below.
- A central concern of consultants should be to improve the ability of clients themselves, especially managers, to become more helpful to superiors, subordinates, peers, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. In other words, the helping role is critical in all human affairs; more people should be taught to be effective helpers. It is an especially important role in hierarchical organizations and, therefore, needs to be taught especially to managers and leaders.