Characteristics of Interventions
In the highly competitive environment in which modern organizations operate, companies are looking for new ways to achieve their performance goals in the least amount of time and money (Muchinsky, 2006; Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005). Through a process of introducing educated questions into a dialogue, consultants are able to affect positive change in support of this goal. “With questions, we can cultivate a greater awareness of a situation, become more creative in developing choices, and avoid getting stuck asking the same questions over and over again and getting the same answers” (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005, p. 615). Questions are the fundamental building materials to every individual and company’s development (Marquardt, 2005). Every intervention, whether on a team or individual level, should be based on the notion that the relationship is designed to be developmental. Any of the available models for intervention, appropriately executed, can positively affect the development and advancement of the principles the client and practitioner collaborate upon. This principle stands true whether the vehicle is designed for the individual, a small or large team, or the more recent developing needs of virtual teams.
For the relationship to be fruitful however, it must not be parasitic. In all cases, consultants and clients need to agree to combine their resources and talents in a way that challenges the status quo and attempts to redefine challenges at hand and reveal solutions ahead. That is, both the client and consultant must learn from the experience, not simply a one-way exchange of prophecies and proclamations by an outside observer. Rothwell and Sullivan (2005) explain that the consultant should expect to grow in his or her ability provide stability and control in challenging circumstances, and the assist in the client’s ability to handle diversity and challenges. This exchange is dependant upon both parties being willing to accept the value of the relationship and give appropriate attention to new information and feedback (Marquardt, 2005; Muchinsky, 2006; White, 2009). Without the goals and methodology being clearly explained from the beginning, and moreover agreed upon by all parties, the experiment’s failure is imminent from inception.
An excellent example of this lack of proper consultant planning and the resultant gap in whole-hearted participation is demonstrated in a team-modeled intervention at a traditionally Afro-American college, Morehouse College, in 1994. Through the following via negativa discussion about the poorly executed research at Morehouse College, this author intends to use the negative to highlight the desired positive methodologies in planning the executing individual and team interventions.
The Morehouse College Department of Business Administration met in an effort to develop a program to overcome the inconsistency with the African-American population’s lack of leadership positions in major corporations and career fields (White, 2009). An exclusive class was developed wherein students would apply for acceptance. Only one hundred could participate and ironically, in a class about diversity in the workplace, only male students were accepted. Students met in a seminar format for 2.5 hours per week. They “were required to wear business attire” (p. 72) to each class and various pedagogical techniques, lectures, group exercises, role paying, and team building workshops were employed to tackle minority issues in the workplace.
It is clear that the consultant in this process possessed the right motivations and apparently the right information and resources at her disposal to activate multiple venues for coaching and teaching. White (2009) reports that the three professors employed to run the series with her held the proper credentials, and the goals were properly outlined in the planning meetings. “When key stakeholders are involved in the action planning process, the plans tend to be sound and realistic, and those involved tend to have a strong commitment to assuring the success of the planned actions” (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005, p. 299). Unfortunately, this is not the case for the Morehouse College study.
White (2009) fails to recognize the failure of this intervention in that the participants were, through naive deliberation of the consultant and planners, assumed to understand the real-world dynamic of the business world they were being coached to conquer. Coaching is usually straightforward and is designed to get participants from where they are to where they want to be; in the Morehouse College study the term is misused. Coaching works on the presupposition that participants actually know where they want to be, or at least understand the value of being coached to get there once it is explained. At Morehouse, as is revealed by reading the class feedback, students were not prepared for the information they would receive and were not motivated properly to seek more guidance should they need it. Instead of coaching, the Morehouse College methodology should have been termed a T-group intervention. In a T-group intervention participants are provided with intense personal experience designed to force them to examine their habits of “interacting with others, their styles of self-presentation, their basic life position, their values, and other issues” (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005, p. 382). It is this kind of maturation and shift in thinking, the growth from childhood assumptions about society, the self, and others into more adult and realistic expectations that T-group interventions can assist in overcoming and implementing positive change. The Morehouse College study did not accomplish this paradigm shift for the participants. In fact, instead of being taught how to deal with unjust acts by enacting change from within an organizational structure, or how to mitigate these factors and exceed anyway, students were taught a combative approach to the system (White, 2009). While perhaps effective in some circumstances, this method seems rather inefficient compared to one where people within an organization affect gradual change through education, diversity, appropriate interventions at the right level, and track records of success that cannot be dismissed.
As stated, for a T-group intervention to work, a basic shift in cognitive dissonance is necessary. The Morehouse College participants had no such guidance for a shift; they were therefore less likely to accept the change demanded of them by the intervention. This is explained by the Rothwell and Sullivan (2005) claim that unless the customer and client agree upon the proper historical or cultural scaffolding behind an issue, and the way to address it, then the ultimate consultation process is a failure before it begins. In the Morehouse College study, the students were instantly immersed in an aggressive intervention process without being consulted themselves about their experiences and expectations with how life would be for them in a real-world working environment. The Morehouse College design was based in the poorly conceived notion that its student understood some of the business principles the planners considered self-evident. Neither the professors nor the consultant knew that the young scholars had a completely unrealistic baseline of business environment expectation, and therefore the starting point for the communication and intervention had no chance of being appropriate for the audience. As consultants we must be wary not to focus so intently on the goal that we fail to see the living process and its demand for flexibility and constant adjustment (Beckhart, 1997). This failure, like the failure to gain a simple conformity of purpose with the students, is confirmed by the student critiques from the end of the course.
Again, students who had not been properly informed how the business world really operated failed to gain proper prospective from the class, and therefore the intervention effort. In the class reviews, many students offered that they had the perception that they had wasted their time during the class. In one critique, a student wrote, “This class is too long. After 1.5 hours the majority of the students stop paying attention” (p. 76). Several other students wrote the same kinds of complaints. In another, a student wrote that he “felt as if wearing the uniform of the corporate America was similar to being a slave/puppet” (p. 75). A properly planned and executed T-group or individual intervention with good techniques to realign the reality concept this young man had about wearing business attire could have changed the tone with which he accepted or rejected the rest of the lessons offered. It is important an initial consultation round-robin, wherein the proctors and students discuss individual schemas about the working environment, takes place when necessary; this would have assisted the students and the professor with a more meaningful starting point for the lecture series.
Clearly, White (2009) and her team failed in their initial stages of this intervention to explain the dynamic they were attempting to prepare the students for. Long days, uncomfortable clothes, or other petty distractions are part of every world, not just corporate America. The importance of knowing one’s audience and their potentially interfering schema about the future outcome cannot be over-stated. For this author, this example is not only about Morehouse College, but rather about how in both individual, team, and virtual interventions it is critical for a consultant to completely understand and appreciate the cultural and psychological system their clients are going to use as a reference point to the new information he or she wishes to pass (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005).
Intervention Must Also Be Timely, Appropriate, and Goal Oriented
While “historically, [Industrial/Organizational] psychologists have tended to make individuals the objects of their attention” (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005, p. 285), the real focus of any intervention is the appropriate application of all the involved individuals’ values and skill-sets to any relationship or organization’s positive actualization of its ultimate goal. There is no practical application in calling for an I/O psychologist’s business-oriented intervention for an autonomous individual designed to only influence a single person. There is no true autonomy in business; a business owner must, at some point, interact with other people in the form of suppliers, purchasers, designers, customers, or clientele. When doing individual-oriented interventions, the practitioner needs to be aware that he or she is managing practice and polarities for not only the client of interest, but also that every individual intervention will affect the organization, team, or enterprise within which that person operates, even if in the slightest way (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005). This is not difficult to consider if done with appropriate preparation and perspective. It is essential for the consultant to recognize “that it is impossible to do an intervention aimed at the system without also impacting every individual very personally” (p. 400). That said, when carrying out individual interventions, every change by the individual impacts the entire system. As a product of this reality, underlying principles of interventions remain the same; it is the execution and application that changes. Practitioners must collect the historical company or individual data necessary to have the correct questions for the appropriate moments to motivate their clients to discover new abilities and possibilities within themselves and their organizations.
It is not enough to have the right things to say though, one must also say them in a tactful and timely fashion. Yet, timing is not just about making sure the questions are affection change most efficiently. Time also must be a factor when building the intervention process map. Will the consultant be involved for hours, weeks, months, or years? What kind of follow-up and realtime support is expected, or needed? Are needs and expectations appropriately alligned? “Over-involvement can be just as damaging as under-involvement” (Rothwell & Sullivan, 2005, p. 300). Some interventions are long-term and take stragetic planning, while others can be successful with just a few meetings (Beckhart, 1997). The consultant must be congicent of this fact, and must ensure the client is too.
Beckhart (1997) also insists upon the proper use of feedback during an intervention. “Even if the client was comfortable with me, I insisted on a scheduled ‘How are we doing?’ session every few months and made it a condition of employment” (p. 76). Occasionally, Beckhart (1997) claims he is met with resistance to being compensated for these sessions and recommends turning down the job if this happens. But not all resistence is the same, and Beckhart’s (1997) blanket statement about turning down a job from those who do not agree with one’s methodology appears a little pre-mature. Ultimately, the consultant must understand the entire lifecycle of the intervention before it begins. There is no profit in keeping this lifecycle from the client, and certainly no benefit in not collaborating with the client about where to set baselines, priorities, and which methodology will work most powerfully. Guiding the client through the decision process about the upcoming intervention is as important as performing it well. Without proper planning, set-up, exectution, and follow-up, the time for both the client and consultant has been wasted.
Beckhart, R. (1997). Agent of change: My life, my practice. Retrieved from accompanying text CD from Rothwell & Sullivan (2005). Practicing organizational development: A guide for consultants (2nd ed.). San Francisco:
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Marquardt, M. J. (2005). Leading with questions: How leaders find the right solutions
by knowing what to ask. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Muchinsky, P. M., (2006). Psychology applied to work (8th ed.). Belmont: Thomson
Rothwell, W. J. & Sullivan, R. (2005). Practicing organizational development: A guide
for consultants (2nd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
White, B. J. (2009). Addressing career success issues of African Americans in the workplace: An undergraduate business development intervention. The Career
Development Quarterly, 58(1), 71-78.