How to Avoid Creating Dependency Relationships

Avoid dependency relationships

Avoid dependency relationships

Come to the edge

We might fall

Come to the edge

It’s too high

Come to the edge!

and they came

He pushed them

and they flew

Christopher Logue (Ode to the Dodo)

All helping professions (including management consultancy and coaching), run the risk of developing dependency relationships with clients. Normally, this is inadvertent, but not always. One consultant who operated in Dublin (long since retired), offered me the following business advice: “If you want to be really successful, find a client with a strategic weakness”. His central belief was that strong clients tend towards self-sufficiency, whereas clients with a problem were ‘high actives’ when it came to using consultants. My mission was to seek clients who were the managerial equivalent of ‘lame Wilderbeest’ on the Serengeti. I understand this viewpoint but don’t buy it. A central philosophical question for all consultants and coaches is: How can we avoid creating dependency relationships with our clients?

Dual Timeframe: Both Management consultants and coaches should operate in a dual timeframe. The immediate goal is to support clients with the ‘presenting issue’, essentially to solve the problem; the medium-term goal is to help the client develop self-sufficiency, so they can resolve future issues using their own resources. While this might seem shortsighted from a ‘future business’ perspective, my experience suggests the opposite. Clients recognize and appreciate efforts to help them ‘grow’. Assuming that the outcome of the project is successful, they are happy to recommend you to others. In the consulting game, an ounce of recommendation is worth a ton of marketing. So, helping clients to become self-sufficient is both a good thing (ethically) and a smart thing (revenue). Even if we ‘park’ the ethical considerations – any other stance on this assumes that you can ‘outwit’ your clients. I’m not sure that’s a solid assumption.

Who Owns the Monkey? Where there is a ‘problem’ the client needs to stay in full ownership. In shorthand this is sometimes referred to as ‘who owns the monkey?’ (the core problem). And, the answer is…the client. The role of the consultant is the help the client manage it. The initial step is to demonstrate empathy, but not allow this to spill over into inappropriate actions e.g. ‘taking over’.

Empathy, Apathy & Sympathy: The goal in all interactions with clients is to develop an empathetic relationship (not always achieved). It’s useful to differentiate empathy from apathy and sympathy. The following helps to explain each of these terms.

a. Empathy:  Experience and respond to the feelings, needs, values and concerns of others. Without being overcome with one’s own sense of identity of objective.

b. Apathy: Uninvolved and detached from feelings, needs, concerns and values of others e.g. “That’s your problem, I don’t care.” 

c. Sympathy: Over-involvement with the feelings needs, values and concerns of others. A complex mixture of identity, pity and patronage.

So, there you have it. You kick off with the belief that clients should become self-sufficient. Empathy provides a set of handrails as you work through the relationship. It’s not always as simple or as clear-cut as this, but that’s the starting point. At the very least, you have to know what you are trying to do, even if the execution sometimes falls short of this.

Have a good week (despite the rain).


PS: Lighter note: Suspend your normal high standards for a moment and go with the flow! These one liners are courtesy of Maurice Fines who has been strongly advised to “hang onto that day job”.

* Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I’ll show you A-flat miner.

* You are stuck with your debt if you can’t budge it.

* If you take a laptop computer for a run you could jog your memory.

* Police were called to a day care center where a three-year-old was resisting a rest. 

 Just the Ticket: Larry Mc Givern swears blind that the following story is true and happened outside Birmingham in the UK:

A motorcycle police officer stopped a driver for shooting through a red light. The driver stepped out of his car and came striding toward the officer, demanding to know why he is being harassed by the Gestapo! So the officer calmly tells him of the red light violation. The motorist instantly goes on a tirade, questioning the officer’s ancestry, sexual orientation, etc.  in offensive terms. The tirade goes on without the officer saying anything. When the officer finishes writing the ticket he puts an “AH” in the lower right corner of the narrative portion of the ticket. He then hands it to the ‘violator’ for his signature. The bloke signs the ticket angrily, and when presented with his copy points to the “AH” and demands to know what it stands for.

The officer says, “That’s so when we go to court, I’ll remember that you’re an Arse Hole!”

Two months later they’re in court. The ‘violator’ has a bad driving record with a high number of points and is in danger of losing his license, so he hired a big gun lawyer to represent him. On the stand the officer testifies to seeing the man run through the red light. Under cross examination the defense attorney asks:

“Officer is this a reasonable facsimile of the ticket that you issued to my client?”

Officer responds: “Yes, sir, that is the defendant’s copy, his signature and mine, same number at the top.”

Lawyer: “Officer, is there any particular marking or notation on this ticket you don’t normally make?”

“Yes, sir, in the lower right corner of the narrative there is an ‘AH’ underlined.”

“What does the “AH” stand for?”

“Aggressive and Hostile, Sir.”

“Aggressive and Hostile?”

“Yes, Sir”.

“Officer, are you sure it doesn’t stand for Arse Hole?”

“Well, Sir, perhaps you know your client better than I do”.

It’s not often you can get an attorney to convict his own client!

Closer to Home: My son Cillian sometimes doesn’t hear his alarm to get up for work. I told him I was going to buy an alarm clock in the USA where you place a $5-$50 bill in the setting. If you don’t turn off the alarm, the money gets shredded! Along similar lines, he told me his mate got a present of a ‘Tank alarm’ – which shoots a plastic projectile at your head (along with a shrieking noise) to wake you up. To turn off the alarm, you put the ‘missile’ back into the cradle on the Tank. His buddy got one last Christmas – but during an Irish summer morning the ‘missile’ shot straight out of the bedroom window.  He was out there looking for it in his jocks in the lashing rain. That’s one way to wake up!

From Ger Coey in Sweden: Got 134 Sultanas for the same price as 732 Raisins. It’s hard to figure out the Current exchange rate!

Final Note: Kids from St Lawrence Junior School (Sheriff Street) at the recent book launch. They stole the show! Absolutely brilliant performance. Photo by Robert Ward.

Stealing the Show!

Stealing the Show!



Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.



About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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