Client-Consultant Relationships and the Need for Control

recognizing your client’s need for control is key to a healthy relationship

December 19, 2018 | Denise Gifford

tightropeThe client-consultant relationship can be complex, with hiccups and challenges experienced by both parties along the way. One of the most common challenges faced by consultants is balancing their client’s need for control with the need for some kind of change. After all, a consultant is anyone who works to change or improve a situation without having direct control over that situation. It’s the consultant’s job to influence outcomes while simultaneously helping the client do things on their own. This can be a fine line to walk, and to do so successfully, consultants should understand why control is such a deep-rooted human need. Understanding a client’s need for control can become a big part of creating a better client relationship.

A person’s need for control over how things should be, or what things should happen, can be very powerful. Often people want to control things that are very important to them, like how their money is spent or how certain aspects of their business are handled. If your client is resistant to change, recognize that their need for control may be at the heart of the matter. Perhaps your client disagrees with a new marketing plan, the need to research and develop a new product, or changes to sales tactics. Whatever the case may be, your client might try to slow things down or reject the change if they’re feeling a lack of control.

As a consultant, your instinct is likely to encourage change. But that’s not always the right move. You might instead decide to hold off on suggesting certain changes or improvements until a more trusting relationship is established. After all, if you aren’t trusted, then your advice won’t be trusted. To increase trust, work on communication. Building the client relationship through open and honest communication tends to support the decision to trust, whereas poor (or no) communication creates suspicion.

It’s wise to be aware of your client’s human need for control, not least because scientific studies have shown that the perception of control is part of maintaining health and happiness. A 2010 review of evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and neuroimaging work concluded that the “belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s well-being… the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity.” In other words, we need to feel that we have control. The authors also found that the exercise of choice is critical to a sense of control, writing, “choice may serve as the primary means by which humans and animals foster this psychologically adaptive belief [that we are in control].” Having choices helps people feel like they have control, even if the reality of control is somewhat illusory.

Indeed, the need to have a sense of control is so powerful that if people don’t have it, they make it up. A 2008 study by psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky found that participants who felt a lack of control were more likely to conjure illusory patterns, such as images in noise or correlations in stock market information. The lack of control caused people to find patterns where none actually existed.

Why is control such a fundamental human need? It is part of our biology, our impetus for survival. If we can control what is happening to us, we have a better chance to survive. If we can control our environment, we feel less threatened. But it turns out that it is actually the belief, or perception of control that we crave more than control itself.

So how can consultants use this knowledge to advantage? What impact does it have on the consulting relationship?

When clients are open to assistance or advice, you should offer to help or provide resources—but you should also be aware of areas where the client may want to maintain strong control and where outside help could be considered “meddling.” If your consulting engagement includes those areas, you should anticipate some resistance.And since the exercise of choice is critical to a sense of control, give your client options whenever it makes sense to do so. If there are choices about a meeting format, for example, ask for the client’s input. If you have an idea about a timeline, give them some choices. As the consultant, look for opportunities to share decisions with your client. You don’t always have to be the expert on everything; as a matter of fact, it can get in the way of giving your client the options they need to retain a sense of control.

Most importantly, recognize that your client’s need for control is not designed to derail your project, but is a very human need that people feel at various levels and at various times. Approaching a consulting engagement with that recognition in mind can help you be a more insightful consultant and help you build stronger consulting relationships.

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is co-founder of InfoWorks® International, which has provided consulting and training to companies worldwide in project management and related skills. Prior to leading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management, and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.