Does Being Obnoxious Pay Off in Consulting?

Rudeness, discourtesy, and aggressively insulting behavior hog the limelight these days. Often these traits are flaunted by people who have reached the pinnacle of the public and corporate spheres. Do we see this in consulting? What can we learn from it and how should we, as leaders of consulting firms act?

According to a 2016 poll**, 70 percent of Americans think that political incivility has reached “crisis” levels. More recently, a poll** reported that 74% of Americans think manners and behaviors have declined in the United States.

Of course, there is no absolute standard for civility. Some cultures view virtually all Americans as hopelessly rude.

Even within America, however, there’s general agreement that courtesy has leapt onto the endangered species list.

While the roots of this trend may be complex, there’s at least one, obvious, appealing aspect of boorish behavior: it seems to work. We can easily point to abusive, obnoxious individuals who have achieved material success and public acclaim.

Consulting is not immune to this phenomenon. Even though we are a service profession, I know more than one consulting leader who has brokered a penchant for brash talk, cutting remarks, and unbridled ambition into a well-admired consulting firm and steady, seven-figure personal income.

Fortunately for these callous consultants, a meaningful percentage of the population interprets their approach as boldness, lack of fear, an unwillingness to be constrained by convention, and an admirable lack of inhibition.

But let’s take a closer look at the bulls crashing through the china shops on their way to material success.

They—and the people who revere them—have incorrectly conflated the positive and negative traits of being aggressively loutish.

Attributes of the Bull in the China Shop
Positive Negative
Strong Destructive
Determined Oblivious
Able to shape the world Disconnected from others
Achieves personal goals Net negative impact on the world

 

Can you embody all of the positive traits without embracing their negative counterparts? Absolutely.

  • Take a Stand, but not on top of others. You can stake a bold position without trampling on colleagues and competitors’ reputations.
  • Pursue Your Vision unswervingly, without demolishing those in your path. Creative genius is figuring out how to collaborate with those who, at first glance, appear to oppose your progress.
  • Embrace Risks, without hanging others out to dry. While failure is never fatal in consulting, your team may lack your risk tolerance. When you protect them you gain loyal supporters.
  • Lift Others. Consulting is, at its best, Right-Side Up. Elevate your clients by helping them achieve their goals, even when it doesn’t benefit you directly. You’ll see your consulting practice, self-respect and joy flourish.

I don’t condone offensive attitudes in consulting. Still, we can learn from those who have prospered despite (or because of) their coarse personalities.

What other good traits do you think we should we adopt and what bad traits do you think we should we eschew as consultants and consulting firm leaders?


Text and images are © 2018 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.

By | 2018-01-09T21:39:48+00:00 January 10th, 2018|24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Mark Prus January 10, 2018 at 6:40 am - Reply

    Very interesting and relevant perspective!

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 6:49 am - Reply

      Consulting is a human business, built on relationships and personal interaction. Therefore, discussing how we interact with other people, seems like a worthwhile endeavor. I’m glad you posted your reaction, Mark.

  2. Mark Richman January 10, 2018 at 7:02 am - Reply

    I know a “rock star” consultant or two who could benefit from these insights. Unfortunately, those with personality disorders are rarely capable of changing. Having their behavior reflected back at them often enrages them. We must practice mindfulness as we build relationships and interact with others, checking our ego at the door.

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 7:45 am - Reply

      Mark, you’re right that it’s likely that many consultants who “need it most” would reject this article outright. The point, of course, is not to change them–it’s to learn from them and change ourselves.

      Whether or not we approve of a particular person’s behavior, they may have achieved success. If we can separate the baby from the bathwater, we can enjoy the benefits while discarding the discarding the dirty bits.

      You’ve made a good point, and I appreciate you contributing to the discussion.

  3. Kevin January 10, 2018 at 7:24 am - Reply

    The positive traits you mention have to FAR outweigh the negative for the betterment of others for this behavior to be effective.

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 7:48 am - Reply

      Kevin, you’re making an important point; however, if you have a moment, could you clarify it? It’s not totally clear to me which behavior you think is ineffective and what is required to be effective. I look forward to delving into your point of view further.

      • Kevin January 10, 2018 at 3:06 pm - Reply

        David – I am referring to your list of “Attributes of a Bull in a China Shop” when I say the positive need to FAR outweigh the negative. And, those behaviors have to be for the betterment of others… for a cause or group… and not for a single person.

        • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 3:13 pm - Reply

          Thanks for the clarification, Kevin. I’d go a step further and suggest that, as consultants, we should seek to minimize or eliminate the negative attributes entirely. In other words, we want to emulate only the positive attributes of the bull in the china shop–and recognize there are positives–not act like the bull. I appreciate you doubling back on this.

  4. Richard Middaugh January 10, 2018 at 7:57 am - Reply

    Are you comfortable in your own skin? Are you proud of the legacy you’re building? How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 8:02 am - Reply

      You’ve offered three excellent questions for consultants to consider, Richard. As an action step, it may be worth asking at least the latter two questions as part of our regular, monthly, priority-setting sessions. Thanks for suggesting them.

  5. Dan McCarthy January 10, 2018 at 8:47 am - Reply

    David – I think you may have forgotten the most important factor: fake nudes. https://images.esellerpro.com/2316/I/129/688/lrgscaleAC265.jpg

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

      That’s a good one, Dan! (Not totally sure how to illustrate a nude stick figure, though.) Thanks for contributing another pun. I’m thinking of adding a pun-count to the email. Sort of like Hirschfeld did with Ninas.

  6. Tim Hayes January 10, 2018 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Civility has not been lost people are simply saying what has been hidden in their hearts for years! Dr. King noted we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of friends. We have to speak truth with compassion as consultants!

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 9:34 am - Reply

      Speaking truth with compassion is a lovely way of putting it, Tim. We can all improve on both aspects of that ideal–telling our clients what they need to hear, even when it’s uncomfortable, and communicating that truth in a way that inspires rather than disparages them. Great addition to the discussion.

  7. Ruth Winett January 10, 2018 at 9:44 am - Reply

    These observations apply to everyone, not just to consultants.

    Here is another attribute to add to the list::

    Negative–Takes credit for others’ ideas; Positive– Gives others credit for their ideas.

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

      You’re absolutely right, Ruth, that there’s really not call for anyone in any profession to act like an oaf. Sharing credit (rather than hogging it) is one of those counter-intuitive approaches to achieving success. The bull in the china shop thinks he needs all the credit to accrue to him. As consultants, we do better by spreading the credit and being inclusive. Thanks for highlighting that idea.

  8. James Sullivan January 10, 2018 at 10:12 am - Reply

    Civility is a term that means different things in different countries and cultures. I work for clients all over the globe and note that I am expected to be more blunt to an American than to a British client. I will note that ‘blunt’ is not the same thing as ‘rude’ but it is easy to cross a line if you don’t know where it is.

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 10:33 am - Reply

      Totally agree, James, and I appreciate you underscoring that part of the discussion. As Americans, we occupy the brasher end of the spectrum (though there are a couple of cultures whose norms are considered rude by American standards). For those of us who work internationally, it’s important to take other cultural norms into account. We work in service to our client’s goals and aspirations, and we do well by starting with their definitions of acceptable behavior.

  9. Mark Friedman January 10, 2018 at 10:34 am - Reply

    This re-states the old adage: “You can catch more flies with honey, then with vinegar.” In my humble opinion, there is never a time that bad manners trump good ones.

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 10:51 am - Reply

      Does honey catch more flies because it’s sweeter or because it’s sticky? Either way, most readers would probably embrace the old adage, and bringing it up is a good reminder, Mark.

      When you see a cup plate of vinegar that has caught a ton of flies, though, it helps to consider the vinegar and deduce what’s working. What can we add to our honey that we’ve learned from the vinegar?

  10. Linda DiFeliciantonio Rocca January 10, 2018 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    David, I would be interested in better understanding how this personality “modality” would be “accepted” and therefore potentially effective for women consultants as well.

    Brash behavior is often viewed as – or indicative of – non conformity and certainly the antithesis of subservience- which is how women (roles) are even further expected to demonstrate.

    Does anyone have any comments or experiences to share as women or men working with women? Appreciate hearing your insights.

    • David A. Fields January 10, 2018 at 12:25 pm - Reply

      Linda, you’ve raised an interesting question. I’m not sure whether you’re suggesting that women are expected to demonstrate subservience. If so, that’s not a premise I subscribe to, nor is it one I’ve encountered broadly in my consulting travels; however, it’s possible I’m just missing it because I’m not as sensitized to the issue as my female colleagues.

      As a gross generalization, women have an advantage in consulting because of a greater propensity to be Right-Side Up and to listen. That’s a good thing. Overly aggressive women may be viewed more negatively than similarly aggressive men and, in balance, that’s probably a good thing too. With fewer rewards for poor behavior, women are more likely to adopt the positive attributes of the bull in the china shop and dismiss the negative attributes. Men may receive less consistent feedback about poor behavior and, therefore, be more likely to adopt discourtesy as their standard.

      We’ve waded into an area where input from others–especially women–would be of value. Thanks for raising such an interesting aspect of the conversation.

  11. Sebastian January 11, 2018 at 6:21 am - Reply

    Great article David! Like the “learning from…” view on things. Thanks for sharing!

    • David A. Fields January 11, 2018 at 9:05 am - Reply

      Some consultants love to teach others; some consultants love to learn from others. Most of us, I’d guess, love both, which is why we’re in the profession. I appreciate you posting a comment, Sebastian!

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