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Why rescuing clients is wrong yet profitable and why we do it....

Freeman Dr Simon Davey says it’s time to stop the rescue act.

What is the role of a consultant and where do the boundaries lie? What does the drama triangle have to teach us about better client relationships and better outcomes?

Introducing the drama triangle

The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction about three roles – Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor. It suggests that we often play one of these three roles in situations with others.

The Rescuer is not someone helping out in an emergency – rather they have a mixed or covert motive and benefit egoically in some way from being the one who rescues. They have a surface motive for resolving the problem but also a hidden motive often focused on their own self-esteem or on enjoying others’ dependency and at a deeper level play on the Victim in order to continue getting their payoff.

As Claude Steiner put it, “The Victim is not really as helpless as he feels, the Rescuer is not really helping and the Persecutor does not really have a valid complaint.”

These situations can play out when one person takes on a role as Victim or Persecutor and the two (or more) players then move around the three roles of the triangle. So the Victim might turn on the Rescuer who switches to persecuting.

The covert purpose for each ‘player’ is the meeting of unspoken/unconscious psychological needs without having to acknowledge the broader harm done. Each player acts on their own selfish needs rather than in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner. Relationships between the Victim and the Rescuer can grow into co-dependency.  

But what does this have to do with consultancy - and where is the ethical dimension?

The need to challenge - not just fix the stated problem

I pride myself on being challenging - note challenging rather than difficult. I do like to get to the end of an assignment, leave on good terms, get paid and I count it as a mark of success that I do get follow up work and referrals from clients.

Like any good consultant I dig underneath the veneer of the assignment to find out what the real issue is. It requires a thick skin, particularly in technology- related projects when the client can demand you focus on the technology element when it is often leadership and change issues which are behind the problem. Sometimes this can result in overstepping the boundaries but why do we allow these boundaries to be created in the first place – whose interests do they really serve? Do we allow the client to fulfil either Persecutor or Victim roles? Are they ‘rescuing’ us as consultants by giving us work?

I have always believed in following the spirit, rather than simply the letter of the assignment. I believe it is my responsibility to support the ‘end goal’ rather than look the other way (something of an issue with Enron’s auditors if I remember rightly).

Consultancy can become formulaic, about using toolkit X with a standard sized team of Y to achieve outcome Z. It can be about covering people’s backs rather than deriving real value and beneficial outcomes for the client. It can be about not rocking the boat in case you lose the work. Hell, it’s only work!

Permission is an issue. If you are commissioned to do ABC, is it ethical to question that and deviate from it once the assignment is underway? In my experience, consultancy is too often used to prove a specific point, in someone’s specific interest and it’s only once you have dug under the bonnet that you start to see the real implications. You can’t know all the questions at the start of the assignment. When you are a ‘trusted advisor’ it’s easier to have the more difficult discussions but shouldn’t we question everything regardless? Or are we just highly paid lapdogs doing the client’s bidding in the interests of a good financial return? Is there a co-dependency here, where if we do exactly what the client wants we will get more work?

The need to ask very difficult questions

No one enters the consultancy profession to be popular. I believe it’s our duty to dig deep, to take risks, to benefit the organisation as a whole (or its stated mission in the case of a non-profit). Anything else puts us into the ‘Rescuer’ role. The Victim (client) shouts ‘help me’ and we, as Rescuer, do their bidding to feel good.

There is a parallel here with Education. Increasingly teachers are under pressure to get their students through assignments and exams. Increasingly students are finding the challenge difficult and rather than sit with that difficulty, there is a growing tendency for the teacher to step in and ‘rescue’ the student. The end result is simple – the challenge and growth are denied. There is no sustainable improvement. There is only a good result in the immediate term. Students like it – they get to keep winning at the game for as long as possible without pain. Teachers like it – they also win at the game and feel good (sometimes addictively so) by solving the students’ problems for them. However, in the long game, no one wins. At some point the student’s weaknesses and flaws are revealed. Your parents were right – it’s not good for you in the long run if someone else does your homework.

And so it is with consultancy. Sometimes there are problems which are urgent and need a fix. The situation is critical and the role of the consultant is to provide emergency expertise and experience. Yet, these assignments are arguably still relatively rare.

Too many times we are commissioned to ‘fix’ something. To put a sticking plaster solution on a problem which suits key individuals but may not be of long term benefit to either the organisation or its objectives. We (or our companies) earn well. But where is the sustainable solution? Where is the client growth? Where is the real benefit?

I believe the first role of a consultant is to put themselves out of future work with a client. That is my ethical starting point. I want to offer expertise and experience of value, to make a significant difference, to resolve what needs resolving. It’s not my goal to derive a long term, ongoing paycheque. I think that’s called a job rather than an assignment.

It’s easy to be a rescuer. It feels good. You can earn well from it. But is it right? Is it ethical? Does it deliver a sustainable benefit for the client?

Surely making victims of our client base isn’t a good thing in the long run… At least not for them.








Dr Simon Davey, Freeman