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(p. 412) Consulting Psychology in the Business World 

(p. 412) Consulting Psychology in the Business World
(p. 412) Consulting Psychology in the Business World

Shirley A. Maides-Keane

and Bernard J. Liebowitz

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Subscriber: null; date: 20 September 2017

In the 1950s at the Menninger Foundation, clinical psychologist Harry Levinson (Levinson, 1956; Levinson & Menninger, 1954) established consultation services to industry. He pioneered the application of psychoanalytic concepts to industry and was first to note the major impact that psychological factors, like emotional stress, had on work performance. Subsequently, businesses consulted psychologists to address employee performance issues including intelligence, motivation, job fit, and job satisfaction. This focus on the individual employee arose from Levinson’s early work that ultimately led to innovations like employee assistance programs and the widespread use of executive coaching.

Over subsequent decades Levinson and others (e.g., Diamond, 2003) turned to integration of psychoanalytic concepts and systems theory to address broader organizational issues. Consequently, both the scope of consulting psychologists’ work and how businesses characterize their concerns have changed over the past 60 years and continue to evolve. While the focus on individual psychologically related concerns continues, consulting psychologists are engaging in areas that consider more systemic issues such as organizational redesign and strategic planning. Most of these areas tap psychotherapeutic skills (e.g., assessment, coaching, counseling, systems theory) but the work is quite different from the traditional practice of psychotherapy. Working with any business, from large corporations to family businesses or small entrepreneurial enterprises, requires the consultant to assume a different role and have a solid understanding of how businesses function. In business consulting, the client is the organization, not the individual employees. Since the organization is a system, any work is conducted within that systemic context. Even when the focus is on the individual, the organization’s dynamics are still involved.

Professionals currently gain an understanding of business, and their roles as consultants, through either further formal degree training (e.g., a master’s of business administration degree), working in a consulting firm or corporate setting, or taking specialty training through organizations (p. 413) such as the Society for Consulting Psychology (APA Division 13; or the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches ( There are some new consulting psychology doctoral programs, and there is a group within APA, Division 13, working on establishing competencies for the practice of consulting psychology. Whatever training a professional receives, it is best augmented by receiving mentoring from a seasoned consultant. Since much has been written about the training and experience required to transition from clinical psychology or psychotherapeutic practice into consulting psychology (Liebowitz & Blattner, 2015), this chapter will not dwell on that topic. Instead, we present an overview of the many types of consulting engagements psychologists perform within many business sectors.

We are clinical psychologists who have made the transition to consulting and continue to practice in that arena. Consulting engagements are categorized by their focus on the individual or on the organization. These categories are convenient classifications for purposes of presentation, but in reality they overlap: An assignment in one area can lead to one in the other area, and they may be inseparable in their impact. Our intent is to highlight the demands of training and experience that each area of consulting makes on the individual considering a transition into business consulting.


One area that gained considerable attention in the 1990s, and continues to evolve, is that of business coaching, most commonly referred to as executive coaching. In the 1990s an executive coach might be engaged to help a talented manager prevent derailing his or her career. These derailment projects involved assessing the manager’s ability for, and/or interest in, his or her career path, interpersonal skills, and personality/interpersonal issues (e.g., overly domineering, anger management, sexual harassment). After an assessment process, the coach would collaborate with the individual to devise a developmental plan with specific behavioral benchmarks for improvement and would embark on coaching the manager to successfully complete the plan. Coaching for leadership development has evolved in the 21st century, and rarely do businesses contract for derailment prevention anymore. Instead, consulting psychologists are asked to coach for performance improvement, even though much of the actual coaching is similar to derailment prevention. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching involves a developmental plan that is agreed upon by both the individual and his or her supervisor. Behavioral benchmarks are addressed in the plan.

A hallmark of executive coaching is the feedback coaches provide the individual. Imparting feedback is perhaps the most important component of coaching: It may well be the only time an individual hears how others perceive him or her to be. We as individuals only know how we think we come across to others, and we can easily convert this assumption into fact, as most of us are subject to self-assessment bias. But to actually know how others perceive our intentions and behaviors. we must ask them. What can transpire is either a new vantage point from which an individual can view his or her behavior and its impact on others, or an outright rejection of this information. In either case the feedback offers the consulting psychologist a firm basis on which to provide coaching.

(p. 414) This information is frequently gathered using 360-degree instruments in which the coaching candidate’s supervisor, colleagues, and direct reports (hence, the 360-degree appellation) offer information confidentially about his or her behavior and style. Other sources of information (e.g., standardized personality assessments) are also used to help the candidate understand personality traits that relate to his or her behavior. This information supports the developmental plan and provides specific content for the behavioral benchmarks.

How this information is conveyed to the individual depends almost entirely on the ability, sensitivity, and training of the consulting psychologist. In fact, virtually all of the services consulting psychologists offer the business community depend on an array of skills that include active listening, diagnostic acumen, ability to communicate information effectively, understanding how to assist people to enhance their self-esteem, and ability to facilitate behavioral change. Indeed, such skillsets are the major reason that a consulting psychologist is invited to offer consulting services that perhaps another consultant (without psychotherapy/counseling skills) might also provide.

In business success breeds success, and consulting psychologists with the optimal skillset can be highly effective and successful. When a derailment project produces outstanding results for the organization, it positions the consulting psychologist as a resource for other projects. In the largest organizations a consulting psychologist may begin working at the midlevel management level and, through successful coaching projects, move on to working at higher levels with broader organizational objectives. An example of a derailment prevention project follows.

An operations manager for a Fortune 100 manufacturing company had difficulty with his staff’s performance. He was constantly disappointed by the poor performance of his employees and felt little support from senior management to help with his departmental performance issues. However, the 360-degree feedback from this organization placed the blame for his department’s poor performance squarely on his shoulders, with everyone agreeing that he had an “anger management” problem. Through the coaching process this manager took responsibility for his anger and stopped blaming his subordinates for his own lack of communication skills. Within a six-month coaching process his behavior changed dramatically. He let go of unrealistic expectations for himself, his subordinates, and his superiors. He learned to accept his own limitations, and the limitations of his staff, so that he could engineer a departmental turnaround. As a result of coaching, this manager learned to be more understanding of his own needs and less judgmental of himself and others. He transformed from an angry, unpleasant boss into a delightful, caring, charming leader whose department began to lead the company in productivity per employee.

Recognition of the organization as a system implies that coaching has to take into account the organizational context. The individual being coached may not be appropriate for the position in question. He or she may be too direct for the supervisor to contend with. Work expectations and goals may not have been clearly defined earlier, and therefore differences of opinion emerged on all fronts. An employee may feel that his or her work is being undermined by company policies and believe his or her concerns are given little attention. In each of these instances (and more) the consulting psychologist as coach has to ascertain how to proceed in assessing the situation: Is (p. 415) the individual right for the position but requires coaching, or is the individual better suited for a different position? A frequent observation is how an individual characterized as a bad fit in one division of the company becomes a star in another.

There are many additional business contexts for which executive coaching is considered. For example, individuals on their way up the corporate ladder need to become more strategic in how they think and plan. They have to become more aware of the needs, concerns, and plans of other corporate entities and how these issues impact their areas of responsibilities. Often coaching involves teaching interpersonal/management skills to technical professionals (e.g., accountants, computer experts) who have been promoted to a management position. All of these considerations require them to expand their cognitive horizon, an area (decision making) in which psychotherapists are well trained.

Executive coaching can play an important role in a corporate turnaround. When a division of a large corporation is performing poorly, coaching key leaders can be critical to make the transition from losing money to profitability. Here is another example:

An extremely talented, Ivy League–educated, senior vice-president of a Fortune 50 major financial services corporation began receiving coaching at a critical time for the organization. Because he was in charge of the division publicly known as the loss leader of the corporation and was facing extreme people issues and midcareer burnout, the coaching process for this candidate had to be multifaceted. From the 360-degree data many specific burnout issues became clear to him and formed the basis of the developmental plan. As the candidate assessed options for career advancement in the organization, it appeared initially that institutional barriers would impede the developmental process. During the coaching process he began to believe that leaving the corporation (and a positive 15-year corporate track record) was the only option to overcome burnout and pursue a satisfactory career path, but the coaching process provided a new direction. By clarifying goals and developing action plans, the candidate gained a considerable understanding of his personal assets and leadership style. With such knowledge, he made some significant behavioral changes in working with peers, superiors, and staff. Much to his surprise, everyone noticed and responded positively. The new leadership style was openly praised and rewarded with substantial promotions and salary increases as the division turned around and became profitable. It was a win–win for the candidate and the organization.

More generally, these examples point to a meaningful role consulting psychologists can, and do, play—that of being a trusted advisor to senior-level executives and chief executive officers (CEOs). This role can be challenging and demanding in that it places the psychologist close to the prime decision-making center of a firm. It calls upon the full depth of consulting psychologists’ training, experience, and self-awareness to be effective. Even though the examples given above are from large corporations, the coaching process is similar in all types and sizes of organizations. Most smaller organizations take their lead from the “big guys” and their business concerns closely parallel those of larger organizations. We have worked with organizations of all sizes, including firms with as few as 10 employees.

(p. 416) Role Considerations

Even though consulting psychologists use skills they acquired in their clinical training, consulting in the business world differs significantly from practicing as a psychotherapist. In clinical practice the psychotherapist usually has a distant, more professional relationship with referral sources. These referral sources do not participate in clinical treatment. Distinct professional boundaries are critical for ethical clinical practice. In business not only are others in the organization informed about a coaching candidate’s developmental plan but often they are actively engaged in that plan. The consulting psychologist’s relationship to the organization and coaching candidates is on more of a peer-to-peer level and there is more social engagement than would ever be advisable in clinical practice. Not only are breakfasts and lunch meetings standard in business consulting, but the coaching work is done on a more public level at the client’s convenience. When there are personal issues underlying the coaching process, the psychologist works with the candidate to craft a way to communicate about those issues that protects the individual’s dignity. Such organizational communication issues are virtually nonexistent in clinical practice.

Another major difference in consulting to business is the level of interaction. Regardless of differences in theoretical orientation, clinical practice is highly personal and in depth. Business consulting may involve personal issues, but only to the extent that they relate to business concerns. As a result, the psychologist-consultant must refer candidates who might need psychotherapy in order to successfully complete their developmental plan. It is not wise for a consultant to treat psychotherapeutic issues alongside a coaching engagement. This referral process protects the developmental work and the employee’s deeply personal issues. It is always the best ethical practice to refer clinical issues that arise in consulting work. That is not to say that personality issues are removed from coaching; it is just to note that more clinical issues need to be addressed in a psychotherapeutic context. Often when progress is made in psychotherapy, the coaching candidate can make even more significant developmental progress. Again, as a coach/consultant the psychotherapist has a distinct advantage knowing what can be addressed in a clinical context and what can be accomplished in the coaching process.

Particularly in family business consulting, personal issues are best referred. Boundaries between family and business concerns often blur and the consultant needs to facilitate healthy boundaries between family/personal issues and business concerns. Often in family businesses, substance abuse and mental health issues come into play and need to be addressed separately from the business concerns. For example, a family member who has a major substance abuse issue can be coached on the anger management issues that are impacting the business but would also receive treatment for the substance abuse and related personal issues separately from the coaching. Again, the decisions about what can be coached and what needs to be addressed in a psychotherapeutic context are best understood by a coach/consultant with a background in psychotherapeutic treatment.

Executive Selection

A major service consulting psychologists are trained to provide is individual assessment using data obtained through interviews and tests (e.g., objective personality inventories like the CPI (p. 417) or 16PF and projective tests like Sentence Completions and the Thematic Apperception Test) or assessments designed for specific issues such as aggressiveness, 360-degree feedback, and so forth. Graduate psychological training often includes extensive exposure to test development and usage. These assessments have been, and continue to be, oriented to deciphering emotional and mental health issues. Since the early 1940s testing has expanded its reach to include assessment of individuals for employment, including new hires, leadership and management abilities, and succession, among other purposes. Many businesses develop competency models and tools specific to the organization. They are based on data gathered within the organization and relate to the specific needs of the organization.

To augment the individual assessment, consulting psychologists are frequently asked to determine the “fit” between the candidate and the culture of the organization. Because of their training in psychological assessment, they may be asked to help determine those traits and characteristics that a candidate position might require in a particular situation (“fit”), or what abilities the company might need that it is not fully aware of needing. They may well offer advice regarding how to expedite the succession process, as well as the “onboarding” of personnel. (Onboarding is a popular business term that refers to the process of integrating new upper-level employees [e.g., a new CEO from the outside] into an organization.) These and many more services may land on the doorsteps of consulting psychologists because of their training in the use and development of tests and assessments.

Training and Advising

Frequently, consulting psychologists are called upon to offer training to employees, staff, and executives in diverse areas, such as leadership, motivation (e.g., how to best motivate others), conflict resolution, teaching managers how to coach, how to develop teams, emotional intelligence, stress management, work–life balance, and how to raise morale, among many other subjects.

How well planned these programs are can have a direct and positive influence on the organization. Unfortunately, in the absence of planning their impact can be less than neutral. We underline this element because in many instances in our experience a program on a particular subject (e.g., how to reduce conflict) is introduced in response to an apparent problem in dramatic fashion to demonstrate how serious management is treating it, while the actual causes and circumstances of the situation are being disregarded. By “planning,” then, we are suggesting that the impetus for any such program be taken into account in considering how best to present it.

There is a large training and development industry that provides all types of programs to businesses. Some consulting psychologists offer specific training programs, and others form strategic partnerships with companies to offer psychologically based programs for management training. We have consulted for and delivered programs to Fortune 50 companies and large professional organizations. These organizations vary considerably in their understanding of psychological factors, and the training programs are usually tailored to meet the specific needs of the organization. For example:

A major international luxury brand in the hospitality sector was interested in having its leadership team trained in emotional intelligence and mindfulness as a way to help them (p. 418) lead, and direct, selection and promotion of top-quality customer service managers. This expensive brand required superior customer service in order to grow and thrive. At the time of training the brand was expanding into new markets that required considerable cross-cultural understanding in order to meet their customer service mandate. The leaders of the brand, as well as a leader from the overall corporation, participated in a series of small-group workshops that taught the concepts and provided some experiential exercises as well. While the focus was on particular concepts, the overall workshops were a forum for leadership development within that industry. Coaching in that context was executed in the small-group format where the goal was to increase the leaders’ emotional intelligence and to help them develop a mindfulness practice that would be useful in their work.

Business and professional organizations often sponsor workshops on stress management. Psychologists have an opportunity to conduct these workshops in a sophisticated way that can be highly regarded. We have presented workshops for large Chambers of Commerce, bar associations, trade associations, and associations of financial professionals. While such projects may seem a stretch for the practicing clinician, they simply evolve from relationships that the professional develops and maintains over time. As people become familiar with the types of work that a consultant does, opportunities present themselves. Often pro bono presentations can lead to paid work. Workshops are an area where professionals have an opportunity to educate larger numbers of people in business.

Organizational Consulting

Executive selection and executive coaching are both one step removed from the clinical activities regularly associated with psychotherapists. Being familiar with business issues and conversant with business concerns are basic prerequisites for the practice of consulting psychology. Understanding how to translate assessment and interview findings into useful recommendations for the business community is an art that psychotherapists should easily be able to learn.

However, when the focus extends beyond the individual to the organization—that is, to the wide swath of internal groups from two-person networks all the way to the entire organization—the clinician has to step back and reflect on what additional knowledge and training is required. Liebowitz and Blattner (2015) have outlined many of the obstacles facing novice psychologist-consultants, including new areas of learning that have to be mastered, a new self-awareness that needs to be developed vis-à-vis a focus on the organization and its dynamics, as well as learning to reframe much of their thinking that was useful in the clinical situation but is distracting in the consulting arena.

A first principle in addressing organizations is that because they are complex systems, their parts are best understood as interacting with each other in some way such that a single part is affected by the other parts. A system is a collection of parts that interact with each other to function as a whole. When applied to organizations, this way of thinking suggests that to understand how something goes wrong, how a problem develops and how to correct it, requires understanding of the context—that is, the other parts of the system.

(p. 419) Conflict Situations and Team Building

To illustrate the system aspects of conflict in which consulting psychologists are asked to intervene, consider the example of an employee team that is at odds with each other. A personality issue between, and among, the warring parties might be seen as causing the uproar; an honest difference of opinion or understanding might be at the root of it; or some key players may have received disturbing news about salary raises (or lack thereof). In examining the conflict from a systems point of view (i.e., the context), it may well be that the senior executive has not laid out a clear set of goals and objectives for the team to follow; consequently, each team member has his or her own version of what is the goal.

Let us assume that the conflict is indeed a personality issue. The consultant may ask why the leader has not brought the combatants together to resolve the issue. One of us witnessed a chronic personality clash between two employees being maintained by a supervisor who insisted he didn’t want to take sides and, therefore, chose not to intervene. The solution to the conflict was coaching the supervisor to be more assertive in leading his direct reports. In doing so the morale of his team improved significantly—the team in general had been negatively affected by the leader’s passivity in many different situations.

Conflict resolution is one aspect of team building in which psychologists are asked to consult. Another is the situation where a team is not working together well—where coordination, support, and assistance among members is missing. There are many different techniques (e.g., simulations, tasks that require participants to share information to succeed as a group) that can prove helpful. Again, looking at the context may increase the understanding of why the group was allowed to continue as a group of unrelated individuals. In one situation these conditions persisted because the senior manager wanted to have all information passed directly to, and through, him rather than among the team members, thereby placing all control of the process in his hands. The team lacked any support for working together as a team.

Among the many types of team performance issues that are critical are relationships at the top of the organization. In that context, CEOs may require coaching around their relationship with their boards of directors. It is not uncommon that disagreements between CEOs and their boards become public and detrimental to the organization. An executive coach can be helpful in defusing such situations. An example:

The CEO of a major sports organization had major conflicts with the board of directors, and had a board with intense conflicts among its members. Historically a charismatic leader, the CEO started to work with a coach, trying to figure out what had gone wrong in a leadership style that had been extremely effective for decades. The CEO was only a year away from retirement and was concerned not only with legacy issues but also with the future of the organization in light of the unresolved conflicts. Through the coaching process the CEO gained a radically different perspective on both the conflicts with a particular individual on the board of directors and conflicts between other board members. Armed with the new perspective, the CEO was able to institute several key organizational changes that facilitated a reemergence of past leadership success and resulted in a highly successful (p. 420) succession planning process during his final year as CEO. Those accomplishments allowed the organization to reconnect with its primary mission. At the completion of his tenure as CEO, this talented leader retired to a seat on the board of directors and became a popular mentor for future leaders in the organization.

Succession Issues

Consulting psychologists are often called upon to assist in succession of leaders in both family and nonfamily organizations. On the surface this would seem easy to accomplish: “Promote the best candidate.” There are at least two difficulties standing in the way, both related to the theme presented earlier (the systems principle). One problem is determining not only those character traits that would presumably define the “best candidate,” but also how these traits “fit” with those needed for the organization to continue to grow and thrive. The other difficulty is how to address the feelings and concerns of the surrounding management team. Contextual appreciation of both difficulties is important for the consulting psychologist to consider.

Drawing a list of desirable traits can be achieved through candidate interviews, tests and assessments, and 360-degree instruments, as discussed earlier. But what does the organization need in the way of leadership talent? Is it to be found inside or outside the firm? Considering the overall organizational context, how does the consulting psychologist determine what the organization truly needs in the way of leadership talent to sustain its growth and development?

Asking management, senior employees, and board members provides one source of information. Another is to ask the organization’s suppliers, vendors, and bankers their opinions on what the firm might need. The results of organizational surveys (see below) can yield important information about action steps the organization needs to take. Matching for “fit” is a significant responsibility of the consulting psychologist.

The opinion of people who formerly were peers of, as well as senior to, the successor is another element that has to be taken into account. No doubt others had been vying for the role of successor but were not selected. Their support will prove vital to the successor. How those previously senior to the successor (either in the management hierarchy or on the board) respond to the successor is equally as important. Thus, for example, those from “the old guard” may continue to see the successor in his or her former role and status, not in the one for which he or she has been selected, or a director may feel slighted that his or her choice was not selected and prove resistant to being supportive. The range of reactions to a successor’s promotion is more diverse than those presented here. How these reactions are responded to can be crucial to the success of the successor’s reign.

Succession in the family business brings with it the same considerations as in other businesses in addition to several unique to the family business. Family business consulting is an area where coach/consultants with a family therapy background have a distinct advantage in being able to sort out and separate family dynamics from business issues.

While the common notion of a family business is a “Mom and Pop shop,” there are many large organizations that are family businesses (Nordstrom and Marriott are notable examples). The (p. 421) family and business issues can be complex, and coach/consultants who work with family businesses often play a much bigger role in the organization than in other organizations. Conflicts in family businesses often play out both personally and professionally, influencing the organization more dramatically than in other businesses.

Often in a family business the entrepreneurial father who has built the business may be reluctant to begin the process of stepping down or naming a successor(s). The consulting psychologist can assist the father in learning to accept the need for change. Siblings in the business may be rivals for leadership, and evaluating who might be the best candidate for succession can call for the consulting psychologist’s recommendation. Further, there are often situations where the entrepreneur’s offspring are not equipped to lead the business. In these situations the consulting psychologist might help keep the business in the family by choosing a capable nonfamily member to assume leadership, or to sell the business, among many other decisions. If there is a potential leader among the siblings, the parents may be reluctant to name that person for fear of alienating the other siblings. Again, the consulting psychologist is well equipped to deal with these and related succession issues.

Once a successor has been named, there is a process of training and developing that individual. The consultant can be a valuable coach for that person, assisting him or her in the training and development process by developing a comprehensive plan with clear behavioral benchmarks. Other siblings may need assistance assuming their appropriate roles in the organization as well. Throughout these processes there may be a need for further conflict resolution and team building. In fact, the consulting psychologist may teach conflict resolution skills to team members during the business reorganization.

Organizational Analysis

Although we have touched on organizational concerns, there are broader issues that span the entire spectrum of the organizational landscape and influence it more rapidly and intensely. To address these issues the consulting psychologist needs even more specialized training and experience than we have identified thus far. Some of these issues are listed in order of the increasingly advanced experience and training required to conduct such projects.

Attitude Surveys

Organizations that are targeting concerns about employee morale or culture change may engage a consulting psychologist. These, and related topics, require an understanding of the status quo—namely, what is the morale of employees and what is the culture that needs to be changed? Attitude surveys address these questions by directly asking employees their opinion about organizational morale and culture. There are many standardized assessments available that can be used, but quite often specific issues in morale and culture are targeted and unique questionnaires are designed for the particular setting in response.

(p. 422) Translating these findings into actionable activities can be the responsibility of the consulting psychologist. Categorizing the responses by department or division may add meaning to the results in that it clarifies how widespread or localized a sentiment may be. Deciding what to do about the results can frequently require the consultant’s expertise—for example, in developing a program to change attitudes and/or culture.

Deciphering Work Process Difficulties

Attitude surveys are designed primarily to elicit employee opinions about culture and morale, as discussed above. However, they also can function as aids to more intensive employee interview procedures and work process observations. In that context the survey elicits information about impediments to workflow such as duplication of effort, inefficient handling of product, incorrect ordering of needed material, lack of information needed by a work team, and the like. Though a consulting psychologist most likely would not know what new or different machinery is needed for a particular work process, he or she could learn (through interviews and observations) that a particular work process needs to be performed faster. Then the consulting psychologist could recommend that measures be taken to implement the appropriate changes.

Organizational Design

A frequently overlooked contributor to a business’s success is the structural flow of the organization—in other words, how a product/service is produced and turned into a useful and saleable offering. Organizational design centers on the customer’s needs and how each department, and division of an organization, ensures that those needs remain a primary business objective.

How customer information flows through an organization forms one of the major bases of design. Another critical factor in design is how the various departments and divisions are aligned so that profitability is maintained while the customer’s needs are met. An example will illustrate the importance of organizational design for the success of a company.

The production arm of a firm providing financial information to three types of customers (banks, Fortune 1000 companies, and government agencies) selected the products that the business produced on behalf of its customers. It did so without any input from its salesforce. The company was rapidly losing its position in the marketplace. A consumer-based analysis discovered that what the firm offered its customers was not what customers wanted or needed. To correct the situation, three teams were formed, each dedicated to one of the three customer types. Each team was cross-functional—that is, it consisted of a member from sales, sales support, production, and finance. This redesign facilitated input from each department: Sales provided the necessary customer input about its needs, sales support customized products for each customer type, production provided input about its execution requirements, and finance ensured a profitable outcome. Thus, the organizational structure became more effective, efficient, and profitable.

(p. 423) Mergers and Acquisitions

Most mergers and acquisitions depend more on financial considerations than otherwise. What frequently tends to predominate is what the ideal merged company will look like, given the characteristics (e.g., customers, products, services, talent, personnel) of the two firms. What is often overlooked is that these readily observable features are only part of the story; there are also many assumptions that are hidden and presupposed, and they may be considered irrelevant. Not surprisingly, those assumptions may drive the success or failure of the merger. Eliciting such assumptions is a service that consulting psychologists can render. There are many different ways to do so.

A technique that one of us has developed is to have the management team of each firm separately design the merged company of the future (including financial issues, personnel, workflow, and the like) and then come together to compare their pictures. It is utterly amazing to witness how differently each firm pictures the future, and how the features of each picture can easily conflict. The consulting psychologist is well trained to engage in this type of activity because he or she is trained to deal with unspoken assumptions and presuppositions and can prove to be an invaluable resource.


Organizational downsizing can be a depressing, volatile, and unpleasant situation. The consulting psychologist may be asked to perform several services, including aiding the deployment of a policy or procedure for the process and/or helping with the emotional reactions of employees who will be let go, those who have already been let go, and those who remain in the firm. Given the delicacy of the situation, and its legal ramifications, the psychologist must have some training for, and prior experience with, organizational downsizing.

Additional Types of Business Consulting

There are clinical and counseling psychologists, as well as other clinicians, who work in market research and advertising. These professionals are involved in both quantitative (big data) studies and qualitative (focus groups) research for marketing and advertising. In the 1980s there were many advertising and marketing campaigns based on “psychographic” data that were derived from segmentation studies (formal cluster analysis) designed to identify the personality types of different market segments. Once the “psychographics” were identified, marketing and advertising campaigns were crafted to appeal to specific consumer segments. Since that time psychologists have continued to be involved in market analysis by running focus groups and/or analyzing large databases to help businesses understand their consumer markets.

While demographic information is routinely used in market analysis, the larger organizations that spend substantial sums of money on launching new products need to be more sophisticated (p. 424) in their understanding of the consumer. Not only do they need to know the size and demographic features of a potential market, but they also need to understand how consumers think and behave in order to make decisions about how to bring a product to market. Psychologists who work in this segment of business often belong to the American Marketing Association ( AMA has local chapters that offer networking events and job listings. Academics who teach consumer psychology belong to APA Division 23, the Society of Consumer Psychology (

Market research and advertising brings the consulting psychologist into the management circle that deals with organizational strategy. Frequently the consulting psychologist becomes a business advisor and mentor, and as such, is invited to offer his or her opinion or advice about critical strategic business issues. In this way, consulting psychologists can become involved in strategic planning (after receiving the necessary training). While many businesses aspire to do strategic planning, everyday concerns often take priority over longer-range planning. Strategic planning is performed in many different ways. There are models based on social psychology group process, and there are purely empirical forecasting models. One way that falls in the consulting psychology arena is scenario planning, in which a management team is divided into subgroups, each dealing with different versions of the future. One group may deal with “the future being the same as now, only better,” another addresses the future as a “dog eat dog environment,” and a third might view the future as “totally different from today.” The members of each group do extensive research in their particular version of the future. Then each group delineates what has to happen in the business environment for the future to unfold that way and what the company needs to do to eventually succeed in each scenario. Pooling the insight from all of these scenarios allows the firm to decide how it might best meet the future no matter how the future unfolds.

Summary and Conclusions

We have presented an overview of consulting psychology in the business world, drawing on our own experiences over the past 35 to 40 years. We hope we have conveyed the importance of further training and experience to transition into consulting psychology while shedding light on the variety of potential business consulting engagements. Again, there is training available from the Society of Consulting Psychology ( and the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches ( and many other reputable training programs. The Society of Consulting Psychology is a good resource for finding other training programs and they are open to non–American Psychological Association members.


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