November 2, 2010

Problem induction

In this post, I told you about problem induction. Problem induction is a term solution-focused theorists use to describe how professionals may evoke client problems through their interventions. By 1) asking certain kinds of suggestive questions ("But are you really happy in your relationship?"), 2) sharing certain kinds of impressions ("I get the impression that you have quite a bit of suppressed anger"), 3) offering certain kinds of diagnoses ("it seems like you have an anger management problem"), and 4)  directly stating the client cannot proceed without professional help ("I advise you to seek professional help to learn to deal with your anger in a healthy way"), client may start to think their problems are worse than they thought and that they are dependent on the professional to solve them.

While I think most professional helpers have good intentions when they use these interventions, they may be bad for clients in the sense that their self-confidence and hope may be negatively affected. They may start to feel they are abnormal and have serious problems and they may become emotionally dependent on the professional. Professionals may not always have the best intentions in mind when they apply these problem induction interventions, however. If they were primarily commercially driven and not too much bothered by their conscience, these interventions would be an ideal way of getting clients and holding on to them. Canadian psychologist Tana Dineen, author of the book Manufacturing victims, claims this is common practice in the psychology discipline. She says that psychology has turned into an industry which in its eagerness to sell its products and services is constantly selling the idea to people that they have problems and need psychological help.

Today, I came across a quote from the book The management myth which is a dramatic example of ruthless deliberate problem induction in order to make money. The author, Matthew Stewart, looks back on his days as a management consultant and describes the method in which clients were hunted and made dependent on the consultants:
  1. Marketing (The luring). Fly in the "experts" from around the world, never to be seen again. Hold "conferences". When that doesn't work, offer to do a quick and painless "diagnostic" at a steep discount, with a money back guarantee. Whatever it takes. 
  2. Diagnostic (Halloween). It's trick and treat time. First, scare the pant off them. Crater their self-esteem. This requires what is known in the trade as a "trick'. A trick is a quick and easy analysis that will produce predictably horrifying results -predictable for you, horrifying for them. Consultants spend years honing these tricks. Second, offer to give them their self-esteem back in exchange for your treat! Choose the implementation plan that is likely to generate the largest volume of consulting fees. 
  3. Implementation (Eating the Brain). They key to establishing an enduring presence is to colonize key functions in the client's central nervous system. A good place to start is the planning function. Send the existing staff on long and impossible errands, and the steal their office space. Make it impossible for the client to think without you. 
  4. Follow ons (Metastasis). You're already expanding deep inside the client organization, so think like a cancer. Look for subsidiaries, foreign branches, or other departments where you can replicate. 
  5. The Breakup. Yes it's hard to do but at some point the client either wises up to you or just gets tired of your smell. And, frankly, you're fed up with making reports that vanish into the bureaucratic ether. So try to end it gracefully. 


  1. Coert,

    I think that people may be doing all that you've described above. However, I'm not sure they are aware of it.

    In one of the books on behavioral economics I read, they showed that doctors who were paid more for a given treatment option prescribed it more than their peers who were paid less than them for the same treatment. It could be that the doctors are all unethical and prescribed a treatment that would line their pockets. However, other studies have shown that financial incentives can bias decision making and even change perspectives.

    One study of teachers was described in "Predictably Irrational" in which highly committed teachers who chose to teach at a very unique school were given financial incentives to increase student attendance. Student attendance did rise but GPA's fell.


    Because the teachers who were committed to the highest ideals of education started to pander to the students by doing more field trips and showing more entertaining films. This reduced time spent learning course material.

    So I only say this because I think that some readers might interpret what you've written above in a very cynical way. When in fact, it's just a symptom of our biases at work.

  2. I agree, sometimes professionals do these things but in most cases this is not intentional and when they are aware of their biases they do try to fix that. This is my experience at least.

  3. Hi Rodney, I agree. I think most of the people try to be honest most of the time. I myself have worked in ways similar like this for many years (I don't mean the cynical example of Matthew Stewart) and thought it was necessary.

  4. Oh, having worked with consulting firms in the past, I go with the cynical interpretation...
    in one consulting firm they would gather the top management of prospective clients in a room, ask them questions about strategy, which each one had to answer on post-its... then post-its where gathered, and lo-and-behold, people had different opinions, which the consultant facilitating the workshop quickly framed as dangerous misalignment at the very top of the company!
    That could be corrected by working on team building, communication & strategy with the consulting firm - and that hook was very powerful, since they could see they had different ideas, right there.
    After seeing this, when I pointed out all the bias-exploitation and the straight out manipulations that were acted out, I was dismissed as the usual nitpicker who did not understand anything about business...
    they might have been right, but I want no part in a business like that!

  5. this is a challenge for professional industry. The process of creating a dependence of a consultant or psychologist etc... is when our personal biases enter.
    We can never be totally objective and not percieve and speak through our own filter.
    So being mindful of possible ways you may be creating a co-dependent relationship helps.
    Although while reading this list..I kept putting the ideas into a more positive statement :)


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