What Is Psychological Consulting?

illustration by sam brewster

illustration by sam brewster

The concept of People Operations is relatively new. For a long time, the HR department of a company was in charge of auditing health insurance policies, building compensation packages, and managing company-wide issues and claims.  

Along the way, companies began to realize that because every organization is made up of individual people, taking care of said people is an important ingredient for success. It has become increasingly common for companies to care for their employees' financial well-being with higher salaries and great benefits, their physical health with office lunches and gym memberships, and even their mental wellness with yoga classes and unlimited vacation days.

What I believe is still missing, however, is the recognition that an employee’s day-to-day emotional health significantly impacts their work and thus the success of the company. If a founder, manager, or employee is going through something difficult in their personal life or having issues with colleagues, their work will suffer (and so will anyone working with them).

While management is being increasingly encouraged to see employees as human and to connect with them as much as possible, they do not have the training or the bandwidth to handle all of the emotional truths of humanity that can surface in the workplace. There is also little emotional support for managers, especially when a company is going through difficult circumstances.

This is the void that Psychological Consulting fills. It bridges the gap between business and human emotions and behavior. It recognizes that our personal and work lives are intertwining and overlapping more than ever, and that emotions, communication tendencies, and relationship styles play a huge role in the way every employee works. It serves to create a safe psychological space for executives, management, teams, and employees.

To give an example of how Psychological Consultation can be useful, I’m going to tell you a story with two different endings. You have probably heard something like it before — it is a story inspired by the thousands of folks in Silicon Valley who have been through this or something similar.

The Old Way

In the first version, a 20-something-year-old man (I’ll call him Jason) works at a small startup in the Bay Area. Jason loves his work culture and his coworkers; they eat lunch together every day, they get together outside of work, and they’ve developed effective habits and teamwork strategies.

One day, the founders of Jason’s startup call a meeting and announce that dreams have become reality: the startup has been purchased by a large company. Effective almost immediately, they will be moving to the city and working in a new office. Jason is thrilled, but he also has some apprehensions — will his job be safe at the new company? Will he have the same title? Will he be appreciated by his new boss and team?

Jason doesn’t say anything because everyone seems so excited and he doesn’t want to be a buzzkill. The meeting ends with the founders letting everyone know that they can come to them with any questions or concerns. Jason is tempted to talk to them, but he knows that they have a lot of their own feelings about the acquisition and isn’t sure if they have the space to hold everything that’s going through his mind.

Two months later at his new company, almost everything about Jason’s day-to-day life is different. Where he used to have face-time with his CEO on a daily basis, he now has little to no contact with upper management. Where he used to work a little on every part of the company, he is now siloed into one small aspect of the product. Lunch has gone from feeling like a daily get-together with friends to a bit of a high-school cafeteria nightmare. His title has changed, and although he feels welcomed and liked by his new colleagues, he’s having a hard time adjusting to all of the new social norms and rules of the company.

Jason’s coworkers are dealing with similar issues, and don’t feel that their new company has taken the time to learn about their culture and set them up for success. Their new colleagues are also ambivalent about all of the change happening, and are resentful about the extra work they’re having to do to get everyone up to speed. Even the founders of the startup are having trouble as they have gone from being the top dogs of their startup to mid-level employees with limited control at the new company. Productivity, morale, and cohesiveness take a hit across the board, and it takes months for things to settle in and level out.

An Alternate Ending

Now here’s another version of the story. This time, both the startup and the large company bring in a Psychological Consultant before breaking the news of the acquisition to their employees. The consultant is briefed on the culture and ethos of both companies, and helps strategize the best way to set all employees up for success during the transition. The consultant helps managers understand the psychology of change and how it can be both exciting and anxiety-provoking. They work with the founders to create a plan for how to share the news and about what might come up for the employees when they do.

When the announcement is made, the consultant is introduced as in impartial resource who is available to help everyone process their concerns, excitement, and any other feelings that arise. If people want to vent, the consultant listens, if people are confused, the consultant translates. When the companies merge, the consultant helps with the inevitable ambivalence that comes up for Jason and his coworkers and creates a safe space for emotions to be felt through so that they are not acted out in the work.

In the end, Jason, his colleagues, the founders, and the company are more productive, there is less attrition, and everyone feels seen, heard, and appreciated.

Which Version Is For You?

In many ways, a company is like a family. When there are major changes in a family (like divorce, moving to a new house, or having another child), or even minor changes like switching up the rules, everyone will react differently.

This story about an acquisition is one of many types of change that happens at a company. If a VP or founder or manager leaves, if there are layoffs or intense on-boarding, if a company rolls out a new policy, if there is any major change — people will have feelings about it. If those feelings are not explored and processed, it is not uncommon for productivity and cooperation to decrease dramatically as employees act out their emotions in unproductive or unhealthy ways, often without realizing it.

Founders, managers, and HR are on the frontline of these changes, and play a pivotal role in supporting their employees. However, it can be very challenging for them to help so many people process through an event that they also are involved with and have feelings about. This is where bringing in a Psychological Consultant can be hugely beneficial.

Psychological Consultants are trained to hold space effectively, professionally, and confidentially. They support HR, management, and employees and bring a unique skill-set and knowledge base to the equation. Their presence demonstrates to employees that a company recognizes the fact that its decisions affect everyone.

In short, a Psychological Consultant acts as an objective and empathetic other — they want to see everyone be productive, cohesive, and happy but are not inherently invested in the outcome. They create and hold a much needed safe space for employees to be human.