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Management Consultants: Liminality, Experiences, and the Work of Others

A review essay examining two recent ethnographies by Erik Henningsen and Felix Stein.

Published onDec 15, 2021
Management Consultants: Liminality, Experiences, and the Work of Others

Management and Morality: An Ethnographic Exploration of Management Consultancy Seminars, by Erik Henningsen (2020). New York: Berghahn.

Work, Sleep, Repeat: The Abstract Labour of German Management Consultants, by Felix Stein (2017). London: Bloomsbury.

Police officers, artists, veterinarians, anthropologists: in a contemporary capitalism marked by the shift from “retain and invest” to “downsize and distribute” (Chong 2018: 17), an increasingly diverse array of trades and professions are becoming consultants in sectors where they are, or were, experts. Under this general pattern, expertise still works in its more or less recognizably canonical terms—namely, as a body of authoritative, intensive, and supposedly objective knowledge of a particular process or product, acquired by years of practice, study, or both. The link between what consultants can be said to know and what they can address authoritatively is intelligible enough: one may disagree with their recommendations or even with the premise of outsourcing this labor, but a veterinarian’s relation to animal health or an artist’s to the nuances of color theory carry a sort of professional legitimacy that does not need to be explained.

 Yet in the most common form of consultancy work in the twenty-first century, and incidentally also the one driving the shift mentioned above, this link is much more opaque. I am talking here of management consultants. Two recently published books, Management and Morality by Erik Henningsen and Work, Sleep, Repeat by Felix Stein, take on the question that puzzles everyone, including often management consultants themselves: what exactly do management consultants do? What do they know, what does their work entail, and crucially, how did they become such an inevitable feature of the contemporary economic landscape? Henningsen’s warning that consultants typically reject the notion of expertise and Stein’s references to his consultant interlocutors often wondering what they were actually doing (and why they were getting paid so handsomely) may add to the general impression that we nonconsultants are all being fabulously had.

Such questions also conjure up an intriguing anthropological puzzle that is ripe for ethnographic inquiry. Conducting his fieldwork in and around the Norwegian capital of Oslo, Henningsen focuses on a particular kind of management consulting, known as process consulting or simply “process.” Epistemologically opposed to “expert consulting,” process consulting consists of seminars, workshops, and retreats that are convened, not taught, by these consultants. “Process” events are aimed at uncovering and activating resources supposedly hidden within the self, developing participants’ inner potential and, on the whole, fostering the flexible and autonomous subjects who thrive in contemporary capitalism. Henningsen rejects the idea that management consulting is mere hot air; if this were the case, he argues, the bluff would have been called long ago by corporate managers obsessed with their bottom lines. Instead, as he suggests, process seminars thrive because they produce liminoid events through which people satisfy a human need for meaning-making rituals. To study such phenomena, Henningsen follows four small consultancies that all adhere to processualism as not just a method but also an ethical orientation and a worldview. Whereas expert consulting hinges on hierarchical truths, minimal involvement with clients, and an orientation to providing solutions, its process counterpart instead trades in a pragmatic relativism that celebrates each client’s positionality and assists them in solving their problems. In process consulting, accuracy and truthfulness matter less than the reflexive experience of unlocking a client’s potential; delivering this, in turn, is an experience in itself.

To the untrained eye, process seminars combine New Age spiritualism, group therapy, and a low-key charismatic movement; indeed, this very syncretism has produced process consulting’s ontology and phenomenology. “Process” is hard to define, even to its adherents, but a well-executed version of it depends on the skills, sense of awareness, and professional background of its practitioners. They typically come to this trade from business, the media, research settings, or the public sector. As freelancers who tend not to have offices, these consultants perform flexibility, confident autonomy, and a near-shamanic belief in both “process” and their capacity to coach others through the experience. In line with their relativistic orientation, these consultants echo the shift in the role of intellectuals that, as Henningsen notes, Zygmunt Bauman (1987) has already examined: from “legislators” to “interpreters” of what can be known. These consultants act as infrastructural, discursive, and affective facilitators for their clients’ states of mind. Consultants select nonplace-like venues that interrupt the flow of normal life, encourage participants to avoid mutual criticism, and work towards “additive dialogue” and congeniality. Whether taking place in a conference room or along a ropes course, properly convened process consulting can lead to self-discoveries that bring even business executives to tears, in a milieu of hyper-inclusive, affectively democratic participation.

Henningsen’s book analyzes his interlocutors’ work as the constant generation of this liminoid “process” space. Their facilitation disallows the very possibility of any historical, political, class, or other disagreement that would be at odds with the ritualized experience on offer. This style of facilitation also demands that consultants quickly spot cynics, those who do not take the seminars seriously, and arrogant or disinterested people; labeling them “vampires” or “black holes” who suck the energy of others (pp. 163–64), consultants manage their presence by limiting their participation or openly declaring these dispositions as destructive to the aims of process consulting.

More generally, practitioners must enact a careful performance of language and technique. Henningsen adeptly analyzes his interlocutors’ use of language inspired by the format of PowerPoint slides, which often disavows the very possibility of disagreement

in favor of a mutual exchange of statements and tokens of recognition. […] [PowerPoint language] “liberates” communicative exchanges from strict requirements of logical consistency and of precision in the use of concepts. [This language responds to] a thematic heading, not [to] more complicated questions of the logical relations between a series of points or their order of priority in accordance with criteria of truthfulness, normative validity, etc. (p. 82, emphasis in original)

In writing off skeptics as polluting agents and trading in vacuous, unfalsifiable statements such as “be yourself,” process consultants make disagreement both pathological and abstract—and, in doing so, prevent others from scrutinizing their methods.

Eventually, nonritual life has a way of interfering with process consultants’ inclusive relativism, New Age authority, and teleologies of the self; in these moments, the exact nature of their work becomes subject to the political and social demands of others. In an exceptionally telling vignette, a process consultant secured a contract to lead a series of seminars focusing on the revival of a decaying postindustrial town. In the typically depoliticized and bleached discourse of “process,” the consultant was either unaware of the tangle of duties and expectations around connecting the public sector, businesses, and the community—or was genuinely unable to grasp them. Instead, the consultant encouraged attendees, addressed as a harmonious, undifferentiated “local community,” to imagine potential courses of action leading to a future micro-utopia. Yet a number of attendees had understood the point of the consultant’s work to be developing actual strategies that the town would adopt; confusion ensued, with local politicians accusing the consultant of not understanding how government worked and leaving the sessions. The consultant countered that he was there to facilitate “the personal experience of participation” (p. 130).

In a similar instance, at the behest of a senior representative of a client company, a consultant blithely asked participants about their “future within the organization” (p. 172) of a certain department. In context, this question implied that department’s tasks would likely be outsourced, and the only attendee from that department found her professional position (and potentially, her future in the company) being discussed by all her colleagues in the “incredibly provoking” (p. 172) tones of New Age affect and managerial matter-of-factness. Henningsen later asked the consultant why he did not intervene to ensure that the attendee would at least be heard, but the consultant replied his role was not to meddle; “process,” as such, must run its course without outside interference.

The elusiveness of an inchoate trade, expanding against all odds, is also one of the central concerns of Felix Stein’s Work, Sleep, Repeat. Stein’s field site is a global management consultancy with a base in Berlin, and his fieldwork included a stint of employment as a management consultant at the company. Less semiotic and structuralist than Henningsen’s, Stein’s approach instead belongs to the tradition of politico-economic ethnography. Yet Stein also finds that management consultants’ work is fundamentally about enabling ruptures in the work of others. The fact that these others could be governments, NGOs, car makers, or paper mills requires what Stein proposes as the four senses of consultants’ abstract labor: an epistemic sense, as they trade in abstractions; an affectively disengaged sense, as they are removed from the people whose work they seek to redefine; a productive sense, as they are not incorporated in processes that create value; and an opaque sense, as they often cannot explain the exact nature of their interventions.

In the field of management consultancy converge centuries-old concerns over workers’ efficiency with the contemporary doctrine of shareholder value. Yet its mostly white male, upper-middle-class professionals, trained at the world’s most prestigious universities, curiously do not inhabit this convergence as knowledge workers, much less as specialized ones. If Henningsen’s interlocutors’ work is about facilitating for others a space of suspended belief, Stein’s interlocutors are “technologies for the establishment of detached relations by the managers who hired them” (p. 66). Both oppressed and enabled by the compressed temporalities of their work, these consultants must make sense of their days, tasks, and private lives in a conjuncture where “a normal understanding of work requirements did not apply” (p. 48). They have only a few days to, for example, identify a potential €30 million in cost savings from a paper mill that they have never visited—without, in principle, knowing anything about how paper is produced. Offered access to clients’ offices, paperwork, and gossip, these consultants typically pass for insiders. Yet employed temporarily and on the basis of a virtuous detachment from the company’s biases, they remain outsiders; in this inside-outside scenario, their work as project after project results in a perpetually liminal existence. Detached from their projects, these consultants work at inhabiting this liminal space, as the ultimate reason they both enter and stay in the industry (aside from its very high salaries). Passing for a form of versatility, this liminal condition catalyzes their future careers: these consultants are expressly, even programmatically “learning selves” (p. 126), choosing projects on the basis of both diversifying their exposure to different industries and performing the polyvalent readiness they must offer as the commodity they are to their firm.

Stein’s consultants also work with PowerPoint decks and Excel spreadsheets as technologies of enchantment, wherein the vagueness of the former and the intricacies of the latter reinforce the opaque authority of their work. This is particularly useful in their position as technologies for the establishment of detached relations, allowing managers to separate themselves from policies and decisions affecting their employees. Time and again, Stein shows that consultants are a convenient manner of legitimizing decisions already taken, or of outsourcing the responsibility for making unpleasant decisions. Moreover, the digital tools they use reinforce a generalized pragmatism by which consultants can conveniently produce numbers and indexes, gloss over differences between dissimilar contexts, and create a climate of “profitable uncertainty” (p. 147). Mobilizing uncertainty is, after all, a crucial aspect of this version of consultancy; more than just truthful, consultants’ projections need to be persuasive and to carry the charismatic authority of Henningsen’s ritual “process” leader. The belief that management consultants are there to conjure up abstract, yet ominous realities regarding the work of others is so ingrained among client organizations that surveilled employees will routinely attempt to influence the consultants’ analyses. In another curious parallel to Henningsen’s consultants, Stein shows how some of his interlocutors working at client companies are so used to the ritualized disruption of resorting to consultants that whenever consultants reject Stein’s interlocutors’ projects, the latter wait until the consultants leave and the dust settles to push again for those projects as if nothing had happened.

We can now identify an answer to one of the questions that opened this review essay. How is it that management consultancy continues to insert itself into more and more processes and industries? For Stein, it is precisely the production of profitable uncertainty, crafting authoritative ambiguities such that only the consultants’ work can lead to the desired outcome. Put simply: consultants create the need for more consultancy.

But there is something more. Both Stein and Henningsen identify a dynamic of circular self-fulfillment that shields consultants from critique, or even genuine disagreement. Henningsen notes that consultancy interventions are autotelic experiences: ends in themselves. The work of consultants is one of calibrating voices, times, spaces, screens, and intensities so as to allow clients to work through the ambiguities of, say, figuring out what it means to “be yourself.” Yet framing the consultants’ intervention as an inclusive experience of self-discovery and actualization of one’s potential means that, if the experience does not work, then this failure is very hard to blame on the consultant: more likely, the attendee simply did not try hard enough to mine their inner self for answers. Success or failure, accordingly, rests on the attendee’s shoulders, while the consultant reaps the benefits of the perennial need for their services without any mechanism for being held accountable.

Stein’s consultants, meanwhile, ensure that their work is not only indispensable but also reproduces the categories, processes, and rationalities that necessitate more of it: what Stein refers to as the “autopoiesis” of management consulting (pp. 112–13). This is, in Kimberly Chong’s (2018) sense, an ontological intervention: consultants have seized the means of understanding what economic and industrial processes are, and it is within these means that others will have to make sense of their own work.

From different and in some ways mutually exclusive angles, both Management and Morality and Work, Sleep, Repeat confirm the central argument of Chong’s (2018) Best Practice: the work of a management consultant is less about proffering expert truths (or even knowing them) and more about knowing how to create a rupture: that is, an ethical, affective, and experiential disruption. Both books explain the persistence of management consultancy through a liminoid (or, in Stein’s case, outright liminal) dimension that ruptures hierarchies and established meanings of the contexts in which they intervene. This, too, might explain how consultancy is hard to explain in a way that is understandable to those who experience other forms of labor. If ethics, affects, and experiences are often depoliticized phenomena, then they are all the more so when purposefully sought after as framing devices. That does not, in itself, explain the global craze for management consultants or resolve the question of whether we are all being taken for a consultancy ride that gets keeps getting longer and more circuitous. But it may begin to answer the question of why it is so difficult to understand the nature of the work that management consultants so diligently and profitably undertake.

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Author Bio

Juan Manuel del Nido is Research Associate at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change. His research examines political and economic reasoning in technocratic discourses and governance, the ethics of technology, and moral economy. His book Taxis vs Uber: Courts, Markets, and Technology in Buenos Aires was recently published by Stanford University Press.


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1987. Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity and Intellectuals. Oxford: Polity Press.

Chong, Kimberly. 2018. Best Practice: Management Consulting and the Ethics of Financialization in China. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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