When things don’t go quite right in business, employees might be dissatisfied, profits might not be maximized, and the business might have poor public support or even a negative public image. In these situations, companies strive to rectify the problems that cause these issues and become a more respected and profitable business. But doing so is not always easy. Identifying the primary problems they face can be difficult, and often requires the expertise of someone that specializes in addressing business-related problems and issues. This is where consulting therapists come in.
What is a Consulting Therapist?
A consulting therapist, or consulting psychologist, applies therapeutic principles to a business or organizational setting, including schools, the military, religious groups, and volunteer organizations. Therapists in this field of work specialize in a particular area of psychology, such as industrial-organizational psychology, school psychology, or clinical psychology, and offer their expertise of human behavior to address problems through the process of consultation.
The consultative services provided by therapists in this field of work might be delivered at the individual, group, or organizational level, and are provided in an advisory capacity only. That is, consulting psychologists merely consult, offering suggestions for improved performance. They do not typically engage in traditional therapy.
What Does a Consulting Therapist Do?
Naturally, a primary duty of a consulting therapist is to offer consultative services. Much like industrial-organizational psychologists, consulting therapists seek to rectify problems that plague businesses and organizations, such that they run more smoothly and employees are more satisfied with their jobs.
For example, a company that is seeing an unusual turnover of employees might hire a consulting therapist to investigate the problem and suggest potential solutions. The therapist would then conduct interviews with essential personnel, from low-level workers all the way up to managers and executives. Taking the information gleaned from these interviews, the therapist might discover that lower-level employees are quitting at a high rate because they have no long-term investment in the success of the company. To rectify the situation, the consulting therapist might suggest to managers and executives that employees be given a stock option as part of their benefits package to increase their stake in the success of the company over the long-term.
Consulting therapists also often work with managers and executives to improve their managerial style. For example, a consulting therapist hired by a company might discover that employees are afraid of a particular manager because she has a brash, straightforward, and no-nonsense style of communication. But, because of her brashness, the manager puts off many of her employees, who work in relative fear of being lambasted by their boss. The role of the consulting therapist in this situation would be to suggest ways in which the executive could improve her communication style to be more responsive, respectful, and helpful to her employees.
A large part of a consulting therapist’s job is to conduct research. In this capacity, therapists devise interventions for businesses and organizations based upon what has been successful for other clients in similar situations in the past. For example, an organizational psychologist working with an airline to reduce pilot irritability would look into interventions put in place at other airlines that were successful in reducing pilot irritability. If, for example, a successful intervention was to improve waiting area amenities in pilot holding rooms at the airport, the consulting therapist might suggest a similar intervention for their client.
Consulting therapists take on more traditional tasks related to management of businesses and organizations as well. They may participate in the hiring process of a company to offer their insights on the potential of prospective employees to contribute to the mission of the company. Consulting therapists also conduct educational programs and training exercises aimed at resolving issues in the workplace. These programs run the gamut from multicultural sensitivity training to sexual harassment education to stress-reduction exercises.
What are the Career Opportunities for a Consulting Therapist?
Consulting therapists have the advantage of being able to work in a wide variety of settings. Many therapists in this sector work for private consulting firms. In this capacity, therapists would be “loaned out” to businesses and organizations in need, and work with their client for a specific amount of time and propose resolutions to the problems facing the organization.
Other consulting therapists work directly for a specific business or organization. In this context, the organization is usually quite large and perhaps has multiple offices or branches throughout the country or the world. A consulting therapist working in this situation would perform the typical duties of a consulting therapist, but rather than being a stranger visiting a company’s headquarters, for example, they would be an actual employee of the business for whom they are attempting to resolve critical problems.
Still other consulting therapists venture into private practice. In this capacity, consulting therapists have total control over who their clients might be. Much like therapists that work for consulting firms, consulting therapists in business for themselves are essentially on loan to businesses and organizations to come in, conduct research, and propose solutions to specific problems faced by the company.
What Education is Needed to Become a Consulting Therapist?
There are quite a few education requirements that must be fulfilled before an individual can work as a consulting therapist.
Studies begin at the undergraduate level, during which students are introduced to foundational concepts in psychology. Typical courses include general psychology, abnormal psychology, careers in psychology, and psychological statistics, among others. Undergraduate work usually lasts four years and requires successful completion of approximately 120 credits of coursework, about half of which is in the field of psychology.
Once a bachelor’s degree is obtained, graduate work can commence. To prepare for a career as a consulting therapist, graduate work should include studies in both psychology and business. In fact, industrial-organizational psychology and business psychology are excellent graduate degree options. Research or experimental psychology might be beneficial programs of study as well, given the amount of research involved in the field of consulting therapy.
Graduate degree programs vary in their length from four semesters up to as many as eight to ten semesters. The program length will depend on the area of study, as well as any internship or fellowship requirements. At this level, students will acquire advanced knowledge of human behavior, practice skills related to counseling and therapy, and will be introduced to the application of psychological principles to a business or organizational setting.
Although not necessary to work in this field, some consulting psychologists go on to get their doctorate. Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs focus on acquiring practical skills and knowledge related to the practice of consulting psychology. A major emphasis is placed on research and post-doctoral work, during which students focus specifically on the relationship between psychology and business as it pertains to providing consulting services. Doctoral programs usually last from three to five years, with one to two years of post-doctoral work required as well.
Generally speaking, licensure for therapists is only required if the therapist provides direct therapeutic services to his or her clients. Since consulting therapists do not engage in therapy per se, they likely would not need to be licensed unless specifically required to do so as part of an employer’s policy, state regulations, and the like. However, the Society of Consulting Psychology recommends that a general licensure be obtained anyway to ensure consulting therapists have the credentials to prove their level of education and training and expand their ability to procure jobs.
What Personality Traits are Required for a Consulting Therapist?
Consulting therapists must possess several personality traits to be successful. Important questions to ask oneself if considering a career in this field include:
- Are you self-aware? We all have personal biases and opinions. Being aware of those, and how they can negatively impact our work, is one of the most important qualities a good therapist can possess.
- Do you respect diversity? Consulting therapists, like all therapists, have clientele that come from highly diverse backgrounds. Being respectful of individual differences, be they social, economic, ethnic, or racial in nature, is an essential aspect of being an effective consulting therapist.
- Are you an effective communicator? Consulting therapists must be able to interact with others, making them feel comfortable and understood. Being able to speak to people – and, in turn, listen to them, reading between the lines and paying attention to what they aren’t saying – are hallmark characteristics of a good therapist.
- Are you a critical thinker? While much of a therapist’s job depends on their clinical training, intuition, and understanding of human behavior, there is also a need for above-average critical thinking skills. Particularly in organizational settings, where consulting therapists usually work, the need to be able to examine problems from multiple perspectives, collect necessary data, and propose potential solutions, requires effective critical thinking skills.
- Are you approachable? All therapists need to be personable, approachable, and engaging. This is especially true of consulting therapists, who spend their time going into organizational settings where they are complete outsiders. The ability to insert oneself into a preset “society” and develop relationships with people is absolutely necessary for success in this field.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Consulting Therapist?
Therapists that work in a consulting capacity enjoy many benefits:
- Choice of employment setting – Consulting therapists that work in private practice have the advantage of being able to choose the clients with which they work. This is especially true in times of recession or economic turmoil when the demand for consulting services is high.
- Great income potential – Consulting therapists can command high fees, particularly those that work with large, multi-national corporations. As more experience in the field is gained and one’s reputation as an effective consulting therapist is established, the fees charged can increase dramatically.
- Diversity of clients – Consulting therapists work with many different businesses and organization, making for a diverse client base that keeps the job interesting. Having a number of different clients with a variety of needs also increases creativity and motivation, resulting in higher job satisfaction.
- Work on your own schedule – While there are many days of working odd hours, consulting therapists that are self-employed ultimately decide when they work. Being able to decide what days to have off and when vacations occur – and for what length of time – is a definite bonus of being a consulting therapist.
There are several key disadvantages of working as a consulting therapist:
- Lack of job security – Consulting psychologists that aren’t employed directly by a business or organization, and instead work on a contractual basis, face an uncertain employment future if jobs are not lined up once the current job is completed. This means constantly looking for new jobs, which takes much time and energy.
- Lack of benefits – When self-employed, consulting psychologists are responsible for paying their own health insurance, managing their own contributions to a 401(k), and taking care of other financial obligations that would typically be included in a benefits package when working for a business or company.
- Odd working hours – Consulting therapists conduct some of their work during the normal business day, such as interviewing employees and meeting with managers and executives. But other work, such as conducting research, examining business-related data, and developing recommendations to address a company’s problems might have to be done during off-hours, such as nights and weekends. This can make for long workdays with little time for rest and relaxation.
- Working in unfamiliar settings – It can be difficult at times for consulting therapists to enter a business or corporation and feel welcomed. Many employees may feel threatened by the presence of a consultant, and many managers and executives may resent the presence of a consultant as well. This necessitates consulting therapists to employ their skills as therapists and use their knowledge of human behavior to gain the trust of the people they are there to help.
What Careers are Similar to Consulting Therapist?
With its roots in business, consulting therapy is most closely related to other areas of psychology that are primarily concerned with applying knowledge of human behavior to a business or organizational environment. These similar career areas include:
Like consulting therapists, Industrial-Organizational psychologists study the work environment and endeavor to make it better, more efficient, or more welcoming. Psychologists in this area work on many levels, from working with individual employees to working with organizations as a whole. Human performance, career development, business theory, and organizational development are just a few areas of expertise associated with industrial-organizational psychologists.
To enter a career in this field, one must have at least a bachelor’s degree, although jobs at this level are few and far between. A master’s degree or doctorate is highly recommended.
Business psychologists, like consulting therapists, are concerned with applying an understanding of human behavior to the workplace. Business psychologists use their expertise to improve performance of businesses at the individual, group, and organizational levels. There is a healthy dose of research involved with jobs in this sector, both in the realms of psychology and business. Leadership development, talent management, health and wellbeing, and workplace safety are just a few areas of concern for business psychologists.
The minimum education requirement to work in this field is a master’s degree, although many business psychologists hold a doctorate.
Much like consulting therapists, business executives seek to map out a plan for success for their business. They must also often deal with problems associated with employee performance, employee-manager interactions, business policy, and other topics that consulting therapists often address as well.
Many business executives have just a bachelor’s degree, but combine that with extensive on-the-job experience to qualify for an executive position.
Survey researchers seek to understand business and employment data. Like consulting therapists, survey researchers spend a significant amount of time collecting and analyzing data regarding business practices. They might examine salary information and employment trends, or they might conduct public opinion surveys to gather information about a company’s relationship with the general public.
These positions typically require at least a master’s degree, although some research positions can be found with just a bachelor’s degree.
Dr. Andrew Ritcheson is one part consultant and one part psychologist specializing in strategy consulting, project management, and execution and assessment.
Dr. Ritcheson earned his bachelor’s degree in Applied Psychology from the University of Sussex in 1999 and he earned his doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Oxford in 2002. Dr. Ritcheson current works as a consultant and splits his time primarily between London and Washington D.C.
He assists clients with any number of issues ranging from strategy development and execution to process improvement and strategic communication to even human terrain analysis and applied psychosocial research. Dr. Ritcheson wants to make it clear that just because he is a "consulting psychologist" doesn't mean he offers a couch and therapy in some office building.
How did you get involved in Psychology?
Psychology was one of my first loves, and I knew I wanted to be involved in the study of human behavior since I was 12 years old. My mother, who was very sensitive to my interests, bought me the Oxford Companion To The Mind, which at 12 years old was certainly an ambitious read. I think that was pretty much what launched me into this field.
It all -- in large part -- stemmed from my interest in human behavior and wanting to better understand what accounted for the good things that people can do, and also to help explain the bad things that sometimes occur.
How did you become involved specifically with consulting psychology?
I had reached a point in my own career where I had been exposed to working with clinical patients and also with companies and different organizations. What occurred to me while I was working with those different clients in parallel is that a lot of the skills, insights, and methodologies that I employed while seeing patients and developing treatment plans, and implementing those plans was that they were equally valuable when implemented toward companies and businesses practices. It presented a bit of a challenge to me, one that I still find very challenging and intriguing. I had these organizations and companies come to me in kind of ill health, with needs, and abnormal "symptomology," they sometimes need to be treated and brought back to health, oriented towards growth and development.
And so I began implementing and utilizing my skills-sets of listening, using empathy, understanding and formulating problems, developing solutions and the like, to listen to businesses and organizations without bias to help people or organizations find their way back to optimal functioning.
How would you describe consulting psychology to individuals looking to understand this specific field of psychology?
A consulting psychologist or clinical consultant, tends to be a person with traditional training or background in clinical psychology or another client discipline. They have opted to use those skills -- whether clinical ones or research ones -- but with a different end user; using those skills on organizations, companies, and corporations. We use the same skills but in a different way.
We are clinical professionals that are experts in our fields, but are able to step in and implement our treatment knowledge to help put a business or organization back on track to growth. So we change their processes or change the way they work and think by using their subject matter expertise and changing that at the organizational level.
This concept can be used in all types of businesses. For instance, let’s take a medical institution. We are able to help a medical institution treat their own patients by using our subject matter expertise, and then we employ our expertise at an organizational level and help organizations implement these changes to provide safer and more effective care to their patients.
Can you describe an average day of work for you, almost a 9-5 synopsis of what you do on any given day?
Generally, you end up swapping your own patient for about one hundred patients (an organization), and instead of having one office to go to, now you have offices all over the place, so it definitely can make your life more complex.
In a hard day as a clinical psychologist, I would be seeing three to five patients back-to-back. Well once you change the end user to organizations and businesses; it’s kind of like seeing a 100-300 patients simultaneously, so it can be very challenging.
Unfortunately, each hour of my day isn’t broken up to reviewing my notes, seeing a patient and then working on a report or patient plan. In this business it all ends up being much more spontaneous. It’s unscripted, and with the skill-set a consulting brings to this business, you end up filling many roles, including manager, subject matter expert, change agent, trusted advisor, and mentor.
What are some of the main takeaways of your education that you use today in your practice?
The skills of active listening, being able to develop detailed and authentic understanding of problems and challenges and being able to formulate and problem solve, being able to lay out treatment plans; then being able to follow up and measure them for clinically significant improvement. I am of the belief that if you can’t measure something that for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist, so in order to say something is getting better I am only satisfied if I can measure it, and demonstrate it in a quantitative way; much the same way that is used in clinical psychology for patients. Those are all things that I use every day in my practice.
You also have to be able to understand the businesses terminology, so that you understand their language and their needs, and their problems. It’s very important to be able to develop formulations of the problems that reflect the company’s language and needs.
All solutions from my clients come from really listening to the company, and truly understanding their problems in their own words
What are a few of your favorite things about practicing as a Consulting Psychologist?
I would have to say role versatility. As a consulting psychologist I am brought on in a number of different roles, I have to be working on all of the moving parts of a business, which is very exciting. Companies and programs and governments all function in very complicated ways, they all have histories, futures, hopes, wishes, regrets, and aspirations. I feel like they are every bit as human as patients tend to be.
It is a challenge to figure out the best way to approach them and to keep all of the moving parts in one mind, and to bring about measurable change.
What are some of the negatives or difficulties one can expect coming into this career field?
As psychologists we sometimes forget what the word psychology still implies to many people. In a lot of people’s minds every psychologist still has a couch and it’s difficult to shake those beliefs and expectations. In some ways our profession is pigeon-holed.
Consulting psychology breaks this stereotype , taking psychologists and putting them in roles that were traditionally reserved for management personnel, or business consultants.
Do you have any advice for those interested in entering a career as a consulting psychologist?
It’s a balance. The fact of the matter is, to be a good consulting psychologist, you need to be a good psychologist. I think it’s important to develop the broad base of understanding of human behaviors, research methodologies, clinical approaches, the fundamental building blocks. You need to master communication, reading, writing, and speaking. Without those skill-sets you just wouldn’t last long as a consulting psychologist.
Consider taking extra studies in finance, management, business administration, specializations that will help you understand and build bridges to the people they intend to serve.
What is one of your favorite cases that you have worked on?
One of my favorite cases was supporting the standup of a clinical care facility that was working with very complicated PTSD and TBI cases. This was an incredible opportunity to refine the consulting psychologist approach. It involved developing a response to a serious problem we had with returning service members, who were returning from war with co morbid PTSD and TBI, and who faced considerable challenges. Existing treatment models had been in a lot of respects been exhausted, and patients were still unwell, not responding to traditional care, and this was a chance to develop a brand new clinic with different approach to care that would seek to expose these people to the widest range of interdisciplinary expertise, and evaluation and treatment planning. In this case, we had a chance to leverage our clinical consulting expertise, and create an entirely new organizational entity from start to finish. That’s definitely been one of my favorites over the years.
Where do you see the field of consulting psychology going In the future?
The definition of consulting psychology will solidify, and the field will develop a better understanding of itself. There will be more training and accreditation in it. I think it will develop as its use is demonstrated and put into practice. Some of us have been doing it for a while and it’s surprising that it has taken this long for businesses to turn to psychology. Right now with business uncertainty it seems to be the perfect time for this kind of approach, which is a highly human, insightful but robust and data and results driven approach to bringing about positive change, in a time when we are supposed to be doing more with less, and with greater pressures and with greater ambiguity. It is a very interesting career, and it is a great career to be able to develop as a complimentary skill-set outside of clinical practice. I think the future looks very bright, and I’m just grateful to be there as the sun rises on it.
For more information about what exactly a consulting psychologist does and how to become one, please feel free to follow Dr. Ritcheson on his Twitter account.