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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 07-Jul-14


Sunday 20-Jul-14

The Conformance-Consulting Dilemma

There are a number of people and even whole business departments who face a daily dilemma, based in an often unrealized role conflict situation. HR, Quality, Finance, IT and others all fall into this trap, and as a result find they face an uphill path when getting people in the rest of the company to change.

Let's look at it from the viewpoint of an average manager, Jo Soper. Jo has a very busy job to do in creating real value for the company that leads directly to profits. This helps make her feel important and good about herself. Then HR come along and tell her that she's got to fill in various forms to help recruitment, employee surveys, performance management and so on. In other words, they eat into Jo's 'real' job. So Jo looks at HR as something of a nuisance. But Jo is a loyal employee and goes along with this, perhaps grumbling to her colleagues about the waste of time. Then HR next come along, brightly telling Jo that they can help her be a better manager with employee development planning and so on. They even want to be her 'trusted advisor' on employee matters. You might forgive Jo for being rather suspicious about all this. After all, HR are the people who make her do all that form-filling (and nag or threaten her until she does).

The problem is because HR is trying to be both police and friend, regulator and helper. On one hand they say 'Do this' and on the other say 'Let me help'. Jo is left confused. Are HR the bad people who make her do stuff or are they friends who help? Who is in charge? Are HR friend or foe?

Jo may also be a bit crafty. She knows that HR like helping, and that in this mode, they are playing the consultant and she is the client, and that the boot is now on the other foot. So when HR put on the conformance hat, telling her how she must follow company policy, Jo talks back as if they are wearing the consultant hat, and that their demands are actually offers. She has now retained control and can, if she likes, refuse or delay her responses. And Jo is not the only one. The result is that HR are left baffled by lots of managers who seem to be in covert or even open revolt, and even the slightest change seems not to work.

An answer for HR, and any other department who want to both dictate and help, is to pick one role and not try to do both. If you want both, then you must organizationally separate them. HR, then, for example, could be the regulators, defining and policing employee policy. They may be seen as the bad guys, but at least they are keeping everyone on the straight and narrow way. The company could then set up a separate Personnel Development department, whose job is about helping people in their people-based work. The PD person comes along and effectively says 'Yes, I know HR are making you do this stuff. I can help lessen the pain.'

Parents, teachers, police officers and others also face the same dilemma. On the one hand they need to tell, and on the other to sell. A parent may have strict rules about how their child behaves, but then they also want to hug them and coax them onto the right path. Sometimes parents handle the dilemma by splitting the roles, with one as the 'strict parent' and the other as 'nice one'.

When you cannot be both boss and friend, you have to choose where you stand. Effective teachers handle this by being mostly the person in charge. Even when they are helping out, there is no question of the pupil turning around and dictating terms. If this happens (and it does) the result is classroom anarchy. Teachers 'lose' classes by trying to be too friendly and getting too close. There is a lesson here that if you have to both control and help, then you can never let go of the reins. Even when you are being friendly, you cannot be friends. Everyone must know what is optional and what is not.

In fact whatever your roles are, it can be a good idea to look hard at them. Are you on the one hand telling people what they should do and then wanting to help them? Are you having problems in one or both of these where people are not really going along with you? Oh look. You've got the conformance-consulting dilemma.

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