How to be the Consummate Internal Advisor

By Robert Harris

We all know that relationships are important. But relating effectively to people doesn’t always mean being nice.

I’m not suggesting we should be mean or nasty; far from it!

But the reality is, being nice – as a consistent pattern of behaviour – can lead others to take advantage.

I work with lots of internal consultants, advisors, and support professionals who get very frustrated with internal clients who not only don’t respond to niceness, but instead assert even stronger for their own needs.

This is particularly stressful when these internal clients (managers, executives) hold “power” or hierarchical advantage over the internal consultants (HR, IT, Customer Relations) who are trying to collaborate.

Before I get into what’s needed to remedy this imbalance, let’s examine people’s core motivations.

I have done lots of work in organizational science which shows that people are motivated by three prime needs: getting results/winning; being supportive and helpful; and ensuring structure and consistency.

These motivators are not an all or nothing – that is, we all have some degree of motivation in the three areas noted above. However, some of us are more focused on results, some more focused on being helpful, and some more focused on planning and process.

For obvious reasons, people driven to achieve results tend to rise to the upper levels of the organization. People in support and advisory roles often score higher in being helpful and ensuring process.

That is where the problem starts. There is an intrinsic, fundamental difference in motivation (i.e., what matters most) for many advisors and line managers.

But that’s not the only challenge facing internal consultants and support professionals. There is also a structural challenge. The organizational hierarchy creates a win/lose mentality, and those in power seek to use this advantage.

Let me explain… People in advisory/consultative roles can influence but not command. Furthermore, their natural instincts are to emphasize norms and working collaboratively. People in senior management roles are expected to lead and be in control. They are judged on getting results so, for them, the ends justify the means.

It’s no wonder that internal consultants get very frustrated when trying to effectively do their jobs.

More importantly, how can advisors get the results they need while still maintaining effective relationships with their internal clients and colleagues? Here’s how:

Moving Internal Consulting from “Good to Great”
As the adage goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Consultants and advisors need to relate differently when interacting with demanding or detached internal clients.

In a nutshell, they need to broaden their approach. Practically speaking, what does this entail?

1. Become more comfortable in being effectively assertive
Learn how to say no or push back by explaining the pain to internal clients, managers, and leaders of taking an ill-advised course of action.

Research shows most people are more compelled to adhere to advice, or at least play within the lines, if they clearly understand the cost, risk, or danger to them – personally or professionally – of not conforming.

Results driven executives may ignore company rules and norms if this runs counter to their goals. But they do tend to pay attention if they recognize the individual, team, or corporate risk of operating in an individualistic or offside manner.

Even better, if you help them avoid a misstep that would likely come back to bite them later, they are going to see you in very different light.

2. Shake it up – Being nice only works some of the time
Niceness only gets you so far. If others sense a predictable pattern of behaviour – i.e., that you’re typically accommodating – they may take advantage. Realizing that you tend to be helpful and nice, they will assert their needs, knowing you will acquiesce.

Instead consider a more situational approach; much like a stop/start/continue action plan.

Stop being immediately helpful or accommodating to people who continue to take advantage or manipulate your goodwill. They will not only respond better, but will also respect you more, if you are willing to push back and demonstrate more toughness, rather than deferring to their wishes or avoiding the issue altogether.

Start being less predictably nice by asserting for your needs and explaining the consequences of them not playing within the lines.

Please understand this doesn’t mean you need to be aggressive or nasty; instead, you are coming across as the helpful confidante / trusted advisor who is preventing them from making a mistake or taking a course of action, they would later come to regret.

So, by helping them avoid personal or professional pain, you significantly elevate your credibility and influence with them. You end up garnering “credits in the bank” that you can call in later when you need their commitment or collaboration.

Continue being helpful and accommodating with clients and colleagues who respond well to this approach and tend to reciprocate the goodwill by helping you out as needed and listening to your point of view. Like many of you, these people see collaboration as a fundamental and highly effective way of working. No need to change a winning game!

3. Be proactive and strategic, not reactive
Internal consultants often complain that, by the time they get informed or involved, it is almost too late. That is, rather than being able to demonstrate expertise and advice, they are constrained to crisis-management mode where they are putting out fires.

You have a lot more influence if you can choose the meeting time and place, as well as initiate dialogue early versus being put into a yea or nay person.

Plan to meet with clients and leaders when the timing is right, which generally means when there is a lull versus a crisis. Explain your goals and intent and make sure your message aligns to what is important to them. Be open to their input and ideas – don’t have everything worked out in advance.

If you do get sucked into a difficult situation where you are simply reacting to problems, then find a time, after the fact, where you can meet with your client and treat the situation as a learning opportunity.

Again, if you have practiced some of the strategies we already noted in this article, then your clients are more likely to see you as someone worthy of being listened to.

Good luck and hang in there – Internal consulting is truly a learned skill.

Robert Harris is speaking at the HR Conference + Tradeshow 2018. His session, Consulting Skills for HR Professionals, is on Wednesday, May 2. For more information on this and other sessions, please visit cphrbc.ca/conference.

Robert Harris is president of Robert Harris Resources Inc. and a frequent conference presenter who speaks on influence, motivation, and engagement.

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