Trust Me, I’m from HR/ IT/ Legal/ Finance !

When we hear the phrase “Trusted Advisor,” most of us think of external experts: consultants, actuaries, accountants, lawyers, the professions. But there is another group for whom that term is at least as relevant—maybe even more so. That group is made up of internal staff functions: and mainly the “Staff Big Four:” HR, IT, Legal and Finance.

These internal staff have exactly the same challenge that their outside brethren have—to successfully persuade and influence others, over whom they have exactly zero direct authority.

But it’s worse for internals: first, because they eat in the same lunchroom as their clients and are known by their first names, they tend to not get the same respect that outside experts do.

Second: an internal consultant can’t fire his or her client. They are joined at the hip, like a married couple, for better or worse.

The Big 4 staff functions represent a big chunk of our business at Trusted Advisor Associates, not far behind external Trusted Advisor work, at about the same level as Trust-Based Selling work.. And although the keys to success are pretty much the same for internal advisors as for externals, there are some distinct cultural problems that each of the Big 4 staff functions face. 

Differences Between the "Big 4" Staff Functions Affecting Trust

The IT Challenge. Ask any line employee. “The problem with IT,” they’ll say, is “they use too much jargon and don’t deliver on time or on budget.” Strip out the value-laden words and what we hear is that IT has a reputation for being non-user-friendly, and that its big trust opportunity may lie in improving reliability.

The HR Challenge. Unlike their IT brethren, HR suffers from speaking the same language as everyone else; which means everyone else feels equal to them in expertise. AS HR folks will tell you: they "can’t get no respect;" and the more they ask for it, they less they get.

The Legal Challenge. You know this one too. “The trouble with lawyers is, they always tell me what I can’t do, and don’t help me with what I can do.” Let’s translate that into simply a predilection for avoiding Type 1 error (doing the wrong thing) at the cost of Type 2 error (not doing the right thing). Let’s call this one a misalignment around risk profiles.

The Finance Challenge. Finance tends to speak clearly, meet deadlines, and be very sober about risk. In fact, very sober about pretty much everything. The fear that clients have of finance people is that of being relentlessly ground down on budgets, financial analyses, plans and forecasts. They are relentlessly, somberly, right. 

Each of these groups can take some simple, solid steps toward improving their level of trust by their clients. (And if you’re an external, keep reading: this applies to you too).

Five Trust-Enhancing Opportunities Facing Key Staff Functions










Risk focus



Improving Credibility. More an issue for HR than the others, remember that credibility is not only—in fact, not even mainly—an issue of credentials. The average internal client is not impressed that you have advanced degrees, or that you are a recognized expert in OD. You can argue that’s not fair, but arguing fairness just digs the hole deeper. 

What improves credibility is the capacity to apply your knowledge to a specific client situation–in their language. Instead of letting the client know that you’ve seen the latest, greatest research on teaching emotional intelligence—instead, use emotional intelligence yourself to help identify, and identify yourself with, client issues. For example, “Joe, do you find your people are as involved in work as you’d like them to be? Where do you see that playing out? And how big an issue is it for you? In what terms?”

Improving reliability. Reliability—an issue that affects IT more than the other Big Four–is one of the four key components of the Trust Equation, and one of the easiest to correct. Simple awareness is a good place to begin. Reliability lends itself far more easily to measurement than do the other components of trust (credibility, intimacy, low self-orientation); figure out good measures of reliability, and track them. Think you’re already doing the most you can? Try increasing the number of promises you make, even small ones; then make sure to meet them.

Improving Intimacy. Intimacy is the variable that makes an advisor ‘client-friendly.’ Intimacy skills are what make a client feel comfortable sharing, or not sharing, information with you.  If you’re being constantly shunted into a role which is far short of your capabilities, this is one area to focus on (the other is self-orientation—see below). 

You don’t have to resort to commenting on kids’ pictures, college degrees and ‘how ‘bout them Bulls.’ Make it a point to learn things about your clients’ business lives—then ask them for help in understanding things that you genuinely don’t understand about them.

Self-Orientation. We find that nearly everyone can improve their trustworthiness by getting better at lowering their self-orientation (see “Get Off Your S”). Within the Big Four staff functions, this is particularly useful for the HR and IT organizations. Too many clients see HR as whiney, and lawyers as officious, both of which are forms of overly developed self-orientation.

The solution is harder than for the other issues, but well within reach. Simply be very, very sure to see issues from the client’s vantage point—not just from yours. No one’s asking you to abdicate your professional perspectives, just to see it as well from the other side of the table. If a client says to you, “We want to do X, how can we do it?” make sure to start with, “Interesting idea; let me make sure I understand what this means to you. Tell me more about what you could do with this, how it would make you more successful. I want to make sure I know where you’re coming from before I try to comment.”

Risk-Orientation. Both Finance and Legal get heavily tarred with the brush of being too risk-averse. To some extent that may seem unfair; after all, part of their job is indeed, to manage downside risk. 

But organizations that adopt an adversarial relationship, where Staff represents the downside and Line argues for the upside, are creating vast areas of unnecessary cost, mistrust and confusion. It’s far better to create collaborative relationships, where issues can be sorted out mutually, at the issue by issue and person by person level.

While improving self-orientation and intimacy skills are certainly relevant for many legal and financial people, there is still an underlying disconnect about risk. This disconnect has to be called out at the start. It’s no good having lawyers and finance people suggesting, from the get-go, that their role is to reign in the irrational exuberance of those id- and ego-driven people out there in the market; we can look at the pharmaceutical and investment banking industries as pockets where the relationship has deteriorated into such a caricature, and it is not pretty.

Instead, staff people have to state the terms at the outset: ‘We are here to collaborate with you in jointly determining the right amount of business risk to take on, consistent with legal, regulatory and market-based risk. We all work for the same organization; and we’re committed to working with you.’

Then, walk the talk.

Note: This article is also available in .pdf article form for ease in forwarding: Trust Me, I’m from HR/ IT/ Legal/ Finance ! [pdf]

7 replies
  1. Ann Kruse
    Ann Kruse says:

    Charlie, as always, you hit the nail on the head with this post. With experience in both  internal and external roles, I know that one difference is this:  As an external I have to develop trust in order to gain permission to deliver services.  As an internal, I get a "free pass" to offer my advice without first gaining trust.  This key component in the client relationship can easily be overlooked.  Thanks for providing a concrete way of identifying what’s missing and how to fix it.


  2. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:


    My spider senses tingle a little in regards to HR and Intimacy. Have you noted that HR departments, at least in the US, have a tendency to measure progress by check boxes checked–that is as opposed to effective listening interactions completed.

    I’d give most HR departments a C-  (or worse) in Intimacy.



  3. Eric D. Brown
    Eric D. Brown says:

    Charlie – 

    Great Post.

    Perfect description of IT….I hear it all the time.   Things like "Why can’t IT deliver?" and "IT is so focused on process and procedure".

    Without making excuses for IT, I always have to push back a bit and explain that IT is one of the few groups in the organization that has the most ‘regulations’ pushed upon it due to security and government regulations. That said, the IT group must do a much better job communicating and performing.

    Improving reliability is important for IT but so is credibility and intimacy.  

    Great post!

  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    This is another post that has stuck with me. I was thinking about it today and I wanted to come back and expand on what Eric D. Brown wrote above. (Great comment, Eric!)

    In the article, you write: “Strip out the value-laden words and what we hear is that IT has a reputation for being non-user-friendly, and that its big trust opportunity may lie in improving reliability.”

    Is the main challenge for IT one of reliability or of communication?

    I know a number of amazing IT professionals, in departments and organizations of different scales–they are typically brilliant people who work their backsides off. Advising them to “be more reliable” strikes me a bit like telling the Little Dutch Boy to “grow more fingers”–they’re already at maximum capacity, with their current levels of staffing, resources, and organizational support.

    What strikes me as afar more practical advice to IT is:
    – Communicate more clearly to your internal clients what your challenges are, what your needs are, what your ongoing ability to meet deadlines looks like, and in general what you are capable of delivering.
    – If better communication about deadlines depends on better organizational resources (anything from a better trouble ticket or bug tracking system to a new project manager position), make your case to management and sell them on the benefit to the whole organization.
    – As your department expands or new promotions or hiring opportunities arise, make it a priority to include in your team someone who can in effect translate between IT and the rest of your organization (possibly that new project manager, or a team lead or department manager), so that not only are you broadcasting information, but you’re actually communicating effectively and being heard. (In the same vein, having someone “bilingual” on your team who can work with internal clients to turn non-technical, non-specific user specs and requests into meaningful information for IT will reduce wear and tear on your technical people and make for quicker turnarounds on requests and more satisfied clients.)

  5. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Hi, Charlie. I’ve been thinking about Reliability today, and reading some of the Trust Matters posts on Reliability as well, and I just had an epiphany.

    I’m still stuck on your advice to IT departments above: “Think you’re already doing the most you can? Try increasing the number of promises you make, even small ones; then make sure to meet them.”

    I finally realized that this advice seems predicated on one of three assumptions:
    1. The IT department is truly not reliable; it is facing a problem of performance, not a problem of perception.
    2. Low reliability is a matter of awareness; once a department is made aware that reliability is important, it can become more reliable.
    3. Low reliability is a matter of will; once a department wants to be more reliable, making more promises and delivering on them is simply a matter effort.

    I think the first assumption is a big one: it credits IT departments with adequate communication but poor performance. My experience with IT departments has been the exact opposite: their performance can be quite good and reliable, but other departments don’t fully understand IT’s function and can have unreasonable expectations (including blaming IT for user errors and misuse of hardware and software by users); and IT often doesn’t communicate in a way that improves their perception problem.

    The second two assumptions imply that there is no underlying problem driving low reliability. This strikes me as a very big, very dangerous assumption. And before that kind of assumption is made about any kind of reliability problem–for that matter, before any attempt is made to address low reliability in any context–shouldn’t some attempt be made at diagnosing what’s causing the low reliability in the first place?

    In the case of IT, if reliability is truly low (and not just an image of communication), contributing factors could include:
    – inadequate staffing;
    – inadequate resources (hardware, software, tools, etc);
    – inadequate organization;
    – management troubles;
    – communication troubles.
    From the perspective of IT departments, most of the time the diagnosis will be “overwork”, which will boil down into most of the factors above.

    If the root problems haven’t been diagnosed and addressed, “making more promises” on the assumption that one will keep them strikes me as a recipe for further destroying reliability trust (and morale, on both sides) rather than building it.

    Part of my epiphany came from reading Old Faithful and Reliability. I realized that when you want to be breif, you seem to use a shorthand for your reliability advice: “Try increasing the number of promises you make, even small ones; then make sure to meet them.”

    But that article talks about Reliability at great length, and some of the other specific advice seems much more salient to IT departments, namely:

    – You feel familiar to others. (You make an effort to make others comfortable in your modes of dress, your style of speaking, routines, etc.) [Note, I’m paraphrasing this point.]
    – You set expectations up front and report on them regularly.
    – You work to make sure there are no surprises when you’re around.
    – When you are unable to fulfill on a promise, you immediately get in communication to acknowledge the impact and reset expectations.

    As short hand goes, I have to say, I vastly prefer, “You set expectations up front and report on them regularly.” (Note that this version about expectations applies regardless of the root cause of previous low reliability.)

    There’s not a big difference between that and “Make more promises and keep them”, is there? But I think the difference, while subtle, is important.

    If you’re ever up for reconsidering your short hand, I think the formulation about expectations might serve you much better.

    (I know I’ve been like a dog with a bone about this post. It’s because I couldn’t figure out why the IT advice didn’t sit right. I think I’ve finally worked it out–and got it out of my system–with the combination of the assumptions vs diagnostics, and the difference between “setting expectations and reporting on them” and “make and keep more promises”. Thanks for your patience while I figured this out.)


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] about specific trust challenges for IT, HR, Legal, and Finance, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on five ways internal consultants can […]

  2. […] Internal Staff Functions. The Big 5 staff functions – HR, IT, Legal, Marketing, and Finance ­– have made large jumps in many companies to realizing that their internal client relationships have exactly the same needs. How to get invited in before problems arise; how to get your advice taken; how to add value – these are all critical functions for an internal staff function. More about those functions here. […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *