It’s Hard to Play Multiple Roles

It’s Hard to Play Multiple Roles

Your job can be incredibly tricky if it requires you to navigate multiple, potentially conflicting roles. Due to the nature of their work, Human Resources professionals are particularly prone to finding themselves in this situation. However, anyone in an organization whose job includes trying to resolve issues between co-workers can find themselves walking a very thin line.

It’s Hard to Play Multiple Roles

This month’s newsletter looks at some of the issues that can occur when a person plays multiple, potentially conflicting roles within an organization. I focused on Human Resources (HR) professionals because their role is almost by definition one of contradiction. However, anyone who works in an organization can find herself in a similar situation. If there is a conflict or disagreement in your organization, and if you are in a position – official or unofficial – to try to resolve it, then you are acting in at least two potentially conflicting roles.

I got to thinking about this topic earlier this month, when I gave a presentation on “Crucial Conversations” at the HR Leadership Awards’ 2015 Education Workshop. (HRLA is an interesting organization that advocates for recognizing HR professionals “whose exemplary leadership, strategic vision and commitment to continuous development and professional engagement significantly advances the importance of the HR function in creating long term business value.”)

Most people who attended the Workshop were HR professionals, which has got to be one of the trickiest positions in any organization. First, not only are good HR professionals expected to have multiple skill sets, but many of these skill sets are rarely found in one individual. For example, HR professionals are expected:

-To have excellent interpersonal skills, be able to connect emotionally with people at all levels of the organization, and be excellent communicators.

-To be very detail oriented, particularly if they have responsibility for benefits and other technical matters. To be strategic leaders – helping the organization look down the road at its long term plans and goals and figuring out what the “people needs” are going to be to meet those goals.

-To be very tough minded – they are frequently in charge of firing those very people with whom they are expected to have developed close emotional connections.

Second, if an HR professional has strong interpersonal skills, people will regularly come to her to discuss their concerns and issues, including everything from minor disagreements to full on feuds with co-workers. She has to listen, maintain trust and confidentiality, put the person at ease, and then triage the situation. For example, is this something that she should handle at all? If so, how? Should she just listen and let the person vent? Maybe she needs to facilitate a meeting between the two of them? Or go and talk to the other person? Or help the person who came to her figure out how to raise the issue with the other person? Or raise the issue herself with someone more senior in the organization?

These are complicated decisions, which are further complicated by the fact that the HR professional often must act neutral. However, she is not totally neutral; she also has an obligation to the organization. Among other things, she has to make sure the conflict doesn’t spill over and cause morale issues. She has to make sure that any ultimate agreements between the two people align with the organization’s culture and expectations. And she has to keep her eyes open for anything seriously amiss – credible allegations of harassment, financial wrongdoing, etc. – and act on them if necessary.

So what is someone in that situation to do?

Surprise, surprise, there is no easy answer. The best advice I can give you is that if you find yourself in that situation, be very open about your role. This means think through what you can do, be honest with yourself, and clearly articulate it to the people you are trying to help. In other words, if the situation requires neutrality and you don’t feel very neutral, ask someone else to help. If someone wants to discuss an issue with you and they ask you to promise not to tell anyone, do not make that promise. Instead, tell them that you will do your best to respect their confidentiality but that you might hear things that you have an obligation to raise with others in the organization.

The clearer you can be from the outset about your role, about what you can or cannot do, and about what you will or will not do, the fewer unpleasant surprises there will be down the road. And in this case, the fewer surprises, the more likely that people will be satisfied with the outcome.



In addition to management consulting, conflict resolution, and executive coaching, I offer tailored programs on a variety of related topics, including how to delegate, communicate more effectively, deal with difficult people, manage conflict in the workplace, manage up, facilitate meetings, manage your career, and network.

Please let me know if there are other topics in which you are interested. If I don’t already have a program on that topic, I am happy to develop one that meets your needs.