Independence & the Two-Edged Sword

By Bruce MacAllister
IOA Board Member

As a part of my service on the IOA Board of Directors, I am co-chair for the Standards of Practice Task Force. Like all members of this task force, I appreciate that the Standards form the core basis for our practice and that there are deep implications to identifying any potential issues with them. Yet my time on this task force has led me to ponder each of the major elements of the Standards.

Through this process, I have compared my own experiences across a long and varied career with those of other colleagues in light of our standard of “Independence.” One common assertion has been that, to comply with the Standards, adequate independence required that ombuds refrain from participating in the social fabric of their workplace. So, activities like meeting a colleague for lunch were out of the question. I have discovered through my own experience as well as observing the practical experience of others, however, that the implications of independence and neutrality become more intricate when practiced in the context of real-life human dynamics.

The expectation that an ombuds is to be viewed as a trusted, competent, respected, and independent member of the risk management community becomes far more complex when evaluated in light of how trust and respect actually form. One might assume that it is imperative to maintain a healthy state of “remoteness” and distance from those with whom the ombuds may need to engage to avoid any perception of non-neutrality. However, when one factors into the equation the key elements necessary to foster trust, effective communication, and an appropriate degree of influence (not over the outcome, but relevant to the need for action) that remoteness can work at cross purposes to building trust and rapport.

If the ombuds remains “remote,” when an important or emergent situation arises that requires the ombuds to approach and work with key leaders or executives, the ombuds may find themselves essentially placing a “cold call” with the leaders involved. If the ombuds’ first encounter with the particular manager involves a potentially high-risk issue, essentially the ombuds finds themselves surfacing a scary issue and being a source of untested credibility.

At one point in my career, I served as the ombuds for a large organization. I was interviewed and accepted the position after extensive discussions with the organization’s president. The president and I simply hit it off. We had a lot in common: shared career paths within the same organization, corporate culture roots, and former mutual colleagues. Our rapport was excellent. Knowing that, other staff within the President’s Office also accepted me personally and professionally. When the day arose that a serious, potentially high-profile issue arose, I had no trouble meeting with the president and the chief of staff. A number of mechanisms were engaged and the “crisis” was quietly averted.

Later, the same organization underwent leadership turnover. In short succession, there were several new presidents. I scrambled to reach out and build an effective working relationship with each new leader, but honestly, I was spread very thin with serving the visitor demands involved with my ombuds position. Sure enough, a potentially very sensitive matter presented to me as ombuds—the same sort that I was accustomed to bringing forward for early intervention.

Unfortunately, I did not know the new president well. When I presented the information, I got head nods and vague commitments to see that the matter was “looked into.” I had two additional meetings with the president and received similar vague commitments. Eventually, the ombuds visitor felt compelled to surface the issue through formal channels. The issue became the focus of statewide news stories. Thus, I was unable to activate the same mechanisms that were so smoothly implemented before.

What was the difference? The new president was a brilliant and accomplished individual who cared about the organization. But, we had no special rapport. I had not had the opportunity to engage effectively with this person—to build the same level of trust. While this scenario happened to involve a chief executive, I worked on hundreds of issues that involved engaging other senior and middle managers, working groups, and individual employees. In reflection, I realize that if an ombuds seeks to build credibility and influence, independence and neutrality cannot be so rigidly interpreted as to mean lack of engagement.

Perhaps this level of engagement can be taken too far. I am aware of situations where ombuds have been highly engaged in their workplaces, perhaps in ways that test the boundaries of this concept.

What I learned from my own experience, with the benefit of hindsight, was that it is actually important for the ombuds to reach out and to build trusting relationships and good rapport, while remaining mindful of reasonable limits and the optics that each relationship itself projects.

As I ponder the Standards, and particularly the standards around “independence,” I find myself drawn to studying the boundaries of what is acceptable versus what, collectively, most of us might feel goes too far. Ironically, as my ombuds experience has increased my sense of clarity around exactly how to interpret the Standards has decreased in almost direct proportion.

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