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​​​Internal Audit: Messaging Matters​

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At the core of internal auditing is our ability to communicate our work in a way that excites people to initiate positive change. Unfortunately, that's more difficult than one would think. The easier, and much less productive, path is to point out what is wrong so that people will be motivated to make it right. It seems logical, but that is just not how human brains are wired. In reality, pointing out what is wrong more often leads to defensiveness and resistance, two terms I hear all too often in my interactions with auditors around the world.

In an interview with Scientific American, Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, was asked about what happens when we use certain words and not others in our daily life or in our work.

"Words have power," she says. "If I tell you this hamburger is 80 percent lean as opposed to 20 percent fat, then in some sense I am communicating the same thing. But what people get from those two communications is very different: People perceive t​he 80 percent lean hamburger as much healthier than the 20 percent fat option. By choosing how you frame and talk about something, you are cuing others to think about it in a specific way. We can drastically change someone's perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something."

We do this so positively in our daily life with our children. If a child comes to you with a bad report card, you don't call the child a failure and tell him or her to go fix it. You sit down with the child and help with homework assignments so he or she understands the underlying issue, and come up with solutions so the same problem doesn’t occur in the future.​

Messaging to our organizations should include the same care. We need to explain why business owners need to change their processes or behaviors. Simply saying, "You need to do this differently because you don't comply with the policy" is neither positive nor motivating. Instead, the human instinct to resist being told what to do kicks in. Alternatively, try "This is really important, let's sit down and figure out how to make it better so we can make your job easier and ensure you're getting the recognition you deserve." This lays the groundwork for internal audit to earn trust and move things in the right direction. Follow that with, "What will it take to get other leaders to understand the importance so we can ensure you have the resources you need to get the job done?" This demonstrates that internal audit understands the resource constraints and shifting priorities in the organization and is not there to just create more work.

Working successfully with both the board and management is all about building relationships. Coming in with a focus on the positive will open that door. Again, a change in mindset will reflect in how internal audit is perceived. A positive outlook and approach will help create a way of thinking that enables insight and impact to be received. Your behavior and how you say things is driven by your positive (or negative) mindset. That behavior drives how people perceive and react to what you say and how you are saying it. Understanding that is the first step.

That's my perspective. I'd be happy to hear yours.

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