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​​​Internal Auditors Often Experience Resentment — Here's Why​​

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From my time as a new auditor through my roles as a chief audit executive, ther​e was one problem that crept up too often — the resentment felt by the individuals being audited that regularly resulted in poor treatment of the audit team.

The degree of this poor treatment varies, and I'm sure many of us have a wide range of experiences. Sometimes the resentment comes via very direct feedback, with a manager saying, "How long have you been working here? What makes you think you have any idea how to question what I do?" Other times the resentment is a bit more subtle. For example, during one audit my team of four was forced to sit at a small folding table in a non-air conditioned hallway in direct sunlight for most of the day. For three weeks, we sweated our way through our workpapers, miserable and a bit resentful ourselves.

That said, the most dangerous aspect of all of this is what goes on beneath the surface — the negative assumptions both sides make of the other. Management tends to go down the path of, "These auditors are here to embarrass me. They'll focus on petty things and deliver a crushing report about my inability to perform my work." Auditors tend to go down the path of, "Anyone who resists being audited must be guilty of something; otherwise, they would have no problem consenting to an audit. We have to keep digging until we find what is really going on."

What we need to realize is that this resentment is a natural human reaction and that there are things internal auditors can do to improve these situations.

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel's Social Identity Theory explains that an individual's sense of identity is linked to the groups he or she most closely associates with (think departments or work teams who spend upwards of eight hours a day, five days a week, with each other). People tend to group things together, and in doing so, exaggerate the differences between the groups and the similarities within their own group. This normal cognitive process helps explain the resentment internal audit often feels from other groups in the organization.

Tajfel's theory, put forth with John Turner in 1979, illustrates that people naturally hold a preference and affinity for their own group over anyone viewed as an outsider. The theory is also called "in-group bias": Individuals will find any reason, no matter how minor, to prove why their "in-group" is superior to an "out-group."

As a result of in-group bias, the in-group feels threatened if its beliefs are challenged and may express aggression to the out-group. The aggression is justified by dehumanizing the out-group. The in-group will demean the out-group to enhance its own self-image.

Now, go back to my example. The audit client (in-group) sees a team of four auditors show up (sometimes by surprise) ready to question their work. They start to think, "These auditors are here to make us look bad." This train of thought grows until they rationalize sticking us in an uncomfortable hallway (dehumanization resulting in demeaning behavior).

How should internal auditors deal with what can be seen as a natural reaction? A key to understanding in-group–out-group biases is determining the psychological mechanism that drives the bias, according to the college textbook Boundless Sociology. One of the key determinants of group biases is the need to improve self-esteem. Here are four tips to break down the wall between in-groups and out-groups:

  • Start with an empathetic mindset. Know that the audit team is, at least initially, on the outside looking in. Understanding that you are not part of the in-group and what that means in terms of how the in-group will react will help you realize the impact you create by just showing up.
  • Recognize you are part of your own in-group. Your audit team is its own in-group and can just as easily become a victim of in-group bias as those you are auditing. Be careful not to allow yourselves to dehumanize your clients and rationalize treating them any less professionally than expected.
  • Respect and leverage the audit client's expertise. Demonstrating that you respect the expertise of your clients is a great way to start building trust and will also help you build a stronger audit program.
  • Embrace a collaborative approach, as described in Collaborative Auditing, a book I wrote with Yuki Matusuura. Express honest empathy in your communications — both written and verbal — and focus on developing your soft skills such as persuasion, listening, and emotional intelligence.  

Improvements in honesty and communication will work both ways. As I mentioned, favoritism toward one's own group and derogation of the other is not exclusive to audit clients. The first step to breaking this natural, cognitive cycle is to recognize it exists and become aware that it affects both you and your client. From there, it is up to each of us to break the cycle to ensure our audits are focused on what is truly important — lasting positive outcomes that make our organizations stronger.

That's my point of view. I'd be happy to hear yours.

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