Last week, I referenced Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed to talk about potential causes for the chronic-delay syndrome that inflicts so many internal audit departments. I argued that the delay is caused by more than just the fear of making mistakes; the delay really comes from our fear that those mistakes will lead to shame when others see the chinks in our armor — that we are not as good, as talented, or as professional as we want them to believe us to be.
As I noted, Ronson's book is very good. So good that, even though I had finished the book before I wrote that post last week, the concepts of shaming and the impact on the way people think about themselves and others continued to rattle around in my brain.
Eventually, I got to an idea that should have struck me from the very beginning: It isn't just internal auditors.
(And now I'll let you all pause and, in unison/in chorus/in concert, chide me with "No, duh!!")
In his book, Ronson comments that "maybe it's just a feeling that at any moment we'll blurt something out during some important meeting that'll prove to everyone that we aren't proper professional people or, in fact, functional human beings." Just as internal auditors live with that fear, so do our clients.
The role of internal audit, as we define it, is to identify ways to help the organization better achieve its objectives. To do that, we review processes to ensure they are working at their best.
However, we tend to forget that underneath those processes are people — people who have developed those processes, people who are responsible for those processes, and people who are doing the work defined by those processes.
That means we tend to forget that every time we identify an ineffective or inefficient process, whether we like it or not, we are telling someone — and in some instances, multiple someones — that they did not do a good job.
We can express that inefficiency or ineffectiveness any way we want — and the successful auditor is the one who has learned to express these concepts in the least accusatory way. However, no matter how it is expressed, we are saying that someone didn't do their job — they didn't execute the process, they didn't oversee the process, or they just didn't design a very good process in the first place.
They didn't do their job.
We are shaming them. We discuss the situation in meetings. And we are shaming them. We write about it in reports. And we are shaming them. We communicate what has occurred throughout the organization. And we are shaming them.
It is not our intent to shame anyone. We are not out to get anyone — we are not there to bring down hard-working people who are doing nothing more than the best job they know how to do. But, to some degree or another, we are shaming them.
So, is it any wonder that people don't want to speak up in our meetings, welcome us with open arms, objectively read a draft of the report, or even think of us as partners in the business? They are afraid that any hint of anything done incorrectly may wind up in our communications and, from that, negatively impact the perception of their professionalism.
They are afraid of being shamed.
Now, few of our clients would actually articulate it that way. And I'm not even convinced many would use the word "shame." (I defy you to find me anyone who has ever uttered the phrase "Internal audit shamed me.") But call it what you will, it is at the root of the negative reactions clients have to our department — the idea that we are calling them out.
This is why internal audit may be one of the toughest jobs out there. We have to find a way to tell people they are inadequate without coming close to making that the message we send. (Is it any wonder our reports are awash in passive voice?)
Look, there was a time when I thought the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) wasn't really that big of a deal. But, over the last little while, I've changed my mind. I sincerely believe that the profession desperately needs people who understand the principles of EQ, understand their own EQ, and know how to strengthen it.
(And you can call it EQ, call it a conscience, call it the Golden Rule, call it that "no-good-touchy-feely stuff," or call it Priscilla Queen of the Desert for all I care. The important thing is that you recognize it, understand it, appreciate it, and practice it.)
The issue of telling people they have not done things correctly — of potentially shaming them — is right in the wheelhouse of what EQ is all about.
We cannot change what it is we do. And we cannot change the underlying feelings people may have about the results of what we do. But we can train ourselves to be better at delivering our messages, recognizing the vulnerabilities that lie within each human being.