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​When a Truth Becomes a Lie

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There is a gentleman who, to the best of my knowledge, still works at Farmers Insurance. This gentleman, if we met today, would probably not give me the time of day.

Events occurred; things happened; I did not comport myself well.

It is not that I was particularly diabolical or heinous or evil. But, in the telling of this particular story (a story I do not plan on telling), I do not fare well. You see, for all intents and purposes, I lied to him…twice…regarding some relatively important stuff.

Okay, calling what happened lying may be, to some, overstating it. But statements I made became no longer the truth and, in my mind, I lied.

I will not go into the details; you do not need to know them. (I already warned you.) Suffice to say that the statements I made to this gentleman did not start out as lies. When I made them, I fully believed in their veracity and in my ability to maintain their truth. But it is possible to tell a truth — to fully believe in the incontrovertible fact of what you are saying — and then watch the slow-motion train wreck of time, circumstance, and one’s own actions (or inactions) undermine what has been said.

I guess a more gentle phrase for this is breaking a promise. But, in my mind, because I broke those promises, I effectively transformed my truthful statements into lies.

All we have as human beings is our word. And for internal auditors, the traits of truth and integrity are even more important, foundational to the heart of what it means for us to be professional internal auditors — how we do our work, how we gain the respect of those we work with, and how we ensure that our work will provide value and purpose.

Our profession fights a constant battle of trust. We are a part of the business, and yet often seen as outsiders. We inspect, explore, and dig to determine how things operate and how to make them better. But, from the outside, it can appear the sole intent of our digging is to find things wrong, point fingers, and count findings like coup. This, unfortunately, was a part of internal audit’s history; there is a reason we were often described as the department that bayonetted the wounded. And, while we have come a long way, there are still departments that are viewed this way, that act this way, and, in some sad situations, are proud that they act this way.

Our battle, for years, has been to reverse these perceptions — for people to understand that our explorations are intended to help everyone within the organization help that organization succeed. And it is one of the biggest promises we make — that we are working with others in the organization as partners.

But we forget how fragile that bond of trust is. And we let the smallest things begin to erode that trust.

The minute we back down from our word — the minute the value of our promises begins to diminish — is the minute our clients start suspecting the return of the rusty bayonets and the adversarial side of internal audit. It doesn’t matter if those suspicions are true. In their minds they wonder why they should believe internal audit really wants to be a partner when they see we cannot be trusted to fulfill even the smallest of promises.

When we say they can trust us with the information they are providing, when we say we will not share sensitive information, when we say we will not twist their words, when we say we want to be partners and trusted advisors, it is all as rusted bells and tin horns if we do not keep our word.

I can hear you now. “We don’t lie! We would never lie!!”

To which I retort with the most verbose and urbane of retorts. “Oh, huh!”

Have you ever issued a report later than was promised?

Have you ever been so busy you were not able to appropriately update the client on what was being found during an audit?

Have you ever been late for a meeting? (Worse, have you ever been late for your own meeting?)

Have you ever let the smallest of promises slip because “it wasn’t really that important”?

When you made those promises, they were the truth. And then events conspired, situations changed, the audit ran into unexpected rough spots, and those truths became lies.

Are these trivial examples?

Maybe. But it is the small transgressions we become used to. And then the number of those transgressions grows. And then the transgressions become a little worse. And little by little, our word is not worth the breath it takes to make a promise.

Even the smallest of broken promises, lies, or transgressions is a nail in the coffin of trust.

Look closely at what you are about to say before you tell your truth — before you promise. Make sure it is a truth that will stand the test of time. And once that promise is made — once that truth is told — remember that every action you are taking will impact that truth. Make your decisions with that in mind. And, finally, if you have to break that promise (and it will happen) — if you have to turn that truth into a lie — honestly communicate how and why it occurred and, most importantly, provide proof why it won’t happen again.

And one last note. All of the above goes double/triple/quadruple/ad infinitum for leaders. To lead people — to have them share in your vision and join you on your path — it ultimately comes down to the faith they have in you — faith based on trust and integrity.

How can anyone follow/trust a leader who constantly lies — who goes back on their word, who uses fabrications to defend indefensible actions, who tells a truth and allows it to become a lie. Every time it happens, it is just proof that the leader believes he or she is more important than anyone to whom those lies are told and promises are made.

If you find yourself being led by such an individual, it is time to do everything in your power to find a new leader — either find somewhere else to be or effect change in the current situation.

We all know it is important to tell the truth. But we must remember it is just important to ensure that the truth we tell, no matter the circumstances, does not become a lie.

And, with that in mind, I would like to promise that I will have a new post available for you within the next week. However, I’ll only promise that I’ll try.

I’ve learned my lessons the hard way.

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