​​​The Fight Isn't Really About the Words

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I recently stumbled across this quote attributed to Howard Aiken. "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." I think there may be a truth in this statement that goes deeper than what Mr. Aiken was saying; I think it raises an interesting point for internal auditors.

First, let's work with one assumption – that your reports contain good ideas. Then, if there is any truth in Mr. Aiken's statement, is it possible that the resistance we often face in finalizing our reports has less to do with wording and details than with the fact that we are providing "good ideas" – that we are presenting information that will make a difference?

At first blush, this doesn't really make sense. Why would anyone fight good ideas? Why would anyone protest against suggestions that can mean smoother operations or better controls or elimination of fraud or any of those things internal auditors tout as "value add"?

There are two reasons people don't want to hear good ideas – 1) Resistance to change and 2) "It can't be a good idea if I didn't think of it". Both of these are natural human responses. And both of them are why there is resistance to the findings and issues that come out of good audit work.

I think we've all witnessed (and exhibited) the resistance to change phenomenon. (I will spare you the myriad embarrassing examples where I, a great proselytizer for change, have done a most excellent imitation of a roadblock.) But we tend to forget that, when we are discussing the results of an audit – when we are discussing issues and corrective actions – we are asking people to change. And because people don't like change, the good ideas from our audits meet resistance.

But it is that second reason – the idea that people don't like being given ideas they haven't thought of – that may be the bigger problem. And, because we haven't really recognized it as being part of the negotiation process – we haven't prepared for it, we haven't figured out how to address it, and we haven't seen any reason to solve what we've never considered to be a problem – it becomes the major stumbling block in successfully working with the auditees.

Put yourself in the auditee's shoes. You have worked in the area for years. Success of operations has been your responsibility. You are constantly reporting to the higher ups on how you have succeeded and made things better and, overall, been the very model of a modern business manager/director/executive. Then someone with little or no experience in the area comes in and, within a few short weeks, embarrasses you by coming up with ideas that you did not (or could not or would not) see.

And so, when faced with a good idea, the auditees go into fight mode.

The battle is taken on under the guise of improper wording or incorrect facts or a misunderstanding of the situation. And you start hearing phrases such as "You don't understand" and "You've never been in this position" and "You don't know anything about the business" and "You haven't been in this business/industry/position/company long enough" and "We tried that before and it didn't work" and "There's no way we can do that" and "Legal won't like it" and "HR won't like it" and "They won't like it" and "They won't let us".

But at the heart of it is an issue that internal audit has never really recognized– that the auditee understands the situation, that the auditee agrees with us, and that, deep within, the auditee believes we have the solution. But it is a good idea that has come from somewhere else. And so, as with any foreign invader, it must be vanquished.

There are a number of ways to address the problem. I'm sure you are already using some of them without realizing what the battle is really about. For example, many people will tell you that they find the process easier if the auditees are so involved that the findings and solutions seem like their ideas. A good approach. But by understanding why these solutions work, we can more effectively address the problems before they really become an issue.

And, before we close out, it is time for a disturbing little gut check.

I also hear from some people that the customers are very receptive, that negotiations over findings and reports go quite well, and that everyone agrees audit is providing value. And I am quite sure that your group has done a magnificent job of setting the benchmark for customer relationships. However, if it is true that good ideas meet resistance, maybe the reason they accept your reports/your findings/your ideas is that they really aren't that impactful, they really don't represent significant progress, and they aren't that challenging. In other words, are you really giving them "good" ideas?

Nah, that couldn't be the case.​​

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