We live in a world today where the words we choose are more important than ever. An insensitive comment made today is likely to elicit a much different response than the same choice of words would have garnered just a few years ago. People are sometimes rightly offended by the actual words that are used, but other times it is the unintentional tone used in delivery that elicits a negative reaction. For those of us who are career internal auditors, we understand that tone in our communications is vitally important.
As the old saying goes: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Well, in internal auditing, I’d say it’s a combination of both. What we say in our audit reports most certainly matters. The reports must be clear, concise, and accurate. But it’s the way we communicate that will determine how our findings and recommendations are received — it is often referred to as “tone.”
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers guidance on tone in business writing. As the Lab notes: “Tone in writing refers to the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one’s tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges.” In other words – we know what we meant to say, but that may not be what the reader infers.
Early in my internal audit career, I actually had someone tell me, after reading a draft of an audit report I had written – “I agree with your recommendations, but I disagree with all of your findings.” In other words, he agreed that there were issues that needed to be addressed, and he was willing to fix the problems, but it was the critical nature, or tone, of my report that caused him to push back.
Most people have a difficult time conveying empathy and warmth in writing, and this is especially true in audit reports. It is fascinating to me how often (even when we keep audited activity officials informed of results throughout the course of an audit) management will read a written draft report and react as if they’ve been ambushed.
What we perceive as objective recommendations for improvement may evoke fear and anger among those being audited, who may feel as if their successes and good works are being neglected by a process designed to highlight flaws and vulnerabilities. Sometimes it’s just their own personal pride and integrity they feel is being attacked, but usually they are reading through a filter of, “How will the boss, or board, react when they read how my organization or operations are being described?”
It goes back to what I said in a blog on human nature several years ago: People like to be recognized for their accomplishments. As internal auditors, if we’re not careful, we can fall into the trap of measuring our success quantitatively by the number of findings or recommendations we are able to generate. But how much more effective could we be if we focused instead on motivating those we audit to act on our findings to the betterment of the organization?
Put yourself in the shoes of those we audit and you begin to understand what I’m talking about. We may think we have treated a person fairly, but we’re talking about human emotions here. Emotion and perception are not things we talk about very often, but they can have a significant effect on how an audit report is received.
Over the years, I have offered guidance in my books and blogs on words to avoid in internal audit reports. The choice of words that convey a negative tone are countless, but there are five words that I absolutely banished from internal audit reports when I was a CAE:
Failed – as in “management failed to adequately assess and mitigate risks.” Simply stating the condition without assigning blame is much more likely to result in corrective action and preserve our relationship with management the next time we audit their area.
Neglected – a word we should avoid because it also assigns blame. It may well be that a condition exists because management neglected a key risk, but our objective shouldn’t be to point fingers. It should be to elicit action in the future.
Inadequate – “Management designed and implemented inadequate internal controls.” Inadequate is one of those adjectives that can elicit a strong disagreement from management officials if the word is used to describe their actions. I prefer to describe the condition and contrast the observation with appropriate criteria without attaching the adjective to individuals. If I do use the word “inadequate,” I use it to describe the controls and not the actions of management.
Ineffective – “Management actions were ineffective.” Ineffective is another adjective that should be used sparingly. The word will often elicit a defensive response on the part of management. Rather than encourage swift concurrence with the audit report and implementation of corrective actions, words such as “ineffective” will result in prolonged negotiations over the final wording of the report. The result can be a deterioration of relationships with management and additional exposure or losses accruing from the delays in implementing corrective measures.
Violated – we often discover lack of adherence (violations) to policies, regulations or statutes during the course of our audits. I have had more success in motivating management to swiftly address a condition when I chose phrases such as “Our analysis disclosed that airline travel policies 32% of the expense reports examined” rather than “We found violations of airline travel policies in 32% of the expense reports we examined.”
As you contemplate your own audit reports, ask yourself how you would feel/react if those words were being used to describe your organization or your work. How are your written words going to be perceived?
Beyond the choice of words, you should be cognizant of the overall tone of the report. Is your report simply an accounting of everything wrong in the organization, or did you make an effort to recognize things you observed that were done well? Does the overall tone convey the true quality of the organization in a fair and balanced way?
Instead of obsessing about outputs (quantity of findings and recommendations) we need to monitor outcomes (the short-term and long-term impact of our work). If you change the way you measure the success of an audit from outputs to outcomes, you’re likely to find that it will influence the way you write. A good audit executive is a change agent, not the chief of police. At the end of the day, I think we will be judged by our ability to improve the organization, and to do that, we can’t afford to be “tone” deaf.
I welcome your thoughts.