We are living in a world where frustration and confrontation borne out of resentment, mistrust and anger have become commonplace. It feels like the days are gone when people could agreeably disagree. I fear that civility is endangered behavior, and the art of tact and diplomacy is no longer valued when communicating. Things are not as bad in the workplace as they are in society in general, but some organizational cultures are beginning to emulate society. As internal auditors, we must remember that to influence positive change, we must bring constructive conversation to bear. We must never lose sight of the art of tact and diplomacy when communicating.
One of the first client meetings I ever attended was also one of the least successful. Unlike skeptical clients I recently blogged about, this client had started out supportive of our audit. It wasn’t until the closing meeting that things went south. The meeting was a failure from the very beginning. The internal audit team leader opened the meeting by saying:
“Thank you for meeting with us today. As you know, we have already found quite a few deficiencies in your department during the course of our audit.”
That statement put our client immediately on the defensive. As a result, the client pushed back hard, the audit leader stood his ground, and the conversation degenerated into little more than a shouting match.
“But this is wrong. You need to fix it,” the audit leader complained. “You just don’t understand my department,” the client shot back. “You are an auditor. What makes you think you know so much about our operations?”
It became difficult to come to any agreement, even on minor points.
As the newest auditor on the team, I felt trapped. I was at the meeting only to observe, but things obviously were not going well. An internal audit manager finally stepped in — far too late, in my opinion — and tried to defuse the situation. But the damage — both to any chance of a productive meeting and to the overall relationship – was done. Eventually, we decided to push pause, end the meeting early, and try again another day.
There is a common misconception that internal auditing is simply about finding what’s wrong and telling people how to fix it. If only it were that simple. At its essence, internal auditing is the art of bringing about positive change. But we all know that getting people to do what you want takes more than telling them what they should do. Paradoxically, the more forcefully we argue our points, the more frequently our clients reject them.
That day was one of the few times when I wondered whether I had chosen the right profession. Would all client meetings become this contentious? What would I have done?
When we returned to our offices that day, we reported the problem to the CAE, who helped us, calmly, to discuss what we might do different the next time. He spoke about the importance of tact and diplomacy in our meetings with clients. Over time I would learn a lot from that CAE about how to communicate client meetings. Over the years, I paid the advice forward, and coached my own teams to embrace the same practices. To avoid an audit meeting from going south:
Isaac Newton once said tact, “is the art of making a point without making an enemy,” while David Frost described diplomacy as “the art of letting somebody else have your way.” Being tactful and diplomatic is having the ability to communicate in a way that influence a positive outcome. Being tactful and diplomatic does not mean that internal auditors should ignore the facts or hide what we believe. It does mean we should present our ideas in ways that make them more palatable. In the long run, it will almost always lead to better decision-making and client relationships.
What are some ways you practice the art of tact and diplomacy?