I often post my thoughts on Twitter. Most of the time, my Tweets receive few comments, but last week I heard from a surprising number of auditors after simply posting the thought: “Remember internal auditors: Sometimes you can be right or you can be liked — but you can’t be both!”
I immediately received responses from two different groups. Some said they agreed, stating that internal auditors were the traditional bearers of bad news and that this inevitably leads to acrimonious relationships. Others said they disagreed, stating that auditors with good interpersonal skills could find friends in any business environment.
I think both groups may have missed the point.
The key thought behind my statement was that sometimes it may be impossible to be both right and liked at the same time. It may not be common, but there will be times during even the most successful career when internal auditors face disagreement.
When our audits reveal gross inefficiencies or even fraud, we have to be prepared for push-back no matter how fairly the information is presented in our reports. When we issue “graded” audit reports, a few customers will always fight for a higher score any time their grade is less than perfect.
It’s simply a part of human nature: Behavioral psychologists often say that when bad news is received, our natural reactions are first anger and then denial. We have to keep in mind that the occasional client who argues about every critical comment in an audit report may be justified — or he or she may once have been the over-competitive school kid who used to complain to the teacher any time his or her homework received less than an “A.”
We all know that we will face push-back eventually and that at times it might be accompanied by visible anger. When this happens, it might indicate that our findings are incorrect or that we have presented them unfairly. It also might simply indicate that our customer needs a little time to cool off. In the long run, the important thing is not that the disagreement occurred; it’s how we respond to the situation.
When the push-back occurs, we need to listen to our clients and ensure we have presented the situation fairly — but to present the situation fairly, we must resist the temptation to sugar-coat the facts or bury the news in vague terms. Our reputations as auditors depend upon our ability to present the situation in a balanced way that neither over-exaggerates nor understates risks and possible consequences.
When Cynthia Cooper and her internal audit team first started uncovering corruption at WorldCom, they faced serious disagreement (and even ominous threats) from management. The team eventually resorted to working secretly at night in order to finish their investigation. I truly believe this was a situation in which the auditors could either be right or they could be liked, but they could not be both.
One day soon, you may be facing a situation where you can’t both be right and be liked. After determining that this truly is the situation, there is only one ethical choice open to an internal auditor: Choosing to be right. Over time, I believe we can win more respect and, in particular, win more respect from the right people by simply doing the right thing.
Richard Chambers, CIA, CFE, QIAL, CRMA, CGAP, is the founder and Chief Executive of Richard F. Chambers and Associates, LLC. From 2009-2021 he served as the president and CEO of The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), the global professional association and standard-setting body for internal auditors. Chambers has more than four decades of experience serving in and on behalf of the internal audit profession.