- The Quarterly
- Audit Excellence
|Quarterly: Fall 2020 - Emily Jacobson|
Beyond Competence: Using Goodwill to Build Auditee Trust
Apprehension. Uncertainty. Anxiety. No, I am not talking about the way I feel when I ponder how the COVID-19 pandemic is going to affect the rest of 2020 (and, let’s be honest, beyond). I am talking about how a government employee feels when they find out they will be involved in an audit of their agency. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they feel excited because the last audit they were involved in was a largely positive experience where they grew professionally and were handed a list of easy-to-implement recommendations that have since catapulted their operations into a realm of efficiency they never thought possible.
More likely, your auditee is bracing themselves for the several-month disruption that they do not have time for and the laundry list of shortcomings they know are about to be documented for all to read. (Oh, and they are also losing sleep worrying about COVID, just like the rest of us.) Your auditee is less excited to see you (via Zoom) than they are about seeing a cotton swab approaching their nostril in the COVID testing drive-through line.
We could all use a little humanity right now, could we not? A little goodwill, empathy, and genuine concern for our well-being? You, dear auditors, have the power to bring that humanity to bear, and you can do so through the vehicle of trust. You can trust your auditees, you can give them reason to trust you, and you can create a reciprocal cycle of trust with every word you exchange, whether written or spoken.
How do we define trust between auditor and auditee? Most academic research about trust and government focuses on trust in government, not trust within government, so business-oriented research provides more relevant guidance here. Within an organizational context, trust can be defined as “the mutual confidence that no party to an exchange will exploit another’s vulnerabilities.”1 For auditors and auditees, the exchange is not of money, but rather of information about policies and procedures, inputs and outcomes, and successes and challenges. Vulnerable may seem like a strong word for the position of an auditee but, trust me, when they are handing over the information and you are drawing conclusions about it, the auditee certainly feels as if they are on the more vulnerable end of that exchange.
There are two primary elements necessary for building trust in a professional setting: competence and goodwill.2 As auditors, you are accustomed to demonstrating the former—the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to perform the work. You are also likely to express your commitment to objectivity, independence, professionalism, and transparency. Going the extra mile to also exhibit goodwill—through positive intentions, authentic kindness, and empathy—will accelerate trust building.
Building Trust from Day One
As you have likely experienced, building trust is hard work. It is something every workplace strives for, and it is challenging, even when those building it are working side-by-side, day in and day out, building toward a common goal. But in auditing, your team will be working with individuals you may have never even met before and may not work with ever again once the engagement is over. You are starting without much of a foundation, and time is not on your side. Since trust is built gradually over time, it is important to start in earnest from the very beginning. The engagement letter and entrance meeting will set the tone for the engagement. It is hard to undo those first impressions about what the audit is going to be like.
It is unlikely that auditors set out to position themselves as the proverbial “gotcha” auditor, but skeptical auditees are often looking for signs that you intend take advantage of their vulnerable position. Anything you do—intentionally or unintentionally—to set the stage for an adversarial rather than collaborative relationship will cause your auditee to be more guarded and defensive. Not surprisingly, guarded and defensive auditees are much less likely to be helpful throughout the engagement. As an auditee said to me once, “It’s easy to not want to help someone who you think is out to get you.”
On the other hand, if you exercise your soft skills—asking about and listening to their challenges, demonstrating compassion, and expressing your intention to work collaboratively—you will begin to create relational connection, which results in higher levels of trust.3 Another tactic for establishing a collaborative working relationship early on is asking how your contacts prefer to communicate, and under what circumstances. You might be more of an email person, but your primary contact might be more of a phone person. Agreeing on communication norms shows that you are willing to work with your auditee, giving them something now since you know you will be asking much of them in the coming weeks and months.
Maintaining Trust Throughout the Engagement
As auditors, you need a lot of information from your auditees. They expect this and generally know what types of information you are going to be requesting, based on the groundwork you already laid. Fast forward to when you uncover something that needs further investigation, requiring information you did not expect you would need. You are motivated to get moving on your quest, and you also have a dozen other tasks to complete, so you shoot off a quick, to-the-point email. You also decided to throw in, “I need this information ASAP.” Task completed; check it off your to-do list. (You also avoided the discomfort of hearing your contact’s tone of voice change from neutral to one of dread—score!)
But what if using email for this request had unintended consequences? What if this contact would have preferred to have a conversation for a request of this nature, providing the opportunity to ask for context and explain why the information is going to take a while to gather? Suddenly, you have flooded them with anxiety and worry about what you think you have found, not to mention adding something to their to-do list. Wheels begin to spin, and, in a moment, they begin to wonder if you really are out to get them.
Instead, commit to using established communication norms. Make the uncomfortable phone call and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate goodwill. Ask for feedback on a timeline. You know what deliverable you want, but only your auditee truly understands what compiling that information will entail and how competing priorities will affect their ability to deliver. Open up the lines of communication by asking, “How long do you think it will take for you to pull this together? Does that work with your schedule? How can we work together to meet both of our needs?” Demonstrate that you respect your auditee’s circumstances and understand that their work does not stop when you come along. This display of empathy will go a long way toward maintaining the trust you established at the outset.
Preserving Trust Through the Report Draft
For many auditors, kickoff and fieldwork go relatively smoothly. It is not until their auditees see the findings in writing that the relationship begins to fracture. Thankfully, the reporting phase is also ripe with opportunities to show goodwill. The first is in deciding what and how much detail to include in the report.
After amassing volumes of evidence during fieldwork, it is tempting to try to find a way to report on all of the issues you documented. You did the work to find it, after all; it can feel like a waste to not include everything. Plus, it is natural to want to incorporate the work of every team member, not just the work of those who were assigned to what ended up being the more significant objectives. This is where nitpicky things can find their way into a report draft. Think about how those less-significant items will come across to the auditee. Consider bringing them to the auditee’s attention in a conversation, explaining that they did not rise to the level of needing to be included in the report but that you thought the manager might want to address them. Such a gesture shows you are not out to exploit your auditee’s vulnerabilities by pointing out every possible shortcoming. (And, as an added bonus, you will have a shorter report! Less to draft, review, and read!)
On the flip side, there might be reason to make your reports slightly longer by adding in some of the positive aspects you observed. Many auditors are of the opinion that offering kudos in the report is not necessary. Auditing by its nature is not a positive activity. The point of the entire exercise is to identify opportunities for improvement, not pat people on the back for a job well done. However, in my experience, auditees appreciate when the report points out positives where warranted. Highlighting where you observed best practices or improvement in an area that was previously reported on as having shortcomings makes the report feel more balanced. If you cannot seem to find a logical place to weave the kudos into the finding, consider adding it to a different part of your report, such as the letter or background.
Finally, be open to making concessions on language that the auditee finds objectionable. The report represents one of your last opportunities to preserve the trust you have built throughout the duration of the engagement. Even if you feel like the way you phrased something in the finding was warranted, it could come across as harsh to a proud process owner. Sometimes even the slightest tweak to a word or two can make a world of difference in how a sentence is perceived without watering down the message.
When it comes to recommendations, making a concession to alter the wording might make the difference between getting an “agree” or “disagree” from your auditee. I am sure you have heard at least once in your audit career, “We just can’t agree to this based on the language.” View this objection as an invitation to compromise. Being open to that conversation provides a great opportunity for you to listen (soft skills!) and remember that auditees are human beings with limitations. Hear them out on what they believe it is going to take for them to implement the recommendation and reflect that in alternative language.
Gains and Losses
This approach may feel like you are giving away too much power. It may come across as too “touchy feely” or not authentically you. And that is okay. Many an auditor has had a successful career focusing far more on demonstrating competence than goodwill. However, consider what you might gain in the process. That notoriously difficult agency may be your office’s new number-one fan. You may receive kudos at the table in front of your boss and your auditee’s boss and anyone else who is watching. Rapport may be that much easier to develop during your next engagement based on what your new auditee heard from your last about how great it was to work with you. Who knows, you may even get tapped on the shoulder for a job opportunity elsewhere in your organization with your stellar reputation as being a problem solver who also happens to be fantastic to work with. Even if none of that happens, your job might feel a little bit easier. I’d take that.
About the Author
Emily Jacobson provides writing training and consulting services to government audit offices through her company, Constellation Government Communications. She worked as the Communications Specialist for the Denver Auditor's Office for seven years, during which time she was a member of the ALGA Publications Committee.
1 Barney, J.B. & Hansen, M.H., (1981), “Trustworthiness as a source of competitive advantage.” Strategic Management Journal, v. 15, 175-190.