The following article is part of our blog article series "The Future of Audit".
What is the reason for the intensive examination of this topic?
We at zapliance, with our team of auditors, scientists and developers, have observed that the general conditions for us auditors have changed rapidly in recent years.
For example, the constantly growing amount of available data makes it increasingly difficult to take a holistic and valid view of the risk/opportunity perspective without the support of partners within the organization. This forces auditors to rethink their strengths/weaknesses profile - because working with partners requires personal skills that auditors have not previously been dependent on to this extent (our umbrella article, which describes these points in more detail can be found here).
Our blog article series on individual competencies is designed to help auditors rethink their own approach in order to be even more successful in the future.
Give it a try!
My name is Alexander Rühle, I have been a passionate auditor since 2006 and have been the Managing Director of zapliance for five years now. In this article, I would like to take a closer look at social skills - an area of competence that will become enormously more important for auditors of the future. These include competencies such as teamwork and helpfulness, fairness, willingness to cooperate and empathy as well as communication skills (see, among others, Mudra, 2004).
As you can see, this is a broad field of competences. So as to not provide a meaningless overview of social competences in general, but to enable a deeper examination of these competences, I will call out and discuss individual social competences in this and the following articles. What is important here is that, using practical examples, I would like to show not only difficulties, but above all ways each individual auditor can strengthen their individual social skills.
Increasingly important for auditors of the future: consider the opinion of others.
For this article I have chosen the competence of accepting and tolerating the opinions of others - a competence that is becoming more and more important with a view to increase cooperation with partners within the organizations where we work.
This is a classic example of how things should not be done: during the joint preliminary discussion of an audit, the auditor does not listen properly to the Managing Director of the audited unit. After all, they are of the opinion that they already know what the audit should look like - after all, they have years of experience in the field. What they may forget: every audit must be adapted to fit a specific situation. And the people responsible on site know the situation the best. If this does not happen and the auditor is not in a position to accept the client's approach or take it into account during their work, an audit can quickly miss the actual goal - and if at all, only offer a manageable added value for the client.
A current example of this is a case in point: if the head of the audit department does not adapt to the audited unit on site during the course of the crisis, which has already announced short-time working, for example, or if they do not take the currently absolutely overloaded personnel department into account, this will most likely go wrong. In this case, the audit will inevitably be conducted remotely, instead of finding a goal-oriented solution in advance with the client and the local managers.
What I have noticed over the past few years is that nobody is immune from being a know-it-all and ignoring other peoples’ opinions. Not even I am immune from this. However, different opinions or criticism are not a bad thing at first - provided they are expressed constructively and not destructively. After all, their primary goal is to improve the result of the work. But why and how are relevant opinions and criticism repeatedly ignored by others?
Privately and professionally not so easy: remain calm in the face of criticism.
Based on my own experience, I have made the observation that one of the most important reasons for not accepting other peoples’ opinions and criticisms is the fear of being perceived as incompetent. Because many people take criticism personally and feel patronized by it. But something that is easily forgotten when it comes to criticism is that it is criticism of the thing itself and not the person. And this is exactly how you should behave during the discussion. Keep in mind that it is not about you, but about finding an even better solution to a problem together during a discussion. A common mistake: people quickly get on the defensive and start to defend their own opinion very emotionally. Or they go straight on the counterattack. Both, however, not only prevent a factual discussion of the facts, but in the worst case also make you look unprofessional. Can you take someone seriously who, even at the slightest criticism, starts to raise their voice and start attacking their counterpart personally?
You already realize: It is important not to get carried away too much by your own emotions in such discussions. And this challenge begins when the other person expresses their opinion or criticism. Here it is important to signal with an open body posture that constructive criticism of any kind is appreciated. Because crossed arms have a clear message: I do not care what you think.
Something else that is important: maintain eye contact, listen carefully and nod now and then to signal that the other person's opinion is important to you. Because regardless of whether the feedback from colleagues contributes in a very concrete way to finding a better solution, the following applies: as soon as people notice that their opinion is not valued, they pull back. And as a result, important ideas and impulses are lost.
Widespread these days: Time pressure.
A second challenge in accepting the opinions of others, apart from the fear of being perceived as incompetent, is the impatience of those involved in a discussion - not least due to the increased time pressure auditors find themselves under today. Meetings with several participants take longer with each new opinion and more time is needed. Time which auditors do not have, and which may then have to be put on the back burner after a strenuous eight-hour day.
But despite all the time pressure you must not forget: any relevant interjection that is ignored runs the risk of creating difficulties later in the process. Difficulties that become more difficult to solve with each passing week. In concrete terms, this means that the earlier relevant objections find their way into the work process, the easier it is to make necessary corrections. But the longer you wait, the more time and money will have to be spent on correcting the error.
That is why it is important to hear the opinions of others, even while under time pressures. What is especially important here: let the other person finish - even if it is sometimes difficult under the circumstances. But this is the only way you can fully grasp and evaluate the opinions expressed. Even if it can cause displeasure among the other discussion participants. If anything is unclear, ask questions despite time pressures and do not allow misunderstandings to arise - true to the motto "better safe than sorry.”
Something important about other peoples’ opinions: Do not be blinded by titles.
A third point that often prevents important opinions from being heard and correctly assessed is hierarchical thinking. In discussions, auditors run the risk of rating the opinions of colleagues higher up in the hierarchy as better than the opinions of colleagues whose job title does not include "Senior Manager." The problem with this is that the level on the career ladder often has nothing to do with how well someone knows a specific topic. Newcomers, for example, often have the advantage that they are not yet "operationally blind" and can therefore provide important input - input that is lost if you focus on their job title. This is my tip: free yourself from hierarchical thinking and give every colleague the chance to help shape work processes – everyone from interns to executives.
The last point that makes it difficult to take other peoples’ opinions into account is the fear of confusion that many people have. In discussions, I have seen time and again that participants have ignored the opinions of others for fear of losing their "common thread." This point is closely linked to the first point - the fear of being perceived as incompetent.
Imagine your first exam as an examiner in a big round during the opening discussion, where you present your laboriously worked out exam plan. Even if the inner tension decreases with increasing work experience, it cannot be denied that such a situation means a certain level of stress. So, if you then present your plan and a relevant objection is voiced after the first five minutes, there is a high risk that you will become thrown off and confused for the rest of the presentation.
Notes help to not get confused.
It is therefore very important to keep a cool head in stressful situations. Write down other peoples’ opinions on a piece of paper and come back to them after your presentation. This way, you can stay on your own rhythm and then calmly respond to other peoples’ opinions. This, in turn, is part of the auditor's methodological competence.
So if you have succeeded in taking criticism objectively and not personally, in listening to your counterpart even under time pressure and in understanding their position, in recognizing the opinion of those who at first glance appear less qualified and, on top of that, in not letting other opinions confuse you, then you have arrived at a key moment. Now you have the opportunity to evaluate the relevance of the other opinions - rationally and expertly.
You see there are a lot of obstacles up to this point that need to be overcome. But what you should not forget on this journey is that other peoples’ opinions and criticism usually advance a working process much more than praise - even if it is much harder to digest.
Finally, I would like to return briefly to the example of the auditor described at the beginning, who did not listen to the Managing Director of the audited unit during the preliminary discussion. The reason for this could be any of the four points mentioned above - from personal insecurity and time pressure to hierarchical thinking and fear of confusion. But whatever the reason, the result is always the same: failure to consider relevant opinions of others causes damage to the company where we work. And to the best of our knowledge, we should always avoid this - even if, as this article shows, it is not always easy.
But what do you think about it? Let’s discuss this article in the comments below.
All the articles from the series "The Future of Audit" will be published for two weeks here on our zapliance blog.
Mudra, P. (2004). Personalentwicklung: Integrative Gestaltung betrieblicher Lern- und Veränderungsprozesse. München: Verlag Vahlen.