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​Internal Audit and the Game of Trust

Blogs Jim Pelletier, CIA Dec 16, 2019

​​Auditors must disrupt old stereotypes to move from a position of distrust to being trusted by those they audit.

Trust is often thought of as a simple process, yet it actually is a complex game, and how you play that game matters. To understand the trust game being played between two people, we must first understand some basic science behind how trust works in the human brain.

There are two big driving forces in the brain that are at the core of our ability to trust and be trusted. The first is our human capacity for empathy. Said another way, people have an enhanced ability to sense and even adopt the emotions of those we are interacting with (some people are much better at this than others).

Our ability to essentially mimic emotion is critical to trust. For example, as someone tells you a sad story, that person expects that you will feel sadness similar to how he or she is feeling, even if the story doesn't directly impact you in any way.

To reinforce this point, imagine the flipside. What if you were telling a story about your pet dying and the person listening sat there with a smile on his or her face? Not only would you not trust that person with future insights into your personal life, it would be a bit unnerving.

The second driving force behind building trust is what psychologists call the "theory of mind." Simply put, this is the ability to think from another person's perspective. What is he thinking? How might she act or react to something? Does he really agree with what I'm saying or is he just nodding along? In other words, theory of mind represents our ability to "step into someone else's shoes."

And here is where the game begins. As we interact with someone, we are constantly evaluating how we think that person should be acting versus how he or she is actually reacting. At the same time, the other person is evaluating our reaction to what he or she is saying. The level of trust developed comes down to the degree of success one has in answering these questions:How well am I able to predict the other person's expectations and behavior? How often do those align?How well am I able to adjust my own behavior and reactions based on those predictions?To what extent does my emotional state match the other person's and is it — or does it at least appear to be — authentic?

In some cases, the game of trust starts out in a place of distrust. One person may start off believing the other person's motives are not good. In that case, the game changes a bit in that the first individual may simply be testing to see just how untrustworthy the other person may be.

From there, the game is essentially played in the same way. Since I don't trust you, I expect you to respond in a certain way. If you do, that further confirms my distrust. Only if you respond in an unpredictable way might you begin building a more positive relationship.

Unfortunately, internal auditors too often begin their professional relationship with those they audit from a position of distrust. The question then becomes, do you act as they expect or do you disrupt that thinking?
Disrupting that thinking and breaking down old stereotypes of what it means to be an auditor are critical. If you begin with the idea of building a relationship with those you audit, then you will start to break down that automatic instinct to "know" what they are thinking. By stepping into their shoes, you can see clearly what is needed to build trust.

To start, consider how you would feel if you were the one being audited. What behaviors would put you at ease and what behaviors would make you feel the need to be defensive?
Be transparent with what your audit will look at and what will happen if anything of consequence is found. Set the audit up with cooperation and collaboration in mind, not just a situation where they provide piles of documents with no rationalization as to why. Explain what you need to know first. It will give them the chance to recommend what might help get you there more efficiently.

Even simple acts of kindness are a way to build trust. Disarm clients from the outset with empathy, and it will allow you to flip the game and start from a place of trust.

Jim Pelletier, CIA

Jim Pelletier is Vice President, Portfolio Strategy, at The IIA in Lake Mary, FL.