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On the Frontlines: Why Getting Involved in Politics is a Good Thing

Blogs Harold Silverman, CIA, CRMA, QIAL, CPA Jan 12, 2022

At the outset of my career as an internal auditor, I was warned repeatedly to avoid workplace politics at all costs. This type of advice is not uncommon to give to an ambitious and slightly arrogant young professional like I was. Numerous leaders suggested that getting involved in office politics would be career-limiting. Some even suggested that engaging in the politics of the company would impair my independence as an auditor and limit my ability to work and act objectively.

The concept of avoiding politics was an uncomfortable one for me. A few years before becoming an internal auditor, I had double-majored in political science and economics at the undergraduate level and had served as an intern for a congressman in Washington, D.C. During the orientation to my internship, I was given a challenge by one of the senior staffers to name all of the leaders to whom the congressman, our boss, would give the shirt off his back. This was a valuable exercise in understanding influence, power, and relationships, and I realized these are at the core of politics. It was a moment that stuck with me.

Now as an internal auditor, I have never had a desire to avoid workplace or office politics. Instead, I have consistently chosen to consciously engage in the politics of the organization. That may sounds strange, given how the term "politics" has such a negative connotation in our current society. However, understanding how "things get done" and who has the power to influence them in an organization is crucial to being able to have a positive impact on the organization.

Too often, I have seen internal auditors wasting time trying to influence individuals who may have important titles, but realistically have limited cross-functional influence in the organization. At the same time, they are failing to build and leverage relationships with the real power brokers, regardless of title.

One strategy that I learned in Washington came from watching lobbyists build close relationships with key staffers who had the ear of a politician. The lobbyists rarely started with the elected officials. Within organizations, leaders often look to specific subordinates to provide guidance on topics that internal audit brings to them. If the internal auditor bypasses these powerful political channels, they miss out on the opportunity to influence the leader. Instead, the politically savvy internal auditor knows who they need to lobby in in the organization in order to ensure that the leader with ultimate authority is receptive to their ideas and recommendations.

We know from the International Professional Practices Framework that internal auditing is an "independent, objective assurance and consulting activity designed to add value and improve an organization's operations." Unfortunately, simply identifying reportable observations and putting them into an audit report does not ensure that it has a positive impact or that an organization's operations are improved.

Being able to assess an organization and truly understand how the written and unwritten power structures work is an important competency for internal auditors. Without having strong relationships and understanding where power and influence sit within an organization it is nearly impossible to impact an organization.

I have tried to couple my interest in the study of organizational politics with my knowledge of the study of game theory, as learned in my economics studies. Game theory is the study of how rational actors make decisions based on their incentives. That is not to suggest that all actions made by leaders are rational, but it is a great starting point. When internal auditors are able to couple an understanding of power, influence, and individual incentives across an organization, they are well-positioned to increase the likelihood that recommendations made are implemented and organizational improvement is achieved.

Of course, no amount of political skills can make up for deficiencies in the competencies needed to be an internal auditor and covered in the exam for the CIA certification. However, to maximize their positive impact on an organization, internal auditors need to leverage their political acumen.

In my current role at The IIA, I work with leading audit executives every day. I have the opportunity to swap stories and hear how they have a positive impact on their organizations. It is clear that much of their success comes from their ability to work within their organizations' political systems.

That being said, development of one's political acumen is not something that should be deferred until reaching more advanced stages of a career in internal auditing. Successful internal audit leaders don't develop these skills when they become leaders. They become leaders, in part, because they have honed the ability to work within organizational political systems.

Harold Silverman, CIA, CRMA, QIAL, CPA

Harold Silverman is director Executive Membership at The IIA.