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Mind of Jacka: Free Speech

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Feb 23, 2023

[The story you are about to read is pretty darned true. At least, it is as true as my memory allows it to be. As the author Olin Miller said, “Of all liars, the smoothest and most convincing is memory.” So, while this may not be perfectly accurate, it is close enough to the truth to bear witness to the points I want to make. As always, we’ll see where the voyage takes us.]

This story happened quite a while ago. Not “Once upon a time…” a while ago, but more than 20 years ago. (Hence the previous warning about memory.) Everyone in our audit department had gotten laptops and, for the first time, we were working in shared databases that contained all our workpapers. New and exciting times. One of the things we put together was a discussion database — a place where any of the department’s more than 100 auditors could join in and start up discussions. We were a decentralized, dispersed group with offices spread from Los Angeles to Florida to Chicago to Texas, and all points in between. Accordingly, we hoped this database would facilitate communication among this far-flung crowd, providing them with a forum to share ideas while getting to know each other better. Our intent was that the discussions be about internal audit. But, in the beginning, we had no restrictions.

Two points. First, I say “we” because I was part of the team that helped put all this together. Second, note the phrase “in the beginning.” Its importance will become obvious.

Unfortunately, our experiment in facilitating discussions wasn’t going too well. We experienced a problem that many of the discussion groups of the time battled. No one wanted to play. We kept plugging along. However, while some people might post occasionally, and those of us who developed the database would spread seeds of thought we hoped would foster scintillating conversations, there wasn’t much happening.

Then, one day, the individual who monitored the conversations (and bless our little pea-picking hearts that we were smart/lucky enough to have someone monitoring) let us know that the CAE had shut it all down. Seems a disgruntled auditor had decided to post his 29 theses on our virtual cathedral door.

The auditor’s post began rather benignly, including a discussion of the respect he had for some of those in leadership positions. But, in short order, he proceeded to rip into the perceived injustices and hypocrisy he saw throughout the organization, the department, and his local audit group.

It was very well-written; it was not well-received.

As noted, the CAE shut the discussion database down instantly. The individual was not fired, but a good talking-to ensued. After a few months, the database was reopened with a set of rules and policies. (Barndoors closing and runaway horses come to mind.) Unfortunately, since few people knew why the shutdown occurred, participation nose-dived from the already miniscule levels of activity previously occurring. It languished for a while and eventually disappeared. No flowers, no eulogies, no tears goodbye. Just gone.

There’s enough material, backstory, and drama in this story for an extended article, a book trilogy, and a 13-part Netflix series. But let’s focus on the crux of the biscuit. Why did the individual feel they needed to exercise, in this manner, the free speech rights we had provided?

In particular, why did he feel he needed to use this approach when we thought we had an effective open-door policy? Why did he feel he needed to come forward this way when we had a culture that we thought fostered open dialogue? And why did he feel he needed to attack so many in this manner when we had a CAE and leadership that we thought had a pretty good record when it came to morals, ethics, and integrity?

Well, the key words in the above are “We thought.” I was in a position to know that the open-door policy was effective, that there was a good culture throughout most of the department, and leadership rated high for moral, ethics, and integrity. Accordingly, because “we thought” everyone knew all of the above, we were gobsmacked by the idea that an auditor out in the field had no idea of the leadership strengths in our department.

In other words, it was all about communication. (And, as a side note, how many of the problems we face result from communication issues? Fodder for later consideration.) In this case, two aspects of communication were the primary culprits — those responsible for passing communications through the chain of command and the role of feedback.

Let’s start with those responsible for passing communications through the chain of command. Obviously, when information is passed from leadership through management to the staff, the weakest link is the person with the poorest communication channels — the ones who mishear, misstate, and generally garble the content and intent of the message. In this case, the auditor’s manager was not a good communicator. And it didn’t help that, in general, the manager had poor management skills.

The information leadership wanted delivered became garbled by the local manager’s filters and those poor management skills. In fact, the actions taken by the manager were often in direct opposition to the message leadership was trying to deliver. The staff’s only indication of what leadership wanted were the garbled messages and management’s actions. Even when a message came directly from leadership, the conflicting attitudes and actions of the manager negated anything that was said.

Okay. It is easy to stop there — to point a finger at the less-than-adequate manager and say “Tsk, tsk, such a shame that the manager failed. Let’s replace and move on.” But there is a good hunk of blame to be placed at leadership’s feet. First, for putting someone in a position for which they were not ready. Second, for not taking steps to ensure that the manager got proper training in all aspects of their role.

But there is a third piece of blame that speaks to a significant failure in leadership, a failure that plagues leadership in many organizations.

Basic communication requires a sender and a receiver. But successful communication also requires feedback. And, within this story there is evidence that leadership was taking no steps to ensure their messages were being properly delivered. Even when leadership spoke directly to this staff, the message fell on deaf ears because of management’s negative influence. And leadership took no steps (except the occasional, at best once-a-year, visit) to ensure any of those messages were getting through, or that the manager even understood what message to deliver and how to embrace it.

Without being mindful of feedback – of listening closely and verifying – there can be no assurance of communication’s success. And, when that communication goes through several channels (leader, manager, supervisor, et al), feedback becomes an even more important necessity.

So, two significant issues identified. But, as previously noted, there is a lot to learn from this example. I’ve only scratched the surface. And there is a lot more story that could be told that would lead to even more lessons. We’ll save that for next semester. But feel free to dig deeper into this example for extra credit. Remember, I grade on a curve, attendance is not necessary, and my office hours are between one and three on Thursday afternoons, except when I don’t want to be there. And another thought on all this. Maybe not completely related, but a point worth making anyway. Free speech does not mean freedom from ramifications (a lesson often forgotten by the world at large.) In the story above, we had given the staff the freedom to discuss anything. The auditor then exercised his right to free speech. (Remember? No restrictions.) However, that did not stop leadership from taking action against the individual.

Internal audit similarly lives under this Damoclean sword. We have the freedom (and the responsibility) to speak truth freely. But there can be a price to pay. First, we have to make sure we are right. But, second, we have to be willing to live with the consequences of freedom and honesty. I’ve brought this up before, but take the opportunity to be edified and shocked by The Politics of Internal Auditing by Patty Miller and Larry Rittenberg.

One thing I will say for the auditor in this story — one thing I will give him credit for — is that he felt he was speaking the truth. And felt it needed to be said. So, he said it.

So, the final important point to make is this. Make sure that, whether you are in charge or merely a worker bee, you help ensure communication is open and complete enough that no one in the department feels the need to take the drastic step this auditor felt was necessary. Make sure your communications are up to the task of appropriately setting the tone desired by the department. Make sure everyone is willing to speak truth when necessary.

Make sure those involved have the skills to properly communicate and appropriately pass information up and down the chain of communication. And check and double-check that the message has been heard and understood.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.