Courageous internal auditors have the fortitude to speak truth to power

Richard Chambers tells us why internal auditors should address difficult or uncomfortable issues that management and/or the board would rather avoid.

I once had the unenviable task of informing a two-star American Army general that my internal audit team had discovered a potential procurement law violation. That wasn’t the hard part. I also had to inform him that procurement officials had justified the transgression because they thought an arriving four-star general would want nicer facilities to use for his own physical exercise. The experience was brutal. The two-star general stopped me in my tracks, yelling, “Chambers, you are out of line!”

I must admit, it was a terrifying moment.

Fortunately, I was able to calm the major general by reassuring him that the four-star general had neither asked for the new facilities nor even wanted them constructed. But the damage was done. My relationship with him was never quite the same.

Talk about the risks of speaking truth to power!

The expression “speaking truth to power,” has been around for decades. It is often used in a social or political context. But it also is a concept with which many internal auditors struggle. In far too many organizations, those in a position of power and influence are simply not open to conversations around high risks or other uncomfortable topics. That is, until it’s too late.

We must address difficult or uncomfortable issues that management and/or the board would rather avoid.

Challenges facing organizations in the 21st Century are increasingly complex and, if ignored, they can be potentially lethal. This requires those of us who provide assurance on governance, risk and control to be unwavering in our conviction to examine all such threats.

That’s why speaking truth to power is essential for internal auditors to maintain the integrity and accountability of our organization. And this means more than just taking a stand. We must address difficult or uncomfortable issues that management and/or the board would rather avoid. This is especially true for chief audit executives, who must have the courage to challenge taboo subjects.

All this might seem obvious. Why would internal audit ever shy from addressing risks to the organization? In reality, it happens all the time. From toxic cultures to executive compensation, there are some risks that may seem best avoided or just not talked about at all.

I have described these kinds of risks as third-rail issues, comparing them to the high-voltage rails that provide power to electric trains. While the power that surges through third-rail issues could easily damage internal audit’s relationship with management and the board, ignoring them could prove even more destructive to the organization.

Speaking truth to power requires internal audit to be not only courageous, but resourceful, as well. Resistance to confronting taboo subjects is almost guaranteed. Management may put up barriers, such as limiting access to records, to block internal audit from taking on the toughest issues. But we must find ways to persevere. A great example: Cynthia Cooper’s team working after hours to gain access to computers to unearth the $3.8 billion fraud at WorldCom.

Speaking truth to power is difficult, but it can be done – and effectively. One key to success is knowing how to deliver uncomfortable news to those in power. Strategic thinking coach Greg Githens has shared Five Tips for Speaking Truth to Power that I would recommend for internal auditors as well:

Tip 1: Be respectful

When sharing inconvenient truths, Githens cautions not to appear flippant or disrespectful. He advises that “a leader respects civility and reveres candor. Be courteous and cordial. And tell the truth.”

Tip 2: Ask permission to share

As Githens observes, “Because people like to feel in control, ask permission to share your perspective. ‘I’ve formed an opinion. Would you be interested in hearing it?’” My conversation with the Army general might have gone better if I had prefaced it with: “Procurement officials have attempted to justify their actions. Would you like to know what they said?”

Tip 3: Unpack adjectives

For internal auditors, this means keeping your communication objectives. Adjectives can add color and emphasis to a conversation, but when communicating an inconvenient truth to a skeptical person in power, (though Githens might not agree) it might be best to leave the adjectives at home.

Tip 4: Invite rebuttal

Actually, Githens coaches to ask about assumptions. But for internal auditors, its important that those in power are afforded the chance to rebut any aspect of the news we delivered. Of course, the general didn’t wait for me to ask. But either way, it’s a healthy stage in the truth-to-power dialogue.

Tip 5: Being kind is essential; being nice is optional

Githens notes that “Leadership is a practice of kindness, but it’s not always a practice of niceness.

“Kindness is helping others by showing that you care about their wellbeing. Niceness is the practice of courtesy and politeness. A nice person tells others what the others want to hear. A person can be nice but simultaneously unkind when she withholds uncomfortable truths or fails to share critical information.”

These tips are not prerequisites to speaking truth to power, but they will make it easier. Working in less-than-ideal conditions doesn’t excuse internal audit from taking on difficult or taboo subjects.

I’ll add one important caveat – internal audit must be in a position to back up the tough talk. Taking on executive compensation or delving into legal or human resources issues will require not only resourcefulness and courage, but competencies and expertise to get it done. Make sure you assign or bring in the right talent to examine such difficult subjects. The keyword in the phrase “speaking truth to power” is truth. So, make sure you get it right the first and every time.

In developing my thoughts on this subject, I searched for just the right word to describe the characteristic or trait for speaking truth to power. The word I settled on is fortitude. The dictionary defines fortitude as, “courage in the face of pain or adversity.” I would alter that slightly to add the word anticipated or expected. Fortitude in this context means having the courage to take on the tough issues, knowing it may create professional and even personal adversity.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on speaking truth to power via LinkedIn or X.

Richard Chambers, CIA, CFE, QIAL, CRMA, CGAP, is the founder and Chief Executive of Richard F. Chambers and Associates, LLC. From 2009-2021 he served as the president and CEO of The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), the global professional association and standard-setting body for internal auditors. Chambers has more than four decades of experience serving in and on behalf of the internal audit profession.