Stockholm Syndrome in the Business World

 

You've all heard of Stockholm Syndrome, right? You know, the phenomenon where victims display compassion for and even loyalty to their captors? For those who don't know, a quick history lesson. 
 
The phenomenon was first widely recognized after the Swedish bank robbery that gave it its name. For six days in August 1973, four Stockholm bank employees were held hostage at gunpoint in a vault. When they were released, they hugged and kissed their captors, declaring their loyalty even as the kidnappers were carted off to jail. To say people were shocked is an understatement. But from this display, the concept of Stockholm Syndrome was born. Once identified, more and more examples were identified.
 
And, if you look closely, you will see it happening in the audit and business world.
 
Think about the number of times you have made excuses for auditors you worked with, auditors who worked for you, or auditors for whom you worked. Think about the number of times you found yourself explaining that, of course the individual had shortcomings, but we all have shortcomings, and the individual is continuing to work toward getting better at their job, their approach, and their ability to function as an auditor/manager/leader.
 
And, in the vast majority of those instances, we are lying to ourselves as boldly as we are lying to the individual to whom we speak. We have effectively been held captive by the situation and have, contrary to any common sense, declared our loyalty to those who help make the situation untenable.
 
Take a closer look. First, why do you find yourself defending these individuals so often? If they were actually improving, would they need continued defense? Second, how long have those individuals been in their current positions; how long have you been making the exact, same excuses? Again, if they were actually developing, wouldn't they have moved to new, better, or at least different positions? And third, (particularly for those in positions of authority) what impact are the shortcomings having on the department? Has the lack of skill, knowledge, or business acumen resulted in an erosion of the perceived professionalism of your department?
 
At some point, it is no longer a "development" thing, a "personality" thing, or a "That's just Joe" thing. It is the business version of Stockholm Syndrome. 
 
I have seen auditors exhibit it with co-workers, with subordinates, and with those in charge. (Okay, personal revelation time – I have also made the excuses for co-workers, subordinates, and those in charge.) Because of our familiarity with the individuals, we lose our perspective - the ability to honestly evaluate the person's potential to accomplish what their role demands. We have become "captives", and our compassion and loyalty becomes misplaced, causing us to ignore our good judgment.
 
And while seeing the effects of Business Stockholm Syndrome within an audit department – subverting the department's ability to progress – is bad enough, I have also seen auditors exhibit it when it comes to their organizations.
 
This is when the auditors start saying things like "Oh, you know how this company is" and " There's really no since digging into that; it's always been that way" or "How many times have we already reported that; let's not worry."
 
I worked for Farmers Insurance for 30 years and, take my word for it, I found myself falling into that trap. Luckily, when that trap opened its maw, there were people willing to shake me awake before I was swallowed by that Charybdis. And, I like to think I did a pretty good job of steering others away when I saw them falling into the trap. Familiarity breeds compassion; and auditors must be wary of this version of the Syndrome.
 
So, here are some cures for Business Stockholm Syndrome in the audit world:
 
First, maintain a constant influx of newbies – new to the organization or new to internal audit or new to the business world; anything to ensure fresh perspectives infect Internal Audit. Stagnation and status quo are our worst enemies, and bringing in people with new ideas and thoughts is one of the best ways to keep innovation flowing.
 
Second, take a good hard look at anyone who has sat in their job for more than two years. Maybe it is their choice. But, even if they are in the same job, they better have been doing something appreciably different over that time. (I was a Senior Audit Manager for over five years. In that time my responsibilities changed three or four times. Same title; different responsibilities)
 
Finally, if the excuses are being made about the people in charge, take a good, long, hard look at where you are. If change is indeed coming, then it may be worth helping others battle the Business Stockholm Syndrome that begins to build. But, if changes are not coming; if you see a future filled with a constant litany of excuses being made for a CAE who, while a nice guy, is unable to build a department perceived as the pinnacle of the profession, it may be time to take a serious look at your career and determine if there might not be something better out there.
 
Those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome cannot explain to you why they would trust and believe in their captors. Similarly, when we suffer from Business Stockholm Syndrome, we cannot explain why we accept something less than acceptable. Look for the symptoms, and then do what you must to break out of the trap.

Posted on May 20, 2013 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Intruiging article, with a tremendous thruth in it. I would think this as well is getting absorbed by the culture of the organisation and (starting to) believe that this is right. Where it could be seriously wrong. Excellent advise, for an IA department as well as for an organisation itself as well.
  1.  Hmmm...All this time I thought my boss was sticking up for me, but now I know he was just a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome!

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