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Harry Cassin
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Russell A. Stamets
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Richard Bistrong
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Eric Carlson
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Richard Bistrong: For compliance, questions have more power than demands

How do compliance officers get to know what they don’t know, especially in places where values are challenged, where local practices conflict with the rules, and where the line between what’s a permissible activity and what’s a violation can look blurry?

I counsel business and compliance leaders to show some vulnerability, humanity and humility to the workforce. Let it be known that we can all be competent and yet confused when it comes to ethics and compliance at the front lines of operations.

There’s nothing wrong with that admission. We work in competitive, complex and volatile markets. All sorts of pressures and issues can threaten to come between our desired and actual behavior.

And yet, how can anyone deal with those pressures if no one is talking about them?

The way to break through is by asking questions.

“Most people don’t grasp that asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding,” according to Allison Brooks and Leslie K. John in the Harvard Business Review.

For a compliance leader, bonding and learning are critical to a successful outcome.

I heard a CEO, who had earlier spent time overseas in operations, recall many calls from HQ, with demands for quotas and reporting requirements, regardless of the time zone and deadlines. What he didn’t receive from HQ, he said, were calls asking, “How are things going, and how can we help you?”

That’s a great example of the power of a question over the power of a demand. (The Brooks and John article is called “The Surprising Power of Questions”).

But are all questions created equal? Clearly not. There’s a fine line between a friendly inquisitive conversation and an inquisition. That’s something Brooks and John warn about.

They also talk about what works. Here are a few approaches that are more likely to help business and compliance leaders get to know what they don’t know.

Go for the follow-up. Start a conversation to catch up on market conditions or a recent product launch, or just to make small talk. As Brooks and John wrote, a discussion with open-ended follow up questions has a “special power.” The authors found that “people interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.”

Stay casual. If you initiate a call with someone in the work force without a specific issue to talk about, keep it that way. As Brooks and John say, “People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than a buttoned-up, official tone.” In other words, if it’s not a call related to a specific issue, why not keep it that way?

Sequence. If the goal is to build relationships, the authors say, “opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly seems to be most effective.”

I was a sales executive. People in sales learn that when they’re talking, they’re not collecting information that might help build relationships and foster the sales process.

As the HBR article says, “Top salespeople listen more and speak less than their counterparts overall.” That also means asking questions without listening to the answers doesn’t help anyone. Asking, then listening, is the key.

Brooks and John say “a conversation is a dance that requires partners to be in sync — it’s a mutual push and pull that unfolds over time.”

Finally, “the wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight.”

So what’s the downside of talking with commercial leaders and sales people, asking how things are going, and listening to what they say? Who knows — a “capacity for delight” might follow.

And, as I’ve said before, building rapport when there’s no crisis at hand might become essential if tougher issues emerge. By then, the compliance officers are more likely to know what they didn’t know.


Richard Bistrong, pictured above, is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLCIn 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen and a half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015. He was named by Thomson Reuters in 2018 as a Top 50 Social Influencer in Risk, Compliance and RegTech.

His popular real-life compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in 2017. To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.

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1 Comment

  1. This is very true, and not only for compliance!

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