Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

Why Audit Teams Need the Confidence to Speak Up: Audit Teams and Engagements Suffer When Members Feel Unsafe about Raising Questions or Admitting Mistakes

Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

Why Audit Teams Need the Confidence to Speak Up: Audit Teams and Engagements Suffer When Members Feel Unsafe about Raising Questions or Admitting Mistakes

Article excerpt

A climate of psychological safety is an important prerequisite for effective interpersonal relationships among audit team members and for audit teams to properly meet their fiduciary responsibilities. Audit processes can be more effective and the quality of audits can be improved if auditors understand the concept of psychological safety and its application for audit teams. The failure to create a climate of psychological safety among audit team members can have harmful effects on audit quality, but fortunately CPA firms can take steps to enhance psychological safety and enable more effective audit processes and audit work.


In the International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working, Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as the perceptions both individuals and teams hold about the consequences of interpersonal risks in a work environment. The concept encompasses beliefs about how others will respond when an individual assumes the risk in a group environment of asking a question, seeking feedback, offering a new idea, or admitting to a mistake. She believes that individuals in group settings calculate the risks associated with such actions and that those calculations are important factors in assessing their willingness to engage in a behavior.

An action taken in one group--for example, questioning a certain course of action--might be viewed as posing too much interpersonal risk in a different group setting, according to Edmondson. She further defines team psychological safety as a shared belief that within the team it is safe for members to take interpersonal risks.

Edmondson believes that team psychological safety promotes a productive learning environment by enabling a climate that encourages discussion, asking questions, sharing of information, admitting and learning from mistakes, and more effective teamwork. She also notes that while psychological safety and trust have a great deal in common, there are some important differences. Trust, in her view, involves you giving others the benefit of the doubt with regard to some action or issue, while psychological safety involves the question of whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt, for example, when you make a mistake or disagree with someone's viewpoint. Team psychological safety can vary significantly from one audit team to the next as the team norms,

perceptions, and shared experiences differ.

Creating a safe environment within a team is essential for enabling each team member to find his or her voice, willingly share ideas and opinions, ? ask important questions, admit mistakes, seek help, and, just as important, encourage collaboration, respect, and trust among team members. All of these benefits make for better team performance and are essential to learning behavior in teams.

Examples of learning behaviors involve seeking feedback; sharing information; asking questions; seeking help; admitting mistakes; and being willing to experiment, innovate, and try new ideas and processes. The degree to which these learning behaviors lead to positive outcomes, in our case, more effective audit team processes and quality audits, depends on the audit team members' willingness to assume the interpersonal risks associated with self-image in a team environment. To what degree will audit team members admit mistakes, ask questions, or seek help when doing so may make them feel incompetent and risk their self-image among the team? Clearly teams enjoying higher degrees of psychological safety are more likely to engage in behaviors with more positive outcomes for the individual and the team.


Audit evidence is typically gathered by associates executing procedures defined by their superiors. For example, an associate may be assigned to select a sample of inventory items and verify that the client actually possesses the inventory in the quantity indicated on its inventory listing. …

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