Remembering the people skills in compliance success

tec day 3 blog
September 9, 2016
The fifth annual Wdesk user conference is underway in San Diego, and this week we've got a special guest contributor taking over the blog, giving us live updates from the conference. Please welcome Matt Kelly, Editor and CEO of Radical Compliance, to

Live from The Exchange Community 2016: San Diego day 3

The Exchange Community 2016 wrapped up Friday morning with a talk about body posture and interpersonal communication. In our world of data, spreadsheets, and control matrices, we sometimes forget how important the human elements of the job can be.

The speaker was Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies how people gain influence, and particularly, how we express confidence in various social situations—including the business world.

Cuddy’s thesis is that people convey a sense of confidence to others and can even subconsciously train themselves to appear and be more confident by focusing on three goals: believe the message you’re telling others, convey confidence without arrogance, and communicate harmoniously with others. Or as she said, “If you don’t buy what you’re selling, nobody is buying what you’re selling.”

Those words are gospel in the sales department, and they should be in the compliance and audit departments, too.

Let’s be honest: compliance is a management control function, parked in the second line of defense. That means we impose on people to do things for us: submit receipts, follow certain business processes, admit unpleasant facts during investigations, and lots more. It’s hard work, with unclear outcomes. Employee cynicism is one of the biggest challenges that compliance professionals face. “Selling” compliance is a crucial career skill.

What’s more, compliance officers shouldn’t just want other employees to do what you ask. Ultimately, you need them to believe that compliance is a good thing to do—because compliance isn’t something that ends, really. A business never runs out of risks to manage and then lives happily ever after. A strong risk and compliance program is all about getting the whole enterprise to change how it works.

So as corny and cliché as it sounds, your success hinges on your ability to win friends and influence people.

Work your body

Cuddy’s research has found that simple body exercises can make you feel more confident, which other people will then notice (consciously or otherwise) in social situations. Expansive body gestures will boost your confidence, while contractive ones lower it.

So yes, you really can (and should) stretch your arms before an important meeting and then sit up straight when you’re in it. Not only do confident people take those actions: taking those actions makes you confident. Your testosterone levels rise, and your cortisol levels drop, even within the space of a few minutes.

Cuddy also warned that the reverse is true, too: assuming a contractive posture—slumped shoulders, folded arms, crossed legs—can raise your cortisol levels, lower testosterone, and leave you feeling more anxious. People interacting with you will see that and respond accordingly.

And, as an aside, how do you behave when both your testosterone and cortisol levels are high? In that circumstance, Cuddy said, people come across as aggressive, thin-skinned, defensive, and difficult to work with. The ideal is high testosterone and low cortisol at the same time. That leaves you engaged, confident, and “present” in whatever social interaction is at hand.

Cuddy is the first to admit that her research simply puts scientific evidence behind all those times our parents told us to quit slouching and sit up straight. Those actions, and many others, work. They make us more present in the situation.

Then we can get on with the business of testing controls, submitting reports, and documenting evidence, with all that technology that’s crucial to compliance today. But the tech is still just a tool, and it won’t help a compliance officer succeed unless your interpersonal communications show that you believe in what you do.

See you next year

The other important piece of information from Friday morning: TEC 2017 will be in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand. This week has been informative and great fun, and I hope to be blogging about the 2017 conference in 12 months!

Matt Kelly

About the author

Matt Kelly is an independent compliance consultant who studies corporate compliance, governance, and risk management issues. He maintains a blog,, where he shares his thoughts on business issues and speaks on compliance, governance, and risk topics frequently. Kelly was named as "Rising Star of Corporate Governance" by the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance in the inaugural class of 2008 and named to Ethisphere’s "Most Influential in Business Ethics" list in 2011 (no. 91) and 2013 (no. 77). Kelly previously was editor of Compliance Week, a newsletter on corporate compliance, from 2006 through 2015. He lives in Boston, Mass., and can be reached at or on Twitter at @compliancememe.