A couple of weeks ago, I did several media interviews about the Code Red worm. While most of the questions were focused on explaining the worm, what it could do, and how you could protect your network, I was struck by the underlying attitude of a couple of the interviewers.

Drilling down on the fact that a Microsoft patch eliminates the vulnerability, they asked leading questions, such as: “Basically, this whole thing is due to the incompetence of some network administrators, isn’t it?” or “So, what you’re saying is that if the IT guys would do their jobs, we wouldn’t have this mess, right?” They ignored my protestations that those questions represented a simplistic way to view this problem.

The experience confirmed a suspicion that I’ve had for some time. Within most organizations, there is some real (if submerged) resentment toward the IT staff. Far from sympathizing with your group’s difficulties, some people are secretly enjoying them. In this column, I’ll look at some of the reasons this attitude exists and what you can do to minimize its effects.

The persistence of human nature
This phenomenon of taking pleasure in the misfortune of others isn’t new. In fact, the Germans have a word for it: schadenfreude. (In case you’re curious, it’s a compound word: schaden [harm] + freude [joy].)

It’s not only the Germans, of course. I remember seeing old photos of my father serving on an aircraft carrier and asking why someone had painted vultures on the turret overlooking the flight deck where my dad was standing. He replied that while no one would admit it, part of the attraction of watching flight operations on a carrier was the knowledge that it was a very dangerous job, and any kind of mistake could cause a catastrophic accident.

Maybe it’s the same instinct that causes us to slow down and rubberneck on the expressway when we’re driving past an accident. I don’t know.

Some reasons for resentment
On top of this general tendency, I think there are some specific reasons that may cause others to resent the IT organization. Please note that I’m not saying that these are legitimate reasons, just that they exist. Remember that when it comes to other people’s feelings and opinions, logic and reason don’t always apply. (Not that we always operate with Vulcan-like detachment ourselves, of course.) Here are some of the factors that could be driving resentment of IT pros at your organization:

  • IT pros make good money: This has to top the list. Compared to just about any other department in most companies, the IT staff makes more money.
  • IT salaries have been rising more quickly: This is related to, but separate from, the previous point. Not only do IT pros make more than most other folks, but their salaries have been rising much more quickly than other professions. Over the last few years, the gap has been widening rapidly.
  • IT has been grabbing a larger share of company investment: Since more and more organizations view technology as a strategic advantage, it’s no surprise that IT spending has grown much more rapidly than other types of capital investment over the last decade.
  • Other departments are more dependent on IT: It wasn’t too long ago that most people viewed the IT staff as the people who ministered to the mainframe—you know, nerds who didn’t really affect the rest of the business. Today, of course, IT pros are at the forefront of just about every major new organizational initiative. Few department leaders can succeed without hardware or software supported by the IT group. Such dependency breeds resentment.
  • Perceived arrogance: Again, I’m not saying that it’s deserved, but many IT groups are viewed by outsiders as arrogant and aloof from the rest of the company.
  • Y2K fallout: I know this sounds pretty tenuous, but I think the Year 2000 millennium bug scare hurt the credibility of IT professionals. The Y2K issue received so much attention in the mainstream press, and demanded so much spending by organizations racing to become compliant before the changeover, that a backlash was inevitable. When the clock rolled over to 2000 and the predicted chaos failed to materialize, it made people cynical about technology pronouncements.

What you can do to minimize the problem
What can IT managers do to overcome this resentment? For openers, recognize that there are some issues you really have to leave alone. Take compensation, for example. You can spend your time trying to convince others that you deserve to make more money than they do, but I don’t think you’ll make much headway. Here are some more practical suggestions:

  • Make sure your help desk is helpful. This might seem like a strange place to start, but for many non-IT personnel, the Help Desk and end-user support folks are the public face of your IT department. Believe it or not, but I once worked for a company where the president’s view of the IT staff was poisoned solely by the difficulties they had supporting his laptop.
  • Cut down on the jargon. I think part of what others perceive as arrogance or condescension by IT pros is the use of jargon, terms, and abbreviations that exclude outsiders. If you have to explain a technical issue to a nontechnical person, do so in a language they understand—without talking down to them, of course.
  • Keep them in the loop. Since so many departments are dependent on your group to achieve their goals, make an extra effort to communicate with each of them about developments that affect their operations.
  • Walk through project budgets. It’s surprising to me how many IT managers don’t provide cost breakdowns for technology projects they complete on behalf of other departments. While you don’t want other managers to micromanage your spending, it’s important for them to understand how much money you need and why.

None of these suggestions will eliminate the problem of schadenfreude, but they should help reduce the inevitable tensions that exist between the IT group and their internal clients.

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We’re talking about the perception people have about your IT department and how you can mitigate the resentment held by some coworkers. Join the discussion by posting your comments below. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a nifty TechRepublic coffee mug.