Make or break: The IT professional's attitude

"The people in the IT department make me feel stupid."  As an IT leader, how many times have you heard similar phrases uttered by your end users?  Now, looking into your department, how many opportunites have you or your staff members given end users to formulate this opinion about your group?  Think about the following:

  •  In IT staff meetings, how often do you use the words "stupid" or "idiot" with regard to an end user who had a particular problem?
  • When sending out notices to your users, how often have you simply sent a message without translating it from technobabble to English (or your users' native language, of course)?
  • In meetings with people from outside the IT department, how often do you use technobabble rather than a language understandable to your audience?

Now, I'll be the first one to admit that I get frustrated sometimes by the things that people do.  And, I will also admit that, earlier on in my career, I didn't always make the right choice with regard to describing end-user situations.  But, it's IT's (along with the tech industry as a whole) general attitude regarding users that damages our reputation and makes us a group to be avoided, instead of invited to help make things better.

"Stupid" Users

Here's a timely example of what I'm talking about.  A message from a significant industry publication with the following subject line just hit my inbox 10 minutes ago:  "Dumb users strain security efforts."  In the linked article, there is the following text: "You're only as secure as your most idiotic end user."  In the article, a security industry analyst indicates that "people are just going to be stupid" in his explanation of why enhanced end-user security education is not worth the effort.

To be fair, I completely understand the point of the article and even agree with everything they're saying!  End users have been, and continue to be, the most significant weak link when it comes to security efforts.  However, in most cases, end-users are neither dumb nor are they stupid.  They may be misinformed.  They may not have an appreciation or understanding of the significant problems created by their actions.

Now, some of you may think I'm playing semantics here and, to a point, I am.  But, I believe that these kinds of descriptions of end users and their behaviors are extraordinarily detrimental to the overall operation of the IT organization.  Every time someone we support hears, either from us or one of our industry groups, that end users are stupid, dumb or idiotic, the perception of IT arrogance is perpetuated.

And, think about what you're saying.  Are your users really stupid?  Take your CFO, or the person that does accounts payable/payroll or, in the case of my organization, the people teaching physics, chemistry or biology.  If these people don't have a high level of technical ability, are they really stupid?  No... they simply have a different skill set.  It's extremely important to make that distinction.  Could you do their job?  No?  Does that make you stupid, too?

Of course, these days, almost everyone needs at least some level of proficiency with technology, but before you utter the word "stupid" or something similar, think about things from their perspective, too.


"Last night, we rerouted the IP network around the problem, resulting in an output increase of 14,700 millicochrans."  Ok... you wouldn't really say that since it makes no sense whatsoever, right?  But, does what you're saying to your users sound pretty much like gibberish?  If you're saying things like "SQL died" or "the WES module suffered a power hit" or "we had a routing loop because some idiot plugged in a Linksys" then you are spouting gibberish to most people!  And, of course, you used the word idiot.

I wrote in my previous posting about the great need for IT pros to learn to communicate effectively.  This doesn't just mean "send out more emails."  It means that IT pros, from the CIO to the student intern, need to learn to write and speak using language that makes sense to people without being condescending.  And, it is possible and really not that hard to do!  As you're sending a message out regarding an upgrade, look at it and ask yourself, "What is xxx going to think when he reads this message?"  If your answer is "he'll have no idea what this means" then it's time to rewrite either the whole mesage or portions thereof.

Failing in basic communication (remember, the word communication implies an understanding about the message) results in a failure for the whole group.  When reasonable people in your organization simply don't understand what's being said by the IT group, there is a lack of trust and alignment taking place, meaning that the IT group is not being used to its fullest.  And, it also helps to perpetuate the myth that the IT pro is some kind of arrogant, out of touch person.

What to do

Here are some steps I recommend for every IT leader:

  • Ban the use of negative words and phrases regarding end users, at least in a public forum such as a staff meeting.  In private, you sometimes have to let people vent, but in private, someone's emotions aren't necessarily poisioning the rest of the group.
  • If you aren't a good writer or speaker, become one!  Get a book on the subject, take a class, get a coach, join ToastMasters, whatever it takes for you, the IT leader, to be able to effectively communicate complex problems and solutions to the rest of the organization.
  • Insist that your staff treat end-users with respect, not condescendence.  I didn't talk a lot about mistreatment of end users, but I do, from time to time, get complaints from end users indicating that they might have had a negative encounter with one of my staff.  Get both sides of the story, of course, but don't tolerate an attitude of condescendence toward end users.