Three IT behavior patterns seen in the wild

Assumed Omniscience, Chooser’s Remorse, and Fixation

With all due respect to the many fine folks I’ve worked with in the career I’ve spent decades pursuing: we IT types can be an idiosyncratic, even odd, bunch.  That’s actually well known to us all, and it generally makes great fodder for this blog.

I find the sociology of the profession—how people interact with one another—as fascinating as everything else about it.  Here are three interesting behavioral syndromes I’ve observed over the many years of IT projects and teams I’ve been a part of. And as with most of my observations of this nature, I’m not presenting them from “on high”: no, I’ve been at times as susceptible to these behaviors as anyone. They’re common, and easy to fall into, but all of them are things I strive to avoid. And all of them have a common thread, as you will see.

First: Assumed Omniscience
I’ve retitled the standard name for this syndrome: the usual term for it is actually “Male Answer Syndrome”, which UrbanDictionary.com defines as “the tendency, especially among males, to make educated (?) guesses about subjects and present them as fact.” Well, in my experience among IT professionals, it’s hardly limited to males. It’s unfortunately common for many IT people, of either gender, to venture assured-sounding explanations based on little more than a desire to appear knowledgeable. I remember early in my career hearing one peer explain, with no factual basis for his theory, why his document hadn’t come off the printer yet: “That printer is obviously getting a lot of erroneous packet hits lately.”

Whether it’s a suddenly contrived explanation of why something isn’t working or the delivery of a detailed but basically invented treatise on the technical underpinnings of a new device, it seems that it’s easy to find people in IT who just don’t like to use the phrase, “I don’t know.”  Or even to couch it as, “here’s one possible theory.”  Instead, out comes a categorical statement of “here’s what explains this.”  Assumed Omniscience. As a peer, or especially as a manager of people who are subject to this syndrome, it’s important to be wary of this. It never hurts to constantly reinforce that the work culture needs to be one where facts reign, and where theories are clearly identified as such.

Second: Chooser’s Remorse
In business in general, not to mention frequently in the case of IT, it seems that we often encounter situations where there is no ideal solution.  After copious brainstorming, the group wrestling with such a situation usually figures out several different approaches to the problem, and debates these at length, carefully identifying pros and cons.  Each of the identified solutions has definite downsides, usually; none is obviously superior and thus the clear approach to choose. Each approach has its adherents and detractors among the group of influencers / decision-makers. All this is normal, and common.

But of course, the choice among these alternatives needs to be made eventually, and when it is, what often happens? The very people who participated in the selection proceed to complain loudly and incessantly about the downsides of the chosen alternative. Chooser’s Remorse, I call it. And yes, this occurs despite the group having (supposedly) picked the least onerous or distasteful of the several possibilities, and despite going through endless discussion of all of them prior to the selection.  Instead of people remembering that the choice represented the “least bad” alternative, they turn and harp about how awful it is.

And, just as the Assumed Omniscience syndrome isn’t limited to males, Chooser’s Remorse isn’t limited to IT people.  We all do it. Perhaps it’s human nature, and perhaps it just comes out extra often in IT circles because of having to make frequent tough choices among not-so-great alternatives.

I’ve found it useful to remind people, as the choice of the “least awful among the bad alternatives” is made, that we’ve identified its downsides and are choosing it anyway.  And that whining about the downsides later will be both ridiculous and counter-productive. Let facts prevail over emotion.

Third: Fixation
According to historical sources, a Roman statesman named Cato The Elder became known for ending every single one of his speeches, no matter what the subject, with some variation of the phraseCarthago delenda est: “Carthage must be destroyed”.

And this relates to IT, um, how?  Well, I’ve seen exactly this sort of fixation appear in our world time and again. Whether it’s a zealous advocacy of a particular development methodology, a vocal fanboyism towards this or that vendor, or an unwavering devotion to a language or technology over all others: all of these affect people’s business judgment and undermine a necessary professional impartiality.  No matter what the topic of discussion in a meeting, I’ve seen such fixations crop up, via sudden declarations not much different in nature to inserting a sudden and unrelated “Carthago delenda est” into one’s casual remarks.

I was a new VP of IT once for a group that experienced a great success with a software rollout shortly after my arrival. I proposed to my operations manager that we have a team outing to Starbucks to celebrate. (Yes, call me a party animal). “Oh, no,” he said. “My guys won’t go to Starbucks.”  Hmm, I said. They don’t like Starbucks’ coffee? “No,” he explained.  “Starbucks announced a big corporate deal with Microsoft recently, and my team won’t have anything to do with Microsoft.”  Fixation.  Emotion reigning over facts, once again.

We all bring our biases and predilections to work with us every day, but all of us can work on purposefully leaving these behind as much as we can, and, again, letting facts rule the day. Other than a healthy drive towards high quality work, and integrity and kindness in our interactions with others, we should allow nothing to become a fixation for us.

There you have it: three syndromes, three IT behavior patterns seen in the wild.  Any of them sound familiar to you, too?

Comments

  1. All three behaviors resonated with me indeed! As I was reading, one behavior kept coming to mind that I think is a blend of the all three. It probably could have a catchier name than “the other guy’s stuff is junk”, but it revolves around the notion that the technology I am familiar with is flawless and blameless where as all the technology around me that I am not familiar with is inferior and thus a target for blame. It seems to reflect an emotional attachment to familiar versus unfamiliar technology. It seems to be very prevalent in n-tier technology. “My Java application code is running fine, it must be that middleware messaging system that is broke”. Or, “My web services are passing transactions just fine, it must be that security product that is junk.” The words escape me, but these flippant statements reflect a deeper internal emotional loathing for the unfamiliar technology integrated/dependant on the technology of which one has comfort. The theme is familiar, avoid emotion and focus on facts.

    Very interesting and thought provoking post!

  2. Yes, indeed, that’s a good one, and it’s one that seems to occur almost everywhere in just the manner you describe. In its older incarnation, it was “hardware people blame the software and vice versa.” Excellent contribution to the discussion; thank you, John!

  3. I’ll respectfully disagree with the first two, but agree on the third.

    In my experience, saying “I don’t know”, or “It could be that…” causes many a manager to question your competency. “What do you mean you don’t know? Aren’t you the IT guy? What do I pay you for?”, is the reaction I usually receive. Managers want answers, not speculation, and are seldom satisfied with less. Anything near a ‘guess’ makes you look incompetent.

    Also, in my experience, being in favor of the best of a series of bad choices means you were in favor of a bad choice. Remember that in IT, your reward for hard work is *quiet*. How many of us hear from our bosses when we’re doing well? Few, if any, I suspect. So all you’re going to hear about is the downsides of a particular choice. Distancing yourself from that, (by complaining about the downsides), is unfortunately necessary self defense.

    I would like to say that these experiences were the result of one or two positions I’ve held, but they’re pretty much across the board.

    jfbauer – Excellent point. I deal with that a lot. I think most of the time it comes from a lack of understanding of how interdependent different technologies are. In my case, as a DBA, I frequently have debates with both Development and SAN people, because we don’t spend enough time explaining to each other how our given areas *relate* to each other. Finger pointing ensues. 🙂

    Good post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Spot on. Thanks for sharing!

  5. @dmmaxwell, I do understand your perspective, because I’ve seen it time and time again (in myself as well as others). However, I’ve come to the view that glib answers eventually backfire, when an explanation that’s been advanced with complete assurance turns out to be dead wrong. I’ve also heard people equate that kind of ready answer (lacking facts) with everything they DON’T like about working with IT folks—even more so than the tendency to spout jargon. As for having been “in favor of a bad choice”? Remember, the scenario I was describing is one where there’s no good choice—because if there were, there wouldn’t be much of a discussion at all. It’s actually a team-undermining situation when people who’ve participated in choosing among the set of alternatives continue to grouse about the downside of the choice, even though they’ve helped pick it! It’s kind of an arms-length attitude, indicating that the person isn’t fully on board to make things come out as best as can happen under the circumstances. That’s my stance, anyway.

    Either way, it falls back on leadership. If the CIO (and peers) doesn’t insist on facts ruling the day over emotions, red-faced argumentation, and easy glib answers, it creates a culture where those things are bound to happen, where people feel that they’ll be viewed as “incompetent” unless they come up with an instant explanation, or where they feel like they have to constantly play “Eeyore” as a CYA move, rather than get on board and get things moving. Creating the necessary culture to counteract those natural self-defensive tendencies is the most critical thing a leader can do.

    Thanks for commenting and providing your perspective.

  6. Your thoughts really hit home for me. I have worked my entire career hearing techs use the go to response of “F-ing Microsoft” when things don’t work or they don’t understand why it doesn’t work. I’m not coming to Microsoft’s defense, but I’ve seen project meetings get derailed because team members insist on making statements instead of contributing.

    I’ve put together teams in the past for large rollouts that they asked to be apart of only to then be outspoken of their dislike of the technology and/or companies during the project. I just try to remind them they shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds…

    Great post Peter. Cheers!

  7. I think much of dmmaxwell was talking about comes from business people and managers being more “people persons” than analytical. Techs can hardly help going over the possibilities, it’s what makes them great techs. It would do much good for IT managers everywhere to learn what motivates the technical mind and how it works.

    I think for the most part technical people find management more like politicians. Profit vs. challenge, the age old question that I may never see solved in my lifetime.

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