IT managers are aloof, insular, says psychologist

Organizational psychologist Billie Blair IT managers and their staffs are different from the rest of us.

They view the world in terms of “us against them” and see others in an organization as pests or threats to their IT universe, says Billie Blair , who holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and heads Change Strategist Inc., a Los Angeles-based management consulting firm.

Organizational psychologists have an understanding of management and psychology. They use that knowledge to help firms and organizations understand behaviors that can impinge on the ability to implement required changes, said Blair.

Blair also has the perspective of having once overseen an IT department as a former dean of the College of Psychology and Human Services at California State University.

Blair looks at the performance of an entire organization, including IT, and draws observations from that work.

IT managers see themselves as “reigning supreme,” says Blair, but they are also capable of having a dramatic impact. In an interview with Computerworld, she outlines various personnel and organizational issues facing IT executives.

Are IT managers different from other managers in an organization? IT managers are different than managers in the other parts of the organization, for the most part. They tend to adopt a persona of aloofness. They are different from the operations and sales folks. They feel themselves to be odd men out to start with, and they are. They perform a specific service that the organization can’t do without.

What makes IT managers different? Is it the type of job or the characteristics of the people it attracts? It is a little bit of both. It is the type of job, and clearly people choose their professions based on their proclivities, interests and natural inclinations. It’s the same thing with CFOs, or people in the financial accounting arena. In IT’s case, it is a love of things technical and they are typically very good at it. Mostly, in these days, people in those positions have been told since childhood that they were gifted in all things technical. They feel very comfortable in what they do. They have chosen their job because they like it a lot. I would tend to say that they love it. Technical jobs are an engagement with things rather than people, for the most part, and it’s that engagement with things which is what got them to the management level. Now, as managers, they have to deal in a whole new arena. With IT managers, within their group, their cadre of other IT folks, it’s pretty much an ‘us versus them’ approach. We are the gurus and the knowledgeable people and those other people are the ones that are always making demands and keeping us from doing our real jobs.

Do IT managers feel under siege? There are always demands. It’s sort of useful to look at the IT manager in the university setting. In the university, they are aloof because they know their area. But in the university setting there are lots of people that enter into that category, but still IT folks maintain a persona of aloofness. This is in a setting where everybody is a specialist and everybody has that giant ego. For the most part, they (IT professionals) get away with it. This sounds like I don’t like IT people – I actually really do and certainly respect their knowledge and ability. But it’s their attitude that gets them in trouble in organizational settings. It is (an attitude) that they know it all, and that everybody else is a fool, and all that everybody else does is just mess up their systems.

Do IT professionals have a problem explaining what it is that they bring to the business? For the most part, they don’t try to explain very much. That’s part of their problem. They just want people to bow to them as they come into the room. They are not talented in dealing with people. They don’t understand that in doing that they are generally being very off-putting to the person they are dealing with. It’s a matter of learning how to be part of an organization. Every time they are dealing with the rest of us they have very little patience.

Outside of the IT department, how are IT managers and their departments perceived? They are seen as difficult to get along with. The phrase you will hear most often is ‘difficult to get anything out of’ and that means, typically, services.

It sounds as if a lot of people try to avoid IT departments. True? Yes. They would if they could. That’s absolutely correct.

Isn’t that detrimental to the business and the IT department? It is detrimental to everybody actually because the IT folks have a lot to give. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge and they can solve problems. They have a lot of capability but most of that is hidden from the public (others in the company). They do themselves such a disservice by not engaging. Other workers in the organization generally don’t know their capabilities because they never allow them to be seen.

If you are someone who has to deal with the IT department, how do you get them off their high horse and deal with you as an equal? When I had the clout of a dean, I could force them off their high horse. In a university setting, deans carry a lot of clout. They knew what their (IT workers) bounds were in having to engage and being more reasonable. For the other part, when (IT and non- IT) employees are interacting, the best approach is to engage personally and try to learn about their interest, their family and set up a relationship. Unfortunately, because of the boundaries that are set up by IT folks, that takes more of an effort.

How do IT managers perceive themselves? They don’t get many people engaging with them at all. Because they don’t see any evidence to the contrary, they typically view themselves as reigning supreme in any organization.

What does it mean to ‘reign supreme’? It means whatever you say is gospel, and whatever you say that needs to be done is carried out by whomever, your superiors and your subordinates. There aren’t many hurdles to what you want to do and what you expect to do.

If IT managers have an Achilles’ heel, what is it? They isolate and insulate themselves from any outside world, the outside world being the rest of the organization, and they form these cadres where they are true to one another. That’s what brings them down every time; if they are brought down, it’s the arrogance combined with insularity.

Do CIOs have the same characteristics of IT managers? No, they don’t. They probably once, very long ago, started out that way, but anyone operating at the c-level has to be very agreeable with the CEO in order to stay in that elite group. C-level folks, who typically have been in their careers longer than IT managers, have learned a lot along the way. They have learned to deal very well with people and they have also learned to listen and adapt to what they hear.

Can’t CIOs smooth out and mitigate some of the worst behaviors of IT workers? Yes. Whether they do or not is part of the reason we’re in organizations. CIOs do have that responsibility, but it takes more work on people who are not keen on developing great people skills and see it as a badge of honor or courage when they don’t. CIOs must make their choices, whether to spend a lot of time developing their people for the human side of things, or devote their time to being the advisor on things technical to the corporation itself.

Is the CIO treated by lower level IT managers as one of the ‘others’ in the organization? Yes, it’s sort of like the one who has gone over to the dark side.

IT is under constant pressure to move to lower cost platforms, which puts some under threat of job loss. How does the human impact of a platform shift play in an IT manager’s decision making? If the men and women in IT can get out of their ‘us against them’ mentality, they can manage to overcome that particular threat. The IT manager is going to protect his team of folks. It will likely make them (IT managers) initially more reluctant to embrace those shifts, cloud computing being one. More often than not the CIO will go to bat for his people to try to retain them.

Is that any different than other department in that respect? Yes and no. All departments form affiliations, and that’s what I’m describing and that’s why there is resistance to changes in the IT area, but the IT department forms stronger affiliations. If you have any knowledge of the Marine Corps and their esprit de corps, it’s that sort of thing translated into the corporate world. And that’s a standard deviation different from the esprit de corps among typical employees and their departments.

If you were to suggest a 12-step program to help IT managers change their behavior, what would be included? IT managers are generally very bright people and in order to make any behavioral change, the individual has to understand why that change is needed and has to want it to happen. Because IT folks are numbers, technically driven people, we lay out the data for them. It could be any of the management assessments that look at, in very real terms, the anonymous feedback that’s given on their performance as managers. We often start that way and we ask them to react to that very real data, and we begin to slowly work through the engagement process where the person comes to want to do something differently.

Would that assessment data show IT managers that they are seen as aloof? Yes, or something like that. When one is dealing with a person who has great capability, very real great capabilities, and believes in those capabilities, they are going to have an ego that supports that. We have to present a realistic view of the person, not to destroy them but to cause them to take pause in what they are doing.

What kind of reactions do you see after presenting the data to IT managers? First, it is usually anger, and often anger at us, and disbelief. But then we continue to talk. We try to do it in a technical way. They are always engaged, as I say, by data. We try to have, as well, performance data about the organization in and of itself and where it is trying to go. We sort of engage and come to an understanding that we are all in this together. When we talked about the arrogance and insularity (of IT managers) what that really means is that they are not a team player necessarily. When I talk about them not being a team player, it sort of sounds as if they haven’t done anything at all to support the organization, and I certainly don’t mean that at all. They do. But as far as really allowing the organization to work in its very best way, they have to become a team player.

What are the characteristics of an ideal IT manager? It’s the same as for any other manager. The person is perceptive. They are willing to hear what others have to say. They are willing to be a participant in the goals of the organization.

IT managers are technically astute, smart, and aren’t intimidated by statistics or raw data. If people with these attributes do become fully participating members of an organization, a business, what impact could they have?

Dramatic. Absolutely dramatic. Think in terms of Steve Jobs and the things he was able to do in his company. The IT folks have the capability of doing similar things and making similar kinds of contributions in their companies. So much of their life is hidden under a bushel because they don’t discuss things, they don’t divulge what they know, and the innovation that comes from that process doesn’t happen, therefore, in the organization.

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