Are you annoying?

Do you tell IT insider jokes that users don’t understand? Do you sprinkle technical jargon through discussions with business people? Do you find that you’ve usually got the right answer to any problem and you let everyone know it? If so, you may be something you didn’t think you were: annoying.

Everyone’s annoying some of the time, says Kimberly Alyn, a corporate trainer and co-author of Annoying People and Why You’re One of Them (Llumina Press, 2003). But annoying behaviour can have serious consequences in IT, where it can compromise your effectiveness, wreak havoc with projects and even derail your career.

Annoying behaviours are tricky because what annoys one person may sail by another. “You can say the same thing the same way to two people, and one person will say, ‘Damn, that’s annoying,’ and the other person will not think anything of it,” says Dan Bent, CIO at Benefit Systems Inc. in Indianapolis, an administrative services provider to health care plans.

But annoying behaviour in IT sends ripples through the whole business. Gary Langer, associate vice-president for academic technology at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, explains that when IT support people are annoying, “people lose confidence, and they just give up. They stop asking questions.”

Bent concurs. “You’re always communicating with other people, and if you’re annoying them, it reduces the likelihood your message will get across,” he says.

Projects may also suffer. Jackie Palmer, a senior product manager at CRM software maker E.piphany Inc. in San Mateo, Calif., tells of participating at a meeting for a large insurance company that involved implementing process change. “The only way to do it is get (users) to buy in themselves,” says Palmer. But a consultant at the meeting began to dictate what would happen. “The users became very combative,” she recalls. It took several weeks of meetings to resolve the issues, and the project fell behind schedule.

If you think that you can’t be annoying because you often work alone, think again. You still deal with people for support, advice and information, as well as to get a promotion, notes Gini Graham Scott, author of A Survival Guide for Working With Humans (Amacom, 2004).

For the worst offenders, the consequences of being annoying are potentially dire.

“Say someone comes to you and asks you a question today, and they find you annoying,” says Bent. “Maybe the next time, they’ll ask someone else. Soon people stop coming to you and asking you things, and you end up without a job.”

The IT niche

IT has its own annoying quirks. Langer says some IT people label users as neophytes and then blame them for any difficulties. “The user insists their e-mail doesn’t work, and the IT person says, ‘My e-mail works perfectly,’ and assumes the user is the problem. Users really find this annoying,” he says.

Some IT people are so sure they know what the problem is that they don’t even listen to the user, says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology in Menlo Park, Calif.

IT people expect users to always know what they want, and they can get exasperated when they don’t. “Business people have a right to change their minds, because the business changes,” says Ellen Gottesdiener, principal consultant at EBG Consulting in Carmel, Ind.

And IT folks often require the “right” decision, says Gerry McCartney, CIO at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia. “(They) have difficulty between shades of gray,” he says. “Sometimes there are a lot of ‘rightish’ answers,” and insisting that there’s just one can be annoying.

The cure

To be less annoying, take care with how you communicate technical concepts to non-technical people, says Lee. “It’s not only how good your code is or how well you can fix a computer, but how well you communicate,” she says. “That’s a skill set IT people have to have.”

Try to understand the type of person you’re dealing with, says Steve Smith, a technical business consultant in Seattle for storage maker EMC Corp. “If I’m dealing with a (non-intuitive) person, I need to put things in concrete language. This person doesn’t want abstractions.”

Try to understand the other person’s frame of reference, says Bent. And don’t make assumptions, adds Lee. Listen to what people have to say.

Ask for help. For example, if you have a tendency to blurt things out and interrupt people, tell your listeners they’d be helping you by pointing out every time you do that, recommends Naomi Karten at Karten Associates, a customer satisfaction consultant and seminar leader in Randolph, Mass.

Use peer reviews to help curb annoying habits, says Greg Walton, CIO at health care provider Carilion Health System in Roanoke, Va. “If (IT workers) are annoying customers, they’re probably annoying their peers,” he says. The peer reviews let everyone know who is being annoying and how.

Finally, realize that it’s occasionally OK to be annoying. “If you move your institution’s agenda forward and you have to irk someone to do so, it’s a good thing,” says McCartney. Just don’t do it without a good reason.

Clues for the clueless

The first step to being less annoying is to realize when you are annoying. Look for these clues in co-workers:

Body language

— Moving away

— Looking away

— Not paying attention

— Tensing up

Behavioural changes

— Cutting conversations short

— Coming late to meetings

— Sending cryptic e-mails

Horowitz is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City. Contact him at [email protected].

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