Understanding EI can help preserve IT

After a significant number of reworks requested by his reviewer, an emotionally depleted IT analyst eventually threw the binder containing his work in his colleague’s face. There were no casualties, but the analyst was sent for an anger management course while the reviewer resigned not long after the incident.

All this was happening at roughly the same time author Daniel Goleman was making a name for himself (Emotional Intelligence, 1995 and Working with Emotional Intelligence, 1998) by explaining to the world that, when it comes to achieving career success, EI has a larger role to play than IQ (Intelligence Quotient).

But how does this play in IT, a field perceived to be very much IQ territory? While a lot has been written about EI, literature dealing specifically with the impact of EI in IT is not abundant. Eugene Kaluzniacky, a Canadian researcher at the University of Manitoba, fills this void with his 2004 book, Managing Psychological Factors in Information Systems Work. He argues that a statistically significant percentage of IT workers belong to the ISTJ personality type: Introverted (as opposed to extroverted), Sensing (as opposed to intuitive), Thinking (as opposed to feeling), Judging (as opposed to perceiving).

These types were well-suited for work in the “mainframe ivory tower,” when most IT staff were dedicated exclusively to technical and operational tasks. But the nature of IT work has changed dramatically since those days. IT is now a global, networked, business-centered and technologically heterogeneous environment. This evolution, which still unfolds, may pose emotional problems for IT workers.

These problems often go undetected and unacknowledged, only to surface eventually as stress and burn-out, which are known to have plagued the profession, especially in recent years. Central to EI are competencies such as awareness of one’s feelings, ability to deal with those feelings in a constructive manner, empathy, adaptability to change and learned optimism. All these enable an individual to deal with pressure, stress and uncertainly in the workplace.

The need for structure, the idea of being in control, and the sense of one’s professional competency are characteristics of many IT workers, values that define them. More than in other fields, in IT these values are challenged today by the constant changes in technology and by business pressures.

In IT analysis, management and sales, the importance of EI competencies such as listening skills, persuasion or influencing is self-evident. But emotions also play a role for those in technical positions. Feelings of frustration and anger could be very strong at times. It is known that negative emotions can block the intellect. The stereotype of a programmer banging repeatedly at a key when the computer refuses to perform according to expectation easily comes to mind.

IT workers in helpdesk positions are another category of IT workers for whom EI is paramount. Before they can tackle the technical trouble that prompted the call, they have to deal not only with their own occasional negative feelings but also with those of angry callers.

IT support workers who have to respond to cascading crises must have a great deal of control over their emotions. Not anyone is able to perform those roles, even if they posses the required technical skills.

The cost of EI mishaps is not often recognized, although it impacts an organization’s bottom line through missed deadlines, lost opportunities, system failures or conflicts in the workplace. It is also a well-known fact that the vast majority of IT project failures are not due to technical problems but to human problems. The latter could be minimized by paying attention to EI matters. One particularly promising area is matching the psychological profile of IT people to the type of IT work they do.

There is currently little preoccupation with EI in IT. Nevertheless, soft skills in IT are gaining a lot of visibility. This is a good starting point for a voyage of self-discovery and will go a long way towards one’s safe and emotionally sane career in IT.

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Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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