Business Tech: A Seat at the Table: Improving the IT Image
When we get our seat at the table, we need to work to keep that seat. It isn't an ending, a successful conclusion. It's the start of a next phase.
In the late '80s I ran an entertainment company. One of my part-timers was friendly with Rob, my primary connection into the company which contracted our services. Feeling bored one day, the part-timer left a voicemail on my primary's work phone which was just the chorus of Hey Jude sung as Hey Dude. It was three minutes long.
I wasn't upset because Rob wasn't. Please take that lesson. My reaction had nothing to do with my opinion of what he did. It had to do with whether or not the behavior embarrassed the business. Many times, what IT finds funny is also what other people in the company find funny. That doesn't make it okay in a corporate setting. We have to understand the role of image in communication.
I was working with a customer service staffer who saw a meaningful error in the in-bound data. In a show of solidarity, when he called the source company, he told the other person an everyone-makes-mistakes story about one of his own screw-ups.
This was a good bit of customer service, in that it took the pressure off of the person making the error. However, it was a tactical disaster. You see, calls may be recorded for quality assurance and my co-worker had just documented an error we'd made by telling that story on a recorded line. Because he was trying to make the other guy feel better, he omitted the part about us catching and correcting our error.
When we communicate, we have to consider the secondary audience. What I tell Alice at the client's call center might get repeated to her boss. What I share with Nick in the break room might get retold to my company's owner. Always know your audience and try to predict their audience.
Dogs Playing Poker
I've worked in a number of different shops, both as a consultant and as an employee. In one shop, my boss gave me a long list of verbal instructions on how to resolve a problem he thought I was familiar with in the accounting system. I responded by sending him a picture of a dog sitting behind a small pile of poker chips with the caption "I have no idea what I'm doing."
He laughed, we talked about the problem in more detail, and I was able to solve it. In today's environment, just the fact that I went online on a company computer to get the meme of the dog, that's a violation of policy in many companies. And, with a different boss, my admission of not knowing could have been treated as a general confession of ineptitude. I knew my audience and I knew it wouldn't be presented out of context to a larger audience. Despite that, what I got away with that one time would not fly today.
The fear of legal problems is progressively robbing the workplace of it's sense of humor. Decreasing staff sizes are making companies hyper-focused on non-productive actions.
I had a boss that liked to pick fights with is staff. He once called me out, several times, in a meeting over things on my open list that should have only taken fifteen minutes to complete. Technically, he was correct in that some of them had fifteen minute solutions. There were a lot of ways I could have responded. The key was that there were dozens of open items because of positions lost within the department which he had elected to not replace. I could have blown it back on him.
Instead, I did a quick cost-benefit response, showing all the places that time was spent and asserting that this was the best use of the hours available. When I was done, we both knew I had blamed him for the size of the workload but I had done it in a way that didn't leave him a fight to pick with me. It was a tightrope walk. Ultimately, it was one of the final straws that convinced me to leave for other employment.
Blowing up might have felt good in the moment but remaining calm allowed me to control when I left the company. Even my letter of resignation was tempered. It was a good thing, too. The company brought me back twice after that to do consulting.
Does this mean I park my humor at the door before arriving in the office? No. Does it mean that I second guess every funny thing before I say it? Yes. I've actually been referred to, and not necessarily as a compliment, as the conscience of my department.
It is possible to still use a light tone at work. It is not a terrible thing that I might spend five minutes talking Anime to a co-worker. And, in what will seem the most unfair, there are people outside of IT who can get away with comments we can't.
Remember that we are fighting a perception. Just as the first <fill in the blank with any minority> to do a particular job has extra pressure to do it right, we are under pressure created by our stereotype. It isn't fair but that doesn't make it less true.