Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Removing the Emotion from IT

Every day as a CIO, I experience a range of emotions - great joy at watching my staff grow their skills, sadness when politics take time away from the fun work to be done, anxiety when the balance between IT supply and demand requires that I must say "not now" to a stakeholder request, and frustration when an unplanned project becomes a priority.

In my 25 years of leading people, one lesson I learn over and over is never to react with emotion to any of these events. How do I do it?

Although I am not a religious person, I use a variation of the idea from Ecclesiastes 3:1 (also set set to music in 1952 by Pete Seeger in his song 'Turn!, Turn!, Turn!') "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven".

The IT version is "To every thing there is a process which will resolve every problem under the heaven".

A conflict with a customer - try a kind email. If that does not work, meet face to face. If that does not work, ask your governance committees to consider the issue and develop a compromise that serves all stakeholders.

A conflict with an employee - try a kind email. If that does not work, meet face to face. If that does not work, involve HR.

A conflict with a colleague - try a kind email. If that does not work, go to lunch. If that does not work, escalate to senior management.

A conflict with senior management - try a kind email. If that does not work, meet face to face. If that does not work, ask the CEO. If that does not work, realize that eventually all senior managers move on and through kindness and the support of your stakeholders, you will outlast your naysayers.

Why is the life of a CIO filled with conflict and emotion? Demand for IT increases exponentially but IT budgets increase linearly (about 3-4% per year if you're lucky). Competition for resources creates conflict and conflict creates emotion.

Every day I receive hostile email, negative phone calls, and political challenges from various customers, employees, and colleagues. As I've said before, if I ever feel emotion, I "save as draft".

I always respond with a positive email, phone call or meeting suggesting a path forward.

If I were to ever respond emotionally, I would be burning bridges or giving my naysayers documentation to use against me. Healthcare is a small world. Healthcare IT is an even smaller world. The person who you alienate today may be your boss tomorrow. The person who you insult may be the decision maker on your next grant or promotion.

In a world of IM and Blackberry, we're all tempted to resolve complex issues with a few keystrokes. Generally that does not work. A supportive, positive email followed by a face to face meeting generally does work. Even if you feel the person emailing you is completely unreasonable, do not EVER react with emotion. It can only hurt you.

In addition to my credo that "to every thing there is a process", I also realize that time heals all conflict.

Can you even remember the problems that made you angry one year ago?

Are the people who caused the issue still around?

Does anyone remember the conflict and frustration?

Probably not. Will history record the masterful way you dealt with the conflict. Nope. If you reacted emotionally, will someone have a copy of that email filled with vitriol that you'd rather not see again. Absolutely.

It may take days or weeks to solve complex problems. An emotional email will only make the problem harder to solve.

Recognizing that solving complex problems will take several iterations, you need to accept the multi-step process needed to ensure you get a good outcome.

My previous blogs on related topics are helpful to removing the emotion from IT. See:

Management Lessons Learned as a Parent

Resolving Conflict
How to be a bad CIO
How to be a great boss
IT Governance

14 comments:

Rennasauce said...

What ever happened to com,on sense!?? Fantastic entry, John - and a great reminder! Thanks...

Connie at Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford

Robert said...

Your comments reminded me of numerous complaints that I received working on the vendor side of the business and trying to calm upset customers. Many times after the fixes were installed I was thanked for remaining calm myself and addressing the issue with the customer on what it will take to fix their problem. Many later thanked me for the solution fix and apologized for losing their temper. They also made improvement suggestions for us to consider that users may like for their systems. Forming a partnership with your customers is a great way to enhance their and your work environment.

Dennis Stevenson said...

John,
Great post. Great advice. One of those reads that reminds me to feel good inside.

I'm doing a lot of outsourcing management these days. I find that emotion works poorly there as well. It is so easy to develop attachments that don't serve the selection process. It is something I really have to guard against - or my job becomes even harder.

I shared some of my thoughts on that here: http://snurl.com/378ja

The same thing holds true when dealing with vendors and issues. Emotional outbursts tend to erode trust and bring confusion on top of the real issue.

Thanks for sharing.

dennis

Cascadia - Consultant said...

With a gentle tone of voice and kind regard for your thoughts, I suggest that it is only by including "emotion" that people change their behavior. So often we relegate "emotion" to those of anger or of being out of control (Have you ever watched the "emotion" at a football game by men who "aren't in touch with their feelings?") but emotion is a powerful agent for change. Can you imagine any really valuable relationship without "passion and emotion"?

Rather then "removing emotion from IT" or healthcare, I believe that it is our ability to model how to combine financial reality and organizational limitations with our empathy, kindness and compassion during stressful times that allows us to be more responsive to our patients, customers and community needs.

Sherry R

John Halamka said...

Very good comment about emotion v. passion v. anger. A more appropriate title for my blog would have been 'removing the angst from IT'.

Akshay said...

This an amazing post not only on business relations but also anger management. Anger requires an outlet and never should a human being on the receiving end. There are very few cases where this is warranted and they certainly don't fall in the day-to-day.

As you said, use technology as your punching bag. "Save as draft" on email, save and delete a Word file, privatize a heated post, whatever. If I am able, I exercise, which is the best release. Do jumping jacks!

Jason said...

Great post, John! This concept is all-to-often learned through trial and error, a point I remind myself of often. :)

Jason Burke @ SAS

pabmarc said...

interesting note. I am not religious either, but practice meditation via shambhala. They echo your comments "Make the obstacle your path"
:)

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