Preventing Negativity in the IT Support Culture

It can be easy to become jaded as an IT support professional. It starts by finding yourself in a negative headspace - particularly on "those" days when stress levels are already be running high. You know what I mean. Your (hopefully) inner voice responds to support requests with gems like "what's he doing now?", or "Seriously? Again?". We've all been there. We all know some users that, upon the bits and bytes of their email cramming themselves into our already over-bloated mailboxes, cause an instant rise of internal temperature...

This, in most cases, is a natural and understandable response. It's certainly the easiest response. It should be obvious, though, that it is not only entirely unacceptable in a professional work environment, but utterly destructive to the organization.

Why is this so important? Because negativity spreads like a contagion. This is especially so when it originates in departmental (and organizational) leadership where your staff see a free ticket to replicate the behaviour. Faster than you could ever think, your entire IT department will be infected with an attitude that ingrains itself in the departmental culture and can detriment the forward momentum and productivity of the entire company and, in some cases, can only be solved by a "restructuring" of the department...

As an IT leader, it is imperative that you lead by example and prevent the destructive seeds of negativity from ever being planted. How? Let's look at some simple steps to help.

1. Identify & Acknowledge the Negative Response

First, identify the feeling of negativity - this usually prevents itself in the form of anger. This may seem bizarre, but it's incredibly important and sometimes weirdly difficult to be truly aware of your own emotional responses. As Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you own your responses to emotional stimuli, and gaining control over them starts with identifying the response you are dealing with, and acknowledging it.

The latter simply means accepting that initial response - accepting that flash of anger - and recognizing it for what it is. Once you have done that, you gain the choice to control it and, therefore, change it.

2. Throw Out Any Bias & Pre-Formed Conclusions

Biases sneak in to our thinking quickly. We're quick to develop conclusions - often inaccurate - as to what the users might be doing. These are generally not positive, and often cause a needless buildup of frustration that is entirely unproductive.

Throw them out. Hit the reset button on your thinking. Focus on gathering the facts and focus your thinking on those facts and applying basic troubleshooting skills to them. Make the decision to provide outstanding service to that user - focus on helping them.

3. Be Excellent

You should always aim for excellence in your IT department. Think of the best service you have ever received. It might be hard. It's rare to receive truly great service. Part of the reason is that it's intangible, subjective and really hard to provide. However, there are a few key guidelines you can follow that form the foundation of your service delivery:

  • Empathise with your users. Why might this particular user be so frustrated? Are they under extreme time pressure? Have they been put through the ringer lately? Or, have you actually delivered crummy service to this user, and their anger is venting? Whatever it is, you would probably be frustrated too. Assume the position of truly helping the user - not just rectifying a technical glitch. If they are venting, hear them. Let them know you're genuinely there to help.
  • Be honest. If you don't know the answer to something, or you don't know how to fix something, be open with the user. Tell them you're going to do everything you can to figure it out, but you don't have the answer right now. On the other hand, if the issue they are experiencing is due to your error ("your" meaning the IT Department's), own it, and tell them it's on you. They may not show it, but they will empathise with you - we all make mistakes.
  • They may not always want to learn, and it may not always be appropriate, but where it is, aim to educate your users. Learning something is always fun, and so is teaching. Your enthusiasm and passion will naturally broadcast, and the user will pick up on it.
  • Communicate! Don't flood them with technical jargon - if you truly understand something you will be able to explain it in layman's terms. If you aren't able to do that, work to understand what you obviously don't. Follow up with your users after a support call - twice, three times, in a month. Drop by their desk and check in with them too. Whatever! You cannot go over the top. They will feel cared for, and it prevents any negativity towards IT gestating without you knowing.

4. Learn & Develop

Use every support call as a learning experience. If it went badly, what could have been done differently? If it went well, what could have been done better? And don't just think about it. Document it. Document your support processes and develop standards to constantly improve. Setting standards will benchmark the quality of service your support staff are required to provide.

The role of the IT department is always - always - a support role. Support of the business and its organizational objectives. It is critical to remember this, and delivering excellent service in the helpdesk or generalized support realm is critical to developing the momentum the IT department needs to move those objectives forward within a constructive and cooperative culture. Following these steps will help you, as an IT leader, build that culture. You will set the standard for your IT department.

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