Are Personality Issues Leading to Anxiety and Dysfunctional Ops?


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.


The root cause of bad service may have much to do with a personality trait known as anxiety and the often-dysfunctional defense mechanisms people resort to in an attempt to deal with its discomfort. If you want your IT operations group to be successful, then you need to consider the personality issues—at both the individual and group levels—that may impact their performance and your success.

As software professionals, we might find ourselves calling a help desk from time to time. Our needs may be as simple as dealing with a malfunctioning cell phone or as complex as navigating banking or investment systems. The last time you called a help desk, you may have been pleased with the outcome or disappointed in the service provided. The last time I called a help desk, I found myself trying to navigate what was obviously a dysfunctional organization. While the ITIL framework provides guidance on establishing an effective service desk, many organizations still struggle to provide excellent service. The root cause may have much to do with a personality trait known as anxiety and the often-dysfunctional defense mechanisms people resort to in an attempt to deal with its discomfort. If you want your IT operations (IT Ops) group to be successful, then you need to consider the personality issues at the individual as well as group levels that may impact their performance and your success.

In order for you to understand a dysfunctional help desk, you need to know the personality traits that lead to the negative behaviors preventing you from receiving good service. Often, callers experience frustration and anger  when they find themselves unable to elicit the response that they desire. Sometimes IT Ops professionals provide less than perfect service and support because they just don't know how to solve the problem, and they lack the training and expertise needed to be effective and successful in their jobs. If you are frustrated as a customer, imagine how stressful it is for the support person who cannot successfully handle your request or the IT Ops professional who lacks the necessary technical expertise required to solve the problem. When your job is on the line, you may indeed feel extreme anxiety.

Anxiety is defined as an emotional state in which there is a vague, generalized feeling of fear [1]. Operations staff often find themselves under extreme stress and anxiety, especially when dealing with a systems outage. Some folks handle stress well, while others engage in disruptive behavior that may be as simple as blaming others for the outage or as complex as avoidance behaviors that could potentially impact the organization. Psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud discussed many defense mechanisms that people often employ to deal with and reduce anxiety, and he conceptualized that many people develop behavior problems when they have difficulties learning[1]. We often see this phenomena being triggered when employees are required to complete tasks for which they have not been properly prepared. IT Ops team members must learn a considerable amount of information in order to understand how to support complex systems and deal with technology challenges that often arise when they face a critical systems outage.

Developers are often at an advantage because they get to learn new technologies first and sometimes get to choose the technical architecture and direction of a project. However, IT Ops team members must struggle with getting up to speed, and they are wholly dependent upon the information that they are given during the stage in which the technology transitions from development to operations. This knowledge transfer effort impacts the entire support organization. Organizations which fail to implement adequate knowledge transfer processes will have support personnel who are ill-equipped to handle situations which depend on familiarity and competence with the knowledge base.

American psychologist Harry Harlow proposed that a relationship exists between the evolutionary level of a species and the rate at which members of that species are able to learn [1]. Similarly, an organization's ability to transfer knowledge is an indication of how it will successfully deal with supporting complex technologies. The entire team may be adversely impacted when an organization cannot manage its essential institutional knowledge. As Jurgen Appelo notes, “knowledge is built from the continuous input of information from the environment in the form of education and learning, requests and requirements, measurements and feedback, and the steady accumulation of experience. In short, a software team is the kind of system that consumes and transforms information and produces innovation” [2]. 

All this means that development and operations must share knowledge in order for the organization to be successful. Quality management expert W. Edwards Deming, aptly noted that it is essential to “drive out fear” [3]. To remove fear and anxiety from the work environment, all members need the knowledge and skills to be able to perform their duties. Technology professionals cannot function optimally when they are not adequately trained and informed. Successful organizations reduce anxiety by properly training their teams and establishing a culture of knowledge and excellence.


[1] Byrne, Donn. 1974. An Introduction to Personality: Research, Theory, and Applications. Prentice-Hall Psychology Series. 

[2] Appelo, Jurgen. 2011. Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. Addison-Wesley Signature Series.

[3] Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2010. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley Professional.


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