Combating Learned Complacency to Reduce Systems Glitches


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.


Leslie Sachs writes on how employees in many companies have essentially learned to no longer raise their concerns because there is no one willing to listen, and—even worse—they may have suffered consequences in the past for being the bearer of bad tidings. Leslie refers to this phenomenon as learned complacency.

The recent software configuration problem that shut down the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) trading system was yet another high-profile financial system that failed, reportedly, because of the complexity and challenges inherent in upgrading complex mission-critical financial trading systems. Given that similar outages occurred at other major stock exchanges and trading firms, one might be tempted to think that this outage was unremarkable. What is striking is that there was a published report that described how employees had warned that the system was not working correctly, and yet the CBOE nonetheless chose to not revert to its backup system.

In Bob Aiello’s and my consulting practice, we often come across technology professionals who try to warn their management about risks and the possibility of systems outages that could impact essential services. During the CM assessment that we conduct, we often find ourselves being the voice for validating and communicating these concerns to those who are in a position to take appropriate action. What is troubling, however, is that we have seen many companies in which employees have essentially learned to no longer raise their concerns because there is no one willing to listen. Even worse, they may have suffered consequences in the past for being the bearer of bad tidings. We refer to this phenomenon as learned complacency.

Some people are more passive than others. This may come from a personality trait in which a person feels that getting along with others is more important than blazing a new trail and standing up for one's own convictions. Many people strongly desire to just go along with the crowd. Psychologists often refer to this personality trait as agreeableness, one of the primary personality traits in the well-known Big Five. This personality trait can be very problematic in certain situations.

Some people who like to avoid conflict at all costs display a dysfunctional behavior known as passive-aggressiveness. A passive-aggressive person typically refuses to engage in conflict, choosing instead to outwardly go along with the group while inwardly deeply resenting the direction that he feels is being forced upon him. A person with a passive-aggressive personality trait may outwardly appear to be agreeable, but deep down he is usually frustrated and dissatisfied. In fact, he may engage in behaviors that appear to demonstrate acquiescence yet he actually does nothing or even obstructs progress, albeit in a subtle manner. Some IT professionals who have a passive (or passive-aggressive) personality trait may be less than willing to warn their managers that systems problems exist that may cause a serious outage.

We have seen folks who simply felt that although they were close enough to the technology to identify problems, they could not escalate a serious issue to management, because it simply was not their job. In some cases, we have come across folks who tried to warn of pending problems, but were counseled by their managers to not be so outspoken. Bob Aiello describes one manager who frequently used the phrase, “smile and wave” to encourage his staff to tone down their warnings, which no one really wanted to hear anyway. This institution has experienced serious systems outages that impacted thousands of customers.

However, not everyone is afraid to stand and be heard. What often separates employees is their own natural personality traits associated with being a strong leader.

Technology leaders know how to maintain a positive demeanor and focus on teamwork while still having the courage to communicate risks that could potentially impact the firm. The recent rash of serious systems outages certainly demonstrates the need for corporations to reward and empower their technical leaders to communicate problems without fear of retribution. Edward Deming once said “Drive out fear,” and there is certainly no greater situation where we need leaders to be fearless than when warning of a potential problem that could have a significant impact upon large-scale production IT systems.

While some people may be predisposed to avoid conflict, it’s a greater problem when a corporation develops a culture in which employees learn to maintain silence even when they are aware of potential problems. The IT industry needs leaders who are accountable, knowledgeable, and empowered to create working environments where those who protect the long-term best interests of the firm are rewarded and those who take short-sighted risks are placed in positions where they cannot adversely impact the well-being of the firm. We will see less systems outages when each member of the team understands their own role in the organization and feels completely safe and empowered to speak truthfully about risks and potential problems that may impact their firm’s critical systems infrastructure.

There are times when risk taking is appropriate and may result in significant rewards. However, firms that take unnecessary risks endanger not only their own corporation, but they may impact thousands of other people as well. Those firms with thoughtful IT leadership and a strong truthful and open culture will achieve success while still managing and addressing risk in an appropriate and effective way.

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