Us versus Them: Attitude is Everything!

Deb Shinder

"Users!!!" I can hear the groans already. Why in the world must I bring up such an unpleasant subject?

'Users!!!' I can hear the groans already. Why in the world must I bring up such an unpleasant subject? If you're a network administrator, or even just a 'lowly' member of the tech support staff, sometimes it seems as if all your problems can be traced back to some pesky user. Network goes down? Harry Hacker over in the art department is trying his hand at malicious code again. Server's hard drive is full?

If you're a network administrator, or even just a "lowly" member of the tech support staff, sometimes it seems as if all your problems can be traced back to some pesky user. Network goes down? Harry Hacker over in the art department is trying his hand at malicious code again. Server's hard drive is full? Dorothy Diskhog in the research department decided to download the Internet. Half the office suddenly can't connect? Eddie the Experimenter down in the computer lab set up a rogue DHCP server that's handing out bad addresses. Most of the evils of the world, going all the way back to Adam's eviction from the garden of Eden, must surely be the fault of users (and with an account name like serpent1 and a password like ForbiddenFruit, what did Adam expect anyway?)

The word itself, when uttered by an IT pro, often reeks of distain. Users. They're the bane of our existence.

Our Raison D'jtre

What some of us forget at times is that they're also the reason for our existence. A network with no users might run a lot more smoothly, but it would have little need for an IT staff to support it. Like it or not, we're not just in the tech business; we're in the people business, too. If you want to sit in a back room all alone with a computer all day, never having to interact with illogical, emotional human beings, you should've become a programmer, not a network admin.

Personally, I prefer dealing with people - even the frustrating ones - to laboring over lines of code all day long. But your mileage may vary. An important aspect of achieving job satisfaction is knowing what types of tasks you really enjoy doing on a daily basis, and matching those preferences to the job description. Luckily, in the IT field there are a variety of very different jobs, one of which is a match for almost every personality type. Assuming you've decided you do want to work with people, there are some ways to make the process less painful for all concerned.

An Admin Without People Skills Is Like "A Day Without Sunshine"

People skills is a topic that's similar to the weather; everyone talks about it, but nobody seems to do anything about it. Employers say lack of people skills is a number one cause for rejecting a technically qualified job applicant. Job search advisors suggest that interpersonal skills are the key to getting the position you want. But - although there are books galore to help you master technical skills - there are few resources for the aspiring IT pro who wants to improve in the "people" department. 

Oh, there are a huge number of generic books, tapes and charm school classes that purport to turn you into Mr. or Ms. Personality, but few of these look at personal skills development from the perspective of the Information Technology professional. It's true that people are "just people" the whole world over. But it's also true that when you add computers to the equation, it complicates things.

The tech staff/network user relationship differs from the usual business relationships. The parties are not quite peers, yet usually there is not a clear-cut "chain of command" that applies, either. The "user" may be the company vice president, or the part-time temporary clerical worker in the back office. Either way, the network admin has control over one of the most important tools that people throughout the company need to do their job: their access to information.

This article will try to provide a few tips for dealing with network users in general. Next week, we'll take a look at some common categories into which "problem users" fall, and provide some specific guidance for handling each type.

How to Win Friends and Influence Users

The first rule when dealing with people in almost any situation is to start the interaction with the proper attitude: one of courtesy and respect. 

Although you may be rushed and exhausted, and really not enthusiastic about troubleshooting the problems of some back office clerk who's frantic about not being able to send an email response to the boss's question, you must remember that to the user, it's an important issue (in his/her mind, perhaps a life-and-death, or at least employment vs. termination, matter). 

Hide your dismay when you get the call at 4:58pm, just as you were packing up to finally, for the first time in a week, go home on time. Remember that after all, "fixing the network" is your job, so it's not unreasonable for people to call you when their connections "break." The most important thing you can do to improve your relationship with users is to put yourself in their place for a moment. The golden rule is still the best rule: treat them as you would want to be treated if the situation were reversed. That means:

Don't get caught up in emotionalism. 

Computer problems can be frustrating, especially to those who are not technically savvy and view the computer and network as a tool to get their job done. When the tools keep breaking, they get annoyed, and sometimes even angry. That anger may be transferred to you, as you are the "keeper" of the network and some of them may irrationally hold you responsible for its quirks just as they hold a parent responsible for the behavior of an unruly child. Realize also that sometimes, it's really themselves the users are angry with, and their own inability to diagnose or fix the problem. 

This is especially true of those who do have an above-average level of technical skill (so-called power users). The computer/network has become an adversary, and it's winning. Don't react to emotional outbursts. Don't take them personally. Maintain your professionalism. More likely than not, this will make the upset user feel ashamed of his own behavior, whereas if you "fight back," the situation will just escalate, nobody's work will get done, and there may be long-term hard feelings on both side. One way to prevent this is to:


If there is one mistake that net admins and tech support people are most likely to make in dealing with users, it's a failure to communicate. We have a tendency to come galloping to the rescue like the hero of some old time TV western, push everyone aside, and take the attitude of "stay out of my way so I can work my magic." After we've set things right, we gather up our mysterious gadgets and ride away into the sunset, leaving users asking "who was that masked man and what in the heck did he do that got me back online?" This may be good for your ego, but it doesn't make your job any easier. 

Educating users, especially in areas of preventative measures they can take to keep problems from recurring, pays off in more efficient use of your time, and happier users, too. Most folks don't like being kept in the dark. They have a certain proprietary interest in their computers; some people almost have a personal relationship with the machines. When it's "sick," they want to know what's wrong, how bad it is, how long it's expected to take to get it well again. Imagine taking your car to a mechanic and having him fix it and then tell you "It runs now. There's no need for you to know why it wasn't running before. Don't worry about it; you wouldn't understand even if I did tell you." Which brings us to the next point:

Don't talk down to users, and don't talk over their heads either. 

It's a fine line to walk, but it's important to communicate with people on their level. A power user will often resent it if you try to walk him through a process click by click, while a novice will be overwhelmed if you spew technical jargon; you might as well be speaking a foreign language. In order to be able to tailor your communication style to the user's level of technical knowledge, you must:

Know your users. 

Take the time to get to know a little about the people you support. You don't have to invite them over for dinner or share your intimate secrets with them, but if you find out what they want as network users, what tasks they perform on a regular basis, how timid or adventurous they are in using their computers and the network, you will be able to meet their needs more readily, which means fewer phone calls to you at just the "wrong" time, and a more pleasant experience when you do have to interact with them over the phone or in person. Getting to know the people who are "attached" to the computer systems on your network will make you a lot of allies, allowing you to use the users to your advantages. It will also help you to spot potential "problem children" early, and be prepared to deal with them.

Next Week...

In next week's article we will go into more detail about the different types of problem users, and the techniques that work best with each type.

This article was originally published on Sep 18, 2000
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