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6/10/2009
07:35 AM
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Candor: A Sustainable IT Culture

More than ever, IT managers are tuned in to change management and handling the consequences of bad changes. But IT managers would do well to remember two maxims: He who shoots the bearer of bad news will quickly join the ranks of the uninformed. And, those who do nothing are also likely to break nothing.

More than ever, IT managers are tuned in to change management and handling the consequences of bad changes. But IT managers would do well to remember two maxims: He who shoots the bearer of bad news will quickly join the ranks of the uninformed. And, those who do nothing are also likely to break nothing.So, while it may be momentarily satisfying for IT managers to harshly deal with mistakes that cause outages, and while it may look good to the user community to have harsh policies dealing with mistakes, it may be harmful to operational effectiveness in the long run.

A recent Harvard Business Review article discusses an interesting study about aircraft decision-making, specifically how a leader's style of gathering information from staff contributes greatly to making the right decisions during a crisis. If you don't have a staff that trusts you to trust them, you may not have the right information to make a decision, and thus, you're more likely to make the wrong decisions.

The article also comes to the conclusion that "Moving forward, it appears that the new metric of corporate leadership will be closer to this: the extent to which executives create organizations that are economically, ethically, and socially sustainable." Translated from MBA-speak, that means that being a bull in a china shop is going to break a lot of china while not necessarily contributing to your organization's bottom line.

IT leaders need to hold staff accountable, but accountability takes many forms. There is a great deal of middle ground between harsh sanctions and ignoring bad judgment. This middle area is called candor, and it's terribly important to dish out. Candor -- not looking the other way or engaging in senseless browbeating -- is the difference between being a milquetoast manager and a harsh dictator.

IT staff are generally professionals in their field, and it's generally tough to replace them. On the other hand, IT staff generally work with supervision levels much lower than Industrial-Revolution factory workers: it's easy for a bad actor to go undetected, and critical to remove bad actors.

Candid conversations can help managers figure out the difference between comitted professionals who just erred and bad actors who will never willingly comply with policy.

Five steps to true candor

  1. Recognizing an error isn't a punishment. It's just candor. Rather than irritation, show appreciation for employees who "fess up" to errors.
  2. Dishing out a harsh penalty for a single mistake isn't candor; it's how to create a risk-averse culture that encourages employees to hide information -- information that managers might need.
  3. Remember that difficult conversations -- candid ones -- are never easy. There's no way to make them easy.
  4. When having a difficult conversation, it's OK to admit that it's difficult for you. Focus on your responsibility to be honest and transparent rather than getting upset. Responsibility rather than autocratic ego resonates with most employees and may well get better results.
  5. Practicing having unpleasant conversations (perhaps in a role play with peers) can help managers "learn how to deliver negative messages constructively, without being hurtful," according to HBR.

Jonathan Feldman is an InformationWeek Analytics contributor who works with IT governance in North Carolina. Comment here or write to him at jf@feldman.org.

Read more about IT governance at governance.informationweek.com

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