Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: Everything You Need To Know About Dealing With Your Users

Image Credit: Alex E. Proimos
Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: Everything You Need To Know About Dealing With Your Users

Facepalm statue

Image Credit: Alex E. Proimos.

If you’re like any sysadmin, ever, you probably have at least a few horror stories about user ignorance. In your line of work, it’s more or less guaranteed you’ll eventually encounter at least a few people with a…less than working knowledge of technology. Truth be told, there’s a good chance that most people in your organization understand significantly less about how its technological working parts function – and you’re probably fed up trying to explain it to them.

I mean, it’s not like they respect you either, right? Even today, IT work is frequently looked down upon. Sometimes, it seems like it’d be easier to just leave people to their ignorance, and suffer through the day-to-day.

“Even though we’re probably some of the smartest people in the company, we’re treated like dumb little service people,” recounts one administrator in an interview with The Houston Press.“Try this: go to a party with executives from another company and say you’re with the IT Department. Watch for wind burns as they scamper away from you to find someone cool to talk to.”

This sense of derision is widespread within the typical company. While the IT department is vital to business success in the modern enterprise, a 2013 study by Kovarus found that only 28% of IT decision-makers budget their departments effectively. Many of those appointed as decision-makers don’t even fully understand the department they’re managing, and end up completely destroying any progress it might otherwise enjoy.

End result? A whole ton of ill-will directed at IT.

“Hating the IT department is a common sentiment in almost every company big enough to have such a group,” writes Nir Eyal of Forbes. “It begins with a management team woefully unaware that the process is broken. Next, non-technical staff, unable to produce quality output, learn to shirk responsibility as they throw projects over the fence to IT. Unwilling to place blame on management, business staff point the finger at IT ranting about why a project is late, again.”

Here’s the thing about an environment like that; about fostering an adversarial relationship between IT and the rest of an organization – it’s one of the worst things you can do for both job satisfaction and productivity. Sure, it’s probably easier (and oh so satisfying) to dismiss your users as ignorant knuckle-draggers, but that doesn’t really get you anywhere. What you need to do instead is extend an olive branch.

In other words, you need to make a conscious effort to mend whatever broken bridges might exist between you and your users – no matter how ignorant they are. There are a few ways you can go about this:


  • Talk To Them When Something Goes Wrong: The most important thing you can do for your users, advises the Information Technology Core, is listen. Let them vent if they need to, and repeat back to them some of the stuff they tell you. Make it clear you’re actually hearing what they’re telling you, talk them through their problem, and give them a timeframe for when it’ll be finished.
  • Don’t Treat Them Like They’re Stupid: One of the most frustrating things you can possibly to do to someone else is talk down to them. If you treat your users like they’re idiots, then they’re going to react with hostility. Instead, give them the benefit of the doubt – be willing to offer up an explanation of what you do or how something works, but at the same time be willing to talk about it in layman’s terms (see below).
  • Consider Using Analogies: As anyone who’s dealt with discrete math can probably attest, it’s incredibly aggravating when you encounter something you don’t understand. That includes computer systems. Stuff that might be second-nature to you could be confusing to your users; consider paring down any explanations you offer them with analogies. For example, you might describe the difference between shared hosting and a VPS by talking about apartments and condominiums.
  • Look Through Their Eyes: Do you know what one of the most valuable tools in the business world is? It’s not strategic thinking, technical knowledge, or financial savvy – it’s emotional intelligence. The capacity to look at someone else and determine how they’re thinking and feeling is an extremely important trait to have, especially if you’re working in IT – it can go a long way towards helping you better understand your users, and better serve their needs.
  • Know When To Walk Away: Occasionally, you’re going to encounter someone so toxic or ignorant that even the most civil discourse will break down. At that point, it’s probably time to get management involved.

Every IT professional who has worked in a large business has encountered at least a few people whose ignorance blows them away. Such encounters make for good stories, sure – but they don’t necessarily make for a great work environment. Only by understanding your users and working with them (instead of against them) can you really be effective, and maintain a good relationship with other people in your organization, besides.

Remember that – but stock up on aspirin and coffee, just in case.


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