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Techies and users are in a vicious circle of mistrust

Paul Glen | May 6, 2014
Business people don't trust us, and we don't trust them. It sounds kind of hopeless, but it doesn't have to be.

We in IT like to complain that we don't get the respect, engagement and trust that we deserve. There's no shortage of outrage in IT departments about the low regard we are accorded by our business partners. They hire us and pay us good salaries, presumably because they consider us the experts on technology and its use in business. But they frequently exclude us from strategic conversations, make decisions without consulting us and ignore our advice. In response, we feel disrespected and untrusted.

When I ask nontechnical business people how they feel about us, they use words like "condescending," "confusing," "defensive," "evasive," "legalistic" and "excessively detailed." They recall bad experiences that have led them to be skeptical of anything that IT people say. They have gone through project failures, and at times they have been treated poorly and felt bad about it. Fair or not, you are emblematic of those experiences even if you had nothing to do with them.

But though they rarely mention it, they have one more reason to mistrust us: We don't trust them much either -- and they know it. We're not known for our acting skills.

Our lack of trust arises from the many negative perceptions we have of business people. When I ask technical people how they feel about working with "the business," they use words like "ignorant," "unrealistic," "aggressive" and "unappreciative." They say business people don't know what they want and constantly change their minds. We can recall our own bad experiences that have led us to be skeptical of anything that business people say. We have seen project sponsors shirk responsibility and shift blame, and just like the business people, we have at times been treated poorly and felt bad about it. And we make generalizations about business people based on those experiences.

It is very hard to trust someone who doesn't trust you. And since this feeling exists on both sides, a vicious cycle kicks in: They don't trust us, in part because we don't trust them, and we don't trust them, in part because they don't trust us.

It sounds kind of hopeless, but it doesn't have to be. Cycles can be broken with a little self-awareness and honesty. You just need to do two things:

Recognize your negative assumptions. If your sponsors changed requirements midway through the implementation on your last five projects, it's natural to assume that it's likely to happen again. Because you're a techie, and therefore good at solving the problems you recognize, you might incorporate something in your project process to mitigate the risk of requirements changes, such as demanding approval signatures on the requirements documents and imposing penalties for subsequent changes.


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