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Leadership in IT

Treating Emotional Viruses
in IT Organizations

Emotional viruses spread through IT organizations faster than computer viruses, are longer lasting, and are harder to control.

Sarcasm, complaints, resentment, "us vs. them" mentality, suspicion, fear, intolerance, hostility… these are the symptoms of emotional viruses. Like a virus in a computer network, an emotional virus spreads very rapidly within an organization, infecting people, one individual or group at a time, and eventually rendering a company dysfunctional.

Here are some recent examples that I have experienced:

A software integration project was hopelessly out of control--talented people quitting, expensive consultants finger pointing, rumors rampant, the project schedule a joke. The CIO accused others and hid problems from his superiors. He didn't want to be perceived as a failure. VPs referred to the CIO as a paranoid idiot. Within 9 months the CIO was out.

A growing Internet company paid dearly for a competitor in order to own critical technology. To protect this sensitive knowledge, the newly acquired employees were placed in a secured work area. The resulting isolation created suspicion, hampering teamwork between old and new employees.

A division president frustrated by executive resistance, used quick temper and extreme sarcasm, to equate loyalty with conformity, silencing everyone in his presence. When he suggested a re-organization, everyone was quickly on board. Then several key players quit. His response, "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." When employees complained about policy changes, they were told "if you don't like it, leave." Within 12 months, the division was in the red, many of the executives were fired, and the division went through a painful downsizing.

Technology Workers Most Vulnerable
Like computer viruses, emotional viruses are fond of technology workers. Witness the rise of Scott Adams' cartoon strip, Dilbert, to a multi-million-dollar enterprise. Adams taps into the widespread cynicism, hostility, resentment and dehumanization felt by millions of infoworkers. People pin his cartoons in their cubicles because he skillfully expresses their hidden feelings. While entertaining and stress relieving, the cartoons also deepen futility and despair if the underlying emotional virus is ignored.

How about the enormous success of Despair.com, which sells demotivating posters over the Web? Instead of inspiration, these posters deliver messages such as "Not all pain is gain" over a face contorted by a knockout punch. In the Wall Street Journal, promoter E.L. Kersten reported that failure, mediocrity, burnout, and apathy are his most successful themes.

Consider D. S. Levine's Disgruntled.com, which offers a Turkey Roast, where you and I can write about our worst bosses. Disgruntled put a different spin on Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr.'s record of 2,632 consecutive baseball games played with no absenteeism. Rather than viewing Ripken's record as a "staggering feat of endurance," as the New York Times did, or as evidence of personal discipline or dedication, Disgruntled labeled it a form of mental sickness. Disgruntled heralded the fact that absenteeism due to mental health, reached the highest level in seven years. A survey showed absenteeism up 25 percent last year, increasing corporate loss by 32 percent.

Organizational Change
Emotional viruses thrive on organizational change. The Institute of HeartMath, specializing in individual and organizational health, quoted a recent study entitled "State of Reengineering Report":

  • 50 percent of the companies studied reported that the most damaging effect of reengineering was fear and anxiety.

  • Of 99 reengineering initiatives, 67 percent were judged as mediocre, marginal, or failed.

Wyatt and Co., a human resource consulting organization, surveyed 1,005 corporations participating in downsizing:

  • Only one-third met profit expectations as a result of the layoff.

  • Less than half reached their cost-reduction goals.

  • Only a small minority reported a satisfactory increase in shareholder return on equity.

Emotional viruses become really infectious when exposed to challenging projects, reorganization, reengineering, and downsizing. Organizations without a healthy immune system find recovery from these infections difficult.

Identifying the Problem
Many emotional virus victims have no idea what they are dealing with. Like a fish in polluted water, they have adapted to the level of emotional dysfunction in the organization. Sometimes it takes a long vacation or a sabbatical for people to realize how much energy they have been expending just to cope with the infectious environment. How many of us get sick on holiday or spend half our time off recovering from the accumulated stress? How many people come back from a sabbatical to resign from their job in order to reclaim their life? And what about the people who allow their emotional infection to go unnoticed until they are completely overwhelmed, and ripe for a physical, mental, and emotional breakdown?

Emotional viruses spread by means of a cynical joke, a bitter complaint, hostile treatment or careless disregard. While some people are chronic carriers of emotional viruses, others become infected due to poor emotional management habits. The consequences are poor teamwork, loss of creativity, diminished commitment, and declining productivity. Managers and workers alike tend to blame their problems on the market, the competition, the customers, their leadership, the economy, etc. not realizing that emotional viruses are the underlying cause of failure.

Emotional viruses are caused by a lack of self-awareness, as well as inadequate emotional management. People going through difficult change are often not aware of the emotional and psychological stress involved in coping. Most actively suppress their feelings for fear of appearing vulnerable. The popular notion of "positive thinking" sometimes interferes with the necessary process of acknowledging endings and all the feelings that endings evoke. Many technical and scientific professions discourage practitioners from emotional involvement. Emotional viruses thrive in environments where honest speech is discouraged, and sensitivity and communication skills are lacking.

Ineffective Approaches
If you put a frog in hot water, it jumps out. But if you start with cold water and slowly turn the heat up, the frog will be boiled alive. Like the frog, many individuals and organizations adapt to their emotional dysfunction. They learn to work around these issues, rather than confront them. Leaders laugh at Dilbert cartoons thinking they are about some other organization. People and organizations with emotional virus use excuses like shortage of time, money, and know-how to avoid facing their problem. This signals takeover by resignation, apathy, cynicism, and despair. Albert Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Some victims rely on "band-aid" solutions that don't address real issues. I know a company where top managers are mostly successful sales executives, and their approach to dealing with emotional virus is to organize high-energy presentations. The intention is to help employees concentrate on the good news and positive future, and stop preoccupation with what went wrong in the past. Unfortunately, this approach does not allow people to acknowledge their infection, identify root causes, and begin sustainable treatment. They get an hour of feel-good pitches by the senior executives, then go back to their cynicism and despair. The executives then feel that their good intentions have been wasted, and vow never to do it again. Discouragement caused by unsuccessful, poorly conceived efforts reinforces the obstacles to recovery.

In most cases, the individuals and organizations in these situations are unaware of the tools and techniques for diagnosing and treating emotional virus.

Treating long-standing viruses can be protracted and difficult, involving naming the viruses, training participants to cope, and practicing new behaviors. The first step surfaces the "undiscussibles" in an organization and provides a safe forum for individuals to express their thoughts and feelings.

This first step may be so difficult that a skilled professional is required. Tools that promote anonymity in responding to diagnostic questions are helpful in overcoming hesitation, embarrassment, or intimidation.

Training in emotional management, empathic communication, and win-win problem resolution is required once the viruses have been named. A skilled facilitator working with both leaders and workers in small groups can teach effective methods for addressing their infections head-on. These efforts should be augmented by well-documented case studies of common organizational viruses. Case studies provide senior leadership with insight, as well as bottom-line benefits.

Individual coaching helps leaders and workers acknowledge emotions, postpone judgement, delay reaction, shift perception and choose a response more appropriate to core values.

Consistent practice of emotional management, empathic communication and win-win problem resolution skills will restore organizational health. A clear commitment by the leadership, supported by internal practice groups, and led by one or more trained coaches, will sustain new, healthy habits, and develop the immune system.

Good News
Many individuals and organizations have successfully recovered by using these strategies to strengthen their organization's immune system. Even training-only programs have produced impressive benefits such as:

  • A global computer chip manufacturer provided 12 hours of emotional management training to 28 engineers and their support staff over a period of 12 weeks. Four weeks after the training, they were experiencing 17 percent less fatigue, 20 percent less anger, 18 percent more peacefulness, and 11 percent better working relationships.

  • A US government organization provided one day of psychological immune system training to 160 managers. Six weeks after the training, they were experiencing 16 percent better work/life balance, 20 percent less tension, and 20 percent less body aches.

  • An international aviation company put 42 managers through one day of training in recognizing and controlling emotional virus. Ten weeks after the training, they reported a 14 percent reduction in anxiety, a 17 percent reduction in distress, and an 11 percent reduction in anger.

A well-designed program consists of the appropriate diagnoses, senior leadership support, effective training programs and competent coaches. This is the critical difference between organizations that thrive and those that die a slow and painful death. If you think you can't afford to address the emotional viruses in your life or organization, perhaps you should ask yourself "can I afford not to?"


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