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The Blame Game

Blame is a very real threat to your enjoyment of an IT career. Most doctors have avoided the blame game, except for cases of gross negligence. If you are STILL sick after 2 visits to the doctor, you get frustrated, but you rarely say “I have a totally incompetent doctor.” – even if you think that, do you change doctors?

In the computing world, however, blame is alive and kicking… and YOU are the unlucky winner. If you were the last person to look at someone’s computer and something goes wrong, guess who gets gets blamed? People like to connect dots that aren’t even connectable. Here are some phrases that are clear indications that blame is coming in your direction: “Remember when you were here last?” “Ever since you fixed my ____ problem,…” “It hasn’t worked right since you left” “This was working fine before you did _____”

People aren’t mean. They just don’t know. They don’t like having to rely on you so much, and so they require you to be accountable for things that might be unrelated to the scope of your involvement. They NEED to blame someone. You’re nearby. And you are part of the solution, so you must be part of the problem.

This is particularly frustrating for IT professionals if the blame is misplaced. Scenario: you take over management of a client’s network. Their incoming mail isn’t being delivered reliably and after two visits, you isolate the issue to be related to their service provider not including a “reverse DNS” entry. You mention this to your main contact at the client who is their office manager.

A few days later you get an angry email from the CEO of the company, chastising you for email not working right. They email this to you from a hotel where they have been unable to receive an important message. They copy your contact (the office manager) and explain that this makes their firm look totally unprofessional. The tone is frustrated, bordering on mean or even abusive. They’re angry. Your manager is now angry, and you’re on the way to being angry.

What do you do?

Most people do the wrong things. They either

a) jump in and try to help accelerate a fix b) apologize c) get defensive and angry with the client d) say nothing and try to get the service provider to give them an update on what’s going on e) tell the client why it’s probably not working and what the next steps are

If you do A or B then you’re tacitly conveying that you were at fault. If you do C you’re not taking the professional track, and you’re going to establish a relationship that tolerates conflict moving forward. If you do D to avoid confrontation, you passively justify their anger at you. And if you do E, you don’t distance yourself from the blame.

When faced with External Reliance issues, you must bring them to your clients’ attention immediately, in advance of problems happening. If the problems occur and you believe you aren’t to blame, you’re still to blame. Perception trumps reality. That’s why there are so many lawyer jokes. Their JOB is to make sure you’re aware of all the ugly stuff in advance of it actually happening. No surprises. Computer people tolerate (and thereby condone) surprises because they don’t set expectations in advance.

Steps to improve the blame risk:

– involve the client early on with the status and progress, even if it’s lack of progress. “Here’s what we’ve ruled out.” – “if this requires us to make a change at the service provider, you may notice this issue for several days.” – “this WILL continue to be a problem until we can get the service provider to assist us. We are at their mercy.” – “there are a number of reasons why you might or might not get a piece of email. We need to isolate it to try to determine why some messages get through and others don’t.”

If the client continues to blame, you may need to be more blunt:

“I think you may be implying that this is our fault. You realize we can’t control the service provider, right?” “I understand you’re upset, but we’re not the ones who set up this server – we inherited from your previous vendor and we’ll do our best to help you get out of the situation.” “Are you upset with us specifically? If so, why do you believe it is our error?”

Blame is no fun. Blame that is misplaced or inaccurate is worse. How you defend yourself can mean a big difference in repairing the rift that builds up between IT people and the people they’re supposed to be supporting. The non-technical person isn’t equipped to blame correctly – they need your help in focusing their frustration. Asking them to stop being frustrated isn’t fair to them. But taking their frustration isn’t fair to you.


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