IT as Couples Counseling

Do you ever feel like a teenager passing messages between your separated parents?

Joe in receiving puts in a ticket asking you to look into an issue. You take a look at it and realize that it’s because Barb in purchasing failed to check a box. So, you email Barb and ask her to correct it. Barb corrects it and you go back to Joe to see if his issue has been resolved.

Joe says, “Yup. Looks good now. Thanks. This is the 3rd time this week those idiots over in purchasing screwed up.”

“What do you mean this was the third time this week?”, you say.

“Well, I got tired of complaining about it, so it was easier to just put a ticket in. Those asshats know the process, they just don’t do it and it causes us to get behind. I don’t have time to go hunt them down every time they screw the pooch.” Joe laments.

You want to reply, “So you wasted my time on an issue you could have fixed yourself?!”, but instead you just sigh and walk back to your desk, dejected. There was no reason for IT to even be involved in this. Joe could have just called Barb, politely asked for her to fix it, and moved on with his day. He didn’t because he’s angry at them and it was easier to have IT address it. Why not? IT fixes all the problems, don’t they?

We could easily just continue to just deal with the problem as it interrupts us, but that doesn’t address the issue at all. It’s just putting our heads in the sand and saying “Not my job.” If we want to stop playing messenger, then we’re the ones who need to take action. Once a feud between two departments in an organization begins, it’s extremely unlikely that it’s going to end without outside intervention. Like it or not, IT is a neutral party that both sides of the problem trust and it’s up to us to fix it.

A common complaint in many organizations practicing some kind of Agile Software Development is that the business isn’t agile. My response to this is always, “It’s our job to teach them.”

In this case, we need to teach Joe and Barb to value Individuals and Interactions. The core of the problem is not that the system sucks,  but that Joe and Barb are so angry at each other, that they no longer communicate effectively with each other. Joe stopped calling Barb 9 months ago. Now he just sends her nasty emails with half the company on copy. Joe has forgotten that the best way to communicate with someone is face to face. Joe and Barb have become very much like a couple who never speak to each other directly, but exclusively through another family member.

I wonder, if they’re behaving like a dysfunctional couple, can we use the 5 principals of couples therapy to help Joe and Barb start communicating again?

  1. Change the views of the relationship. Throughout the therapeutic process, the therapist attempts to help both partners see the relationship in a more objective manner.  They learn to stop the “blame game” and instead look at what happens to them as a process involving each partner.

  2. Modify dysfunctional behavior. Effective couples therapists attempt to change the way that the partners actually behave with each other. This means that in addition to helping them improve their interactions, therapists also need to ensure that their clients are not engaging in actions that can cause physical, psychological, or economic harm.

  3. Decrease emotional avoidance.  Couples who avoid expressing their private feelings put themselves at greater risk of becoming emotionally distant and hence grow apart.

  4. Improve communication.  Being able to communicate is one of the “three C’s” of intimacy. All effective couples therapies focus on helping the partners to communicate more effectively. Building on principles #2 and #3, this communication should not be abusive, nor should partners ridicule each other when they do express their true feelings. Couples may, therefore, require “coaching” to learn how to speak to each other in more supportive and understanding ways.  The therapist may also provide the couple with didactic instruction to give them the basis for knowing what types of communication are effective and what types will only cause more conflict.  They can learn how to listen more actively and empathically, for example. However, exactly how to accomplish this step requires that therapists turn back to the assessments they performed early on in treatment.  Couples with a long history of mutual criticism may require a different approach than those who try to avoid conflict at all costs.

  5. Promote strengths. Effective couples therapists point out the strengths in the relationship and build resilience particularly as therapy nears a close.  Because so much of couples therapy involves focusing on problem areas, it’s easy to lose sight of the other areas in which couples function effectively. The point of promoting strength is to help the couple derive more enjoyment out of their relationship.

If you notice, all of these principles boil down to one common theme, open and honest communication or put another way, Individuals and Interactions. These two departments have a culture of blame and mistrust. If we want them to begin working together to solve their own problems, then we need to begin with getting them to talk to each other.

  1. Set up a meeting, but make sure its someplace neutral. Don’t use the conference rooms that any of the parties typically use. Couples counselors don’t perform their therapy in the homes of their patients. They do it in their offices. If you have your own IT meeting room use it, but in reality all your want to avoid is having the meeting on either one of their home turfs. Be sure to keep the number of people there to a bare minimum. You want this to be an intimate affair.
  2. Focus on facts. In other words, help them step outside of the emotions of the situation and reframe the situation objectively. Start the meeting by gathering the facts.
    1. What is the process supposed to be?
    2. What are the pain points of the process for both sides?
  3. Have a technical solution to offer, even if it’s a bad one. This is a bit deceitful and I don’t like being dishonest, but it’s important to remember that Joe and Barb don’t know that they’re coming to an intervention. They think that IT is going to build them something. Let’s face it though, if you had a technical solution, you would have already provided it. The goal of the meeting is to get them talking again. They’re going to expect you to have something for them. Give it to them, let them figure out that the cure is worse than the disease. This should help them shift their mind set to “Oh. I guess the process we have isn’t that bad after all. If I just stick to it, we can live with what we’ve got.” Of course, maybe you’ll get lucky and a technical solution will become apparent through the course of the meeting. If so, fantastic, but that’s not necessarily our goal here.
  4. Guide the conversation and stay calm. It’s likely that things will get heated. After all, there’s a reason they stopped communicating directly with each other to begin with. Remember that even if they’re yelling at each other, it’s better than not communicating at all. It’s of the utmost importance that you stay calm. If you find them blaming each other, it’s your job to redirect the conversation back to the facts. Ask questions to guide the conversation and detach it from emotion. You want the opposite sides of the table to see each other as people again, even if it’s people they still don’t like.
    1. “Barb, is there something that could be done to prevent you from forgetting to check the box? We understand that it happens easily. How can we prevent it?”
    2. “Joe, why is it again that missing that step of the process causes your team so much pain?”
  5. Remind everyone that we’re all on the same team. When you don’t work with someone daily, it’s easy to forget that we all want the same thing, happy customers and a profitable company. Remind them that we all want a positive result. They don’t like fighting and nobody likes to argue. Gently remind them that they don’t really want to either.If you’re aware of anything that’s working well between their groups, promote their strengths and provide a reminder of that as well.
  6. You don’t have to solve it today and you likely won’t. Just make sure to capture actions items and schedule a follow up. One therapy session never made a couple magically happy again; one meeting isn’t going to magically solve your company’s communication problem either.
  7. Ask for help. We’re computer people. Many of us just aren’t very good at the kinds of soft skills required to run this kind of meeting. If you don’t feel you can mediate, find someone who can. I know we software developers generally don’t care much for project managers, but they have exactly the kind of skillset that’s required to facilitate a meeting like this. Go talk to yours, let them know exactly what you’re up to, and get them involved.




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