A Friend who works in a public organisation, was telling me of an edict circulated recently from the head of IT that any unauthorised software found on the system would result in the offending staff member being sent to see the head of IT. The implication was that there would be serious – unspecified – trouble. Now, I can understand the head of IT getting annoyed if there are thousands of bits of software flying around the system, interfering with the running of the ‘real work’ but I am not so sure that this approach is the best way to stop it.

To digress slightly, in psychology there is a method called ‘transactional analysis’ that looks at how people interact. Basically people act in ‘parent’, ‘adult’ or ‘child’ mode. These are fairly self-explanatory. If people behave in a critical fashion – blaming, shouting – they’re usually in parent mode. Sulking, door-slamming would be typical child reactions and a more sensible approach of treating people like grown-ups would be adult mode.

"People don’t forget. These ‘small injustices’ don’t just go away. They stay and come out somewhere, at some point – often inappropriately and with a financial cost"

The situation with the head of IT strikes a chord for me and would have sent me into child mode. It smacks of being told off and having to be punished. I remember similar pronouncements from my school days – ‘children found running in the corridor will be reported to the headmaster’ and ‘pupils failing to wear the correct attire for gym will have detention’.

My guess is that the head of IT was hoping to achieve a feeling of, ‘oh dear. I’d better get rid of that dodgy software game I’ve got on my laptop’ from the staff. Well perhaps some people would react like that. For me it would trigger off some of that parent/child reaction and piss me off. In psychological terms there would be some reactance kicking in. Reactance is what we experience when we perceive our freedom is being restricted. For example, a teacher tells us to stop playing with our pens and even though we had no intention before of playing with our pens that’s all we can think about now. Psychologically we’re trying to get that freedom of choice back.

I expect this head of IT will achieve what he’s set out to achieve. No doubt in a few weeks time the unauthorised software problem would have disappeared or at least become a lot more manageable. What concerns me is the long term effect. The morale of the office would have dropped another notch. There will be more grumblings in corners about ‘the nanny state’ and ‘being in Stalinist Russia’. There is a financial cost to this as well. People don’t forget. These ‘small injustices’ don’t just go away. They stay and come out somewhere, at some point – often inappropriately and with a financial cost. For example, when I worked for a large organisation I did a fair amount of travel and staying in hotels and had a decent laptop with DVD player.

Then there was an announcement that the laptop upgrade wouldn’t have a DVD player. I asked to have one installed due to long, boring evenings in hotels and was told it wasn’t policy. Overnight all the extra things I used to do that weren’t in my contract – such as stepping in at the last moment or preparing at evening, didn’t happen. It wasn’t just the DVD that caused this but a culmination of many of these moments. And yes, I did go into child mode in reaction to the parent attitude I’d received, as transactional analysis theory would have it. This isn’t clever but it happens a lot. Financially the organisation suffered a great deal in the long term.

Advocating adulthood

Now, I’m not advocating anarchy. I would just like people to think about the effect of their communication further into the future than the end of the week. Do you talk to them as a parent, child or adult? In the IT case, a more productive adult communication would entail some background, an explanation of the problem and the potential implications if the issue isn’t resolved. It would be even better if there was an offer of some dialogue.

The other aspect is to do with the intention and effect of communication. The intention of the head of IT is obvious. What seems to be missing is some recognition of the likely effect on people. The head of IT could have the purest of motives – ensuring the computer system works more effectively, less frustration for people, getting the work completed quicker to allow people to go home earlier to spend more time with their families. However, if the effect on people is that they just see another case of ‘the centre’ telling us what to do, then it’s not the most effective approach.