Personality Matters- Learned Complacency and Systems Glitches
By Leslie Sachs
System glitches have impacted many high profile trading systems such as the July 2015 New York Stock systems outage. Initially feared to be the the result of a cyber attack, but investigation determined it to be the result of a faulty software upgrade. The NYSE is not the only trading venue suffering outages during systems upgrades. In April 2013, the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) also suffered a high profile systems glitch, which shut down the CBOE trading system and was among a series of incidents impacting large trading firms, including NASDAQ, which are expected to be highly secure and reliable. It is often believed that these, and similar, outages are the result of the complexity and challenges inherent in upgrading complex mission critical financial trading systems. Given that similar outages occurred at other major stock exchanges and trading firms, one might be tempted to think that the CBOE debacle was unremarkable. What is striking is that there was a published report that employees knew in advance that the system was not working correctly and yet the CBOE none-the-less chose to not fail over to its backup system. In our consulting practice, we often come across technology professionals who try to warn their management about risks and the possibility of systems outages that could impact essential services. During the CM Assessment that we conduct, we often find ourselves being the voice for validating and communicating these concerns to those who are in a position to take appropriate action. What is troubling, however, is that we have seen many companies where employees have essentially learned to no longer raise their concerns because there is no one willing to listen and, even worse, they may have suffered consequences in the past for being the bearer of bad tidings. We refer to this phenomenon as learned complacency.
Some people are more passive than others. This may come from a personality trait where the person feels that getting along with others is more important than blazing a new trail and standing up for one’s own convictions. Many people strongly desire to just go along with the crowd and psychologists often refer to this personality trait as agreeableness, one of the primary personality traits in the well-known Big Five . This personality trait can be very problematic in certain situations and some people who like to avoid conflict at all costs display a dysfunctional behavior known as passive-aggressiveness. A passive-aggressive person typically refuses to engage in conflict, choosing instead to outwardly go along with the group, while inwardly deeply resenting the direction that they feel is being forced upon them. People with a passive-aggressive personality trait may outwardly appear to be agreeable, but deep down they are usually frustrated and dissatisfied and may engage in behaviors that appear to demonstrate acquiescence, yet actually do nothing or even obstruct progress, albeit in a subtle manner. Some IT professionals who have a passive (or passive-aggressive) personality trait may be less than willing to warn their managers that systems problems that may cause a serious outage exist.
We have seen people who simply felt that although they were close enough to the technology to identify problems, they could not escalate a serious issue to their management, because it simply was not their job. In some cases, we have come across folks who tried to warn of pending problems, but were counseled by their managers to not be so outspoken. Bob Aiello describes one manager who frequently used the phrase, “smile and wave” to encourage his staff to tone down their warnings since no one really wanted to hear them anyway. Not surprisingly, that organization has experienced serious systems outages which impacted thousands of customers. But not everyone is afraid to stand and be heard. What often distinguishes employees is their own natural personality traits, including those associated with being a strong leader.
Technology leaders know how to maintain a positive demeanor and focus on teamwork, while still having the courage to communicate risks that could potentially impact the firm. The recent rash of serious systems outages certainly demonstrates the need for corporations to reward and empower their technical leaders to communicate problems without fear of retribution. Deming said, “drive out fear” and there is certainly no greater situation where we need leaders to be fearless than when warning of a potential problem that could have a significant impact upon large-scale production IT systems.
While some people may be predisposed to avoid conflict, the greater problem is when a corporation develops a culture where employees learn to maintain silence even when they are aware of potential problems. The IT industry needs leaders who are accountable, knowledgeable and empowered to create working environments where those who protect the long-term best interests of the firm are rewarded and those who take short-sighted risks are placed in positions where they cannot adversely impact the well-being of the firm. We will see less systems outages when each member of the team understands their own role in the organization and feels completely safe and empowered to speak truthfully about risks and potential problems that may impact their firm’s critical systems infrastructure. There are times when risk-taking is appropriate and may result in significant rewards. However, firms which take unnecessary risks endanger not only their own corporation, but may impact thousands of other people as well. Those firms with thoughtful IT leadership and a strong truthful and open culture will achieve success while still managing and addressing risk in an appropriate and effective way.
 Byrne, Donn. 1974. An Introduction to Personality: Research, Theory, and Applications. Prentice-Hall Psychology Series.
 Appelo, Jurgen. 2011. Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. Addison-Wesley Signature Series.
 Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2011. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley Professional.
 Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2016. Agile Application Lifecycle Management: Using DevOps to Drive Process Improvement. Addison-Wesley Professional.
|Leslie Sachs is a New York state-certified school psychologist and the COO of Yellow Spider. She is the co-author of Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Leslie has more than twenty years of experience in the psychology field and has worked in a variety of clinical and business settings, where she has provided many effective interventions designed to improve the social and educational functioning of both individuals and groups. She has an MS in school psychology from Pace University and interned in Bellevue Psychiatric Center in New York City. A firm believer in the uniqueness of every individual, she has recently done advanced training with Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds Institute. She may be reached at LeslieASachs@gmail.com, or link with her at http://www.linkedin.com/in/lesliesachs.|