Dealing with Difficult Users

by ServerWatch Staff

In last week's column, we discussed the 'us against them' attitude a trap that many IT pros fall into, which can not only cause them a world of unnecessary psychic grief but can adversely affect their careers as well.

Deb Shinder

In last week's column, we discussed the "us against them" attitude - a trap that many IT pros fall into, which can not only cause them a world of unnecessary psychic grief but can adversely affect their careers as well.

A chief source of this feeling that those outside IT are "the enemy" is the experience all of us have had at one time or another, dealing with the occasional user who always seems to go out of his/her way to make our lives more difficult (whether inadvertently or by design). This week we will look at a few common "problem child" types, and what we can do keep them from having a negative impact on the operation of the network (and driving us crazy in the process).

You will need develop different tactics for dealing with each of these types. Let's look at some examples.

The first "difficult user" type we'll discuss will be on page 2.

Deb Shinder

Ida Incompetent

Ida is the user who, completely devoid of any malevolent intent, can utterly devastate her computer and/or the network faster than a speeding bullet. She means well, and tries hard to follow your instructors, but it's as though her body chemistry emanates some unseen force that is lethal to computer hardware and software. She can do every step by the book, and still the system crashes.

At first you may think poor Ida just happened to inherit bad hardware. But moving her to a different machine or giving her a brand new one doesn't cure the problem; each system she touches suddenly begins to exhibit strange behavior and unusual errors, even though she swears on a stack of Bibles (and you believe her) that she did nothing to provoke such a reaction. You can even stand there and watch her, verifying that she didn't nothing out of the ordinary, and the system merrily crashes or the network disappears for no apparent reason.

Most admins have encountered at least one or two Idas in their careers. In many ways, she is the most frustrating of the problem user types, because you can't really get mad at her. She's a victim of the technology that, to all appearances, just doesn't like her. She apologizes profusely each time she has to call you. Although you may be skeptical at first, you're likely to eventually give up trying to explain the phenomenon and agree with her own assessment of the situation: when it comes to computers, she's cursed.

Dealing with Ida requires a lot of patience and a cultivated bedside manner. Showing your frustration will only make her feel worse - which may result in her being hesitant to let you know the next time there's a problem (and thus, making the problem that much worse by the time you do discover it). Ida requires a little handholding, a lot of reassurance, and, if you can swing it, maybe an exorcist to purge the demons that inhabit every system with which she comes in contact.

It's much easier to feel sorry for Ida than for her fellow "problem child, Sally Secretkeeper.

Deb Shinder

Sally Secretkeeper

Ida may keep her computer problems secret if you yell at her or make her feel even stupider than she already feels, but otherwise she will usually try her best to answer your questions and tell you what you need to know. Sally Secretkeeper, on the other hand, is a different type. She deliberately withholds information. Trying to find out what she was doing when the connection was lost or what error message appeared on her screen as the system went down is like pulling teeth.

Sally's reasons for remaining incommunicado can be a mystery. Maybe she figures you get paid the big bucks to diagnose and fix the IT problems so she's going to make sure you earn every penny of it with no help from her. Maybe she's afraid she won't remember correctly and will give you bad information. Or maybe she's just watched too many cop shows on TV and has decided that she has the right to remain silent. Whatever her motive, Sally can make your job more difficult unless you learn how to handle her "silent treatment."

If the user who's having computer or network problems is a secretkeeper, you'll need to approach her carefully. Normal questioning techniques won't elicit much information, and if you start demanding answers, she's likely to shut up even tighter. The key to drawing the information out of Sally's type is to take a roundabout path. See if you can get her engaged in conversation about something that interests her (hint: take a look at her desk and office walls. What do you see? Pictures of kids/dogs/spouse? Movie posters? Company golf team trophies?). Bring the topic around to her computer problems slowly. You'll have to gain her confidence before she'll spill the beans.

You say you don't have time to play these games? The sad fact is: if you don't use these "stealth maneuvers" with Sally, you may spend (waste) far more time trying to determine what the problem is without her input. Network admin/tech support is a people-oriented position. People means politics. And politics means you'll have to learn to be a politician now and then, whether you like it or not.

Sally's antics can be maddening, but at least they aren't deliberately destructive. The same cannot always be said for the next "trouble type,Harry Hacker.

Deb Shinder

Harry Hacker

Harry is probably the most notorious of our problem user types. This category can actually be broken down into several "sub-Harries." If he's the genuine article, Harry Hacker probably knows a lot more about computers and networking than you do. Looking at it from his point of view, it's either a little annoying or a little amusing to him that you're making rules and telling him what he can and can't do with his computer.

From your point of view, Harry has the power to really wreak havoc on your network. Coming on strong and making an enemy of Harry may not be the smartest thing to do. You don't have to like him, but you'd best respect his abilities. Depending on his personality, the best tactic may be assimilation - that is, take him into the fold. Let him know you admire his skills. Ask his advice on how to secure the network against those other, irresponsible users. Of course, if Harry is a destructive type and can't be turned into an ally, your only option may be reporting his transgressions to his superiors. Before you choose that road, make sure you have everything important backed up, and expect retaliation. Hell hath no fury like a hacker scorned.

Luckily, there are far more "pseudo-Harries" out there than the real thing. Hacker Wannabes who know just enough to be dangerous. With these folks, tightening up your security is the first step. If you can, enlist a genuine Harry to help you thwart their experimentations.

A good auditing/monitoring program will alert you to the presence of a Harry in your organization. Another plus is that the wannabes, especially, usually like to brag about their awesome hacking skills.

In general, Harry likes to keep a low profile and stay out of your way. You'll have to ferret him out. This is in direct contrast to our next "problem child, Demanding Demetrius.

Deb Shinder

Demanding Demetrius

Demanding Demetrius is the user who always insists that his (or her) computer/network problems take precedence over everything else. If his sound card goes out, it must be fixed, and it must be fixed right now. Never mind that the entire accounting department is without connectivity.

Demetrius is often a middle level manager, who is impressed with his own self-importance. He is usually the excitable type, and rant and rave and threaten to "have your job" if you don't make his problem your first priority. The most important factor in dealing with Demetrius is to stay calm, and not let him provoke you. The more agitated he gets, the calmer you should become. Explain politely that you are following policy and/or instructions from upper management in prioritizing the order in which you address IT problems. Refer him to someone above him in the organization if he has a complaint. Maintain a completely professional demeanor in the face of his tantrums.

It's unlikely that Demetrius will ever reform, and even if he goes away there always seems to be another Demetrius to take his place. But you can protect yourself against his crazy-making behavior by ensuring that clearcut written policies are in place establishing your job priorities, and by not getting drawn into his maelstrom of upset. That is, don't take it personally. Deep down, Demetrius is probably really raging against his own private inner frustrations with his job and his life - things that have nothing to do with you or the computer/network. You're just the closest handy target. Wear a bullet-proof smile and attend to your business. The Demetriuses of the world deserve more pity than anger.

Aside from his poorly concealed rage, Demetrius has a lot in common with the next user type on our list,Dora Discourteous.

Deb Shinder

Dora Discourteous

Dora, like all the other problem user types, actually comes in both genders. Her (or his) distinguishing characteristic is blatant and sometimes almost unbelievable lack of consideration for everyone else. Although she can definitely be demanding, she differs from Demetrius in that most often, she's not angry - she just completely fails to comprehend why her selfish behavior isn't acceptable.

Dora doesn't understand that participating on a network (or simply using company computer equipment) involves activities that impact others, and that others have needs that may conflict with her own. Dora may be a disk hog, who feels it's her prerogative to use up 19GB of the 20GB of disk space allocated on the server for the entire department's user data. She may be a Distraction Master, who sees nothing wrong with setting the volume on her system to high and playing loud "training session" .avi files that boom throughout the office and prevent those near her from getting any work done. She may be a Bandwidth Backbreaker, who clogs the network by sending enormous, unzipped files or downloading half the Internet during the busiest time of the day.

Dealing with Dora requires a bit of psychology on your part. Appealing to her humanitarian side doesn't work because she doesn't have one. She's like a spoiled child who's used to getting (or taking) whatever she wants, and she is genuinely bewildered that her activities would cause a problem. After all, she's just trying to do a better job and be more productive in her work, and she will assure you that she needs the disk space, high volume or network bandwidth.

Logic and reasoning don't work with Dora. Even if she promises to be more considerate and restrict her activities, that promise won't be kept for long. She's simply incapable of considering others' needs, and she'll be this way in all her dealings with her co-workers, not just those related to IT.

The best solution if you have a Dora on the network is to implement administrative controls that will prevent her from hogging the disk space or bandwidth or disrupting her co-workers. Impose disk quotas, restrict her Internet access, even take drastic measures such as removing her sound card or moving her to an isolated area. Of course, some of these responses may require the approval of those higher up in the organization. The key is to make them understand that while Dora may indeed be a competent, productive employee, she is having a negative affect on the productivity of others, and since she can't control herself, it's imperative that someone else take steps to curb her disruptive activities.

At least Dora probably won't blame you for her problems (since she doesn't even know she has a problem). Unlike our next, and last unruly user, Fred Fingerpointer.

Deb Shinder

Fred Fingerpointer

Fred, like Ida, always seems to be plagued with more than his share of computer/network problems. Unlike Ida, who blames herself, Fred never accepts any of the responsibility. He always has to have someone else at whom he can point the finger.

If his network card is unplugged, it must have been the janitor who did it. If he "accidentally" wiped out all his TCP/IP settings, it's the fault of the software vendor for making them so easily accessible. If he deletes the wrong file as you walk him through the process of installing a new driver, and renders the machine unbootable, it's your fault because your instructions weren't clear enough. Fred is never to blame for anything - at least, from his point of view.

The urge to lay out the evidence and make him admit his culpability can be overwhelming - but it's counterproductive. Confrontation only puts him on the defensive, and he'll be all the more adamant that you, or the co-worker next to him, or an act of God, is to blame.

Dealing with Fred requires the ability to just tune out his accusations. Take this tactic: "it doesn't really matter who caused the problem. What's important is to figure out what the problem is, and fix it." That will take the wind out of his sails quickly, and defuse all his protestations (which are really based on his underlying belief that he is the source of all the problems, even though he would never, ever admit that to you.

Deb Shinder

Adding it all Up

Ida, Sally, Harry, Demetrius, Dora and Fred are only a sampling of the difficult user types that you may encounter as a net admin or tech support professional. Each type has its own characteristics, and you may have to adopt different techniques for dealing with each.

You'll notice a common thread that runs through this advice, however. The key to learning to live with the "problem children" on your network, as in the rest of life, is to not let their problem personalities become your problem. Remember that your job is to maintain the network and/or computer systems to the best of your ability. Don't let the problem users get you down. These same personality types exist in every "people-oriented" occupation. They can drive you nuts - if you let them. Or they can be a source of secret amusement, even provide some valuable lessons that may lead you to examine and modify your own behavior in dealing with others.

This article was originally published on Monday Sep 18th 2000
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