The Psychological Impact of IT dependencies

Man wearing white top using MacBook
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Over this series, I’ve spoken in detail about the organisational impact of IT dependencies in your system. I’d like to take a diversion and discuss how it can impact the individual.

I posit that even without the work benefits you could derive from eliminating dependencies, the quality of life changes you could bring about would more than pay for the effort.

This isn’t an article about workplace stress, we’re all pretty familiar with its cost to our economy. Nor is this an article about the cost of employee churn. It’s not even about the cost to productivity through disengagement. Let’s move forward knowing the impact of people not being happy.

So what is it that we want out of work? I’ll pick 3 methods that discuss employee happiness and look at each through the lens of dependencies. Before that, let’s identify what dependencies actually do.

Establish the pain

As previously discussed, dependencies inhibit the flow of value by increasing lead times and compounding complexity. Put simply, I’ll say that this results in the following impacts to people who come into contact with them:

  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling unproductive
  • Tension or conflict with those around them
  • Lack of ownership

Assessing the impact of IT Dependencies

Hierarchy of Needs

Originally proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, the method is a pyramid approach to identifying tiers of psychological needs. The higher the tier, the closer we move towards wholeness. I am aware that there is controversy surrounding this hierarchy, as it does around any model. However, for our purposes, it is relatively straightforward and easy to resonate with.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom
By Chiquo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77918631

I think we can skip past the basic needs here, eliminating dependencies is unlikely to have a measurable direct impact on these. Although we could make a case for ‘rest’ being made difficult to attain if we’re in a dependency heavy workplace.

What about Psychological needs? Prestige and feeling of accomplishment can be drastically affected by dependencies. If we’re unable to complete our work to the best of our ability then we are unlikely to have any personal feelings of accomplishment. And if we’re being prevented from succeeding then our prestige within the organisation is going to be pretty low.

This is where the model would cut us short. Without proper dependency elimination then we are going to limit our teams to the bottom half of Maslow’s hierarchy. Hardly an inspirational place to be.

Two Factor Theory

Similarly aged and similarly respected, the Two Factor Theory was originally discussed by Frederick Herzberg in 1959. The general intent is that there are two sets of factors affecting us in the workplace: those that cause dissatisfaction and those that cause satisfaction. Herzberg proposed that each set works independently of each other.

I’ve included both sets of sources below and have added a quick commentary on whether it passes our test. I’ve colour coded each according to whether I believe it is impacted by poor dependency remediation.

Two Factor Theory Sources

Sources of SatisfactionAchievementOur achievement is limited if we’re unable to operate effectively
RecognitionWould we be recognised for not reaching our potential?
The work itselfPerhaps the largest source of frustration is when we can’t do our best at what we love
ResponsibilityLess affected
AdvancementLikely a general impact on us and our peers
GrowthPotentially limiting based on the above factors but it would be contrived
Sources of DissatisfactionCompany policiesIt’s pretty hard not be dissatisfied by a policy that is making it hard to actually do work
SupervisionDependencies mean you need centralised control
Relationship with supervisor and peersNope
Work conditionsNope
SalaryNope
StatusNot really
SecurityNope

Interestingly, as with Maslow, the Two Factor theory highlights significant limitation in the loftier motivations. While dependencies may not impact our foundational beliefs or needs, they often cut us off at the knees when applied to factors linked in intrinsic drivers. This means that dependencies have the greatest impact in complex environments where we promote autonomy in order to maintain scalability and higher-order motivation. I guess this makes sense. In more traditional workplaces that were more complicated than complex then a centralised control mechanism to manage dependencies could just about get by. But in a modern workplace where we value trust and organic networks?

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

The book cover of Dan Pink's Drive

Dan Pink’s stunning motivational theory deserves a complete read by anyone who has got this far in this article. For those who haven’t, there’s a decent enough summary available here.

In essence, Dan Pink establishes that the traditional approach to motivation is no longer, and may never have been, valid. Treating people as objects to manipulate with either a reward or a punishment completely misses the point. He identifies three major aspects that need to be present in order for true intrinsic motivation to exist.

Autonomy

There is an argument that your personal autonomy isn’t impacted by dependencies. However, let’s check one definition of autonomy.

freedom from external control or influence

I would argue that one does not have freedom from external control if embedded in a dependent system. As previously discussed, a highly dependent system necessitates a centralised control mechanism. With centralised control comes the cessation of autonomy as individual agents are unable to appreciate the impact of localised changes at the systemic level. Personally I don’t believe centralised control actually enables this anyway, but that’s another story.

Mastery

Although a dependent system does not necessarily constrain the pursuit of skill or knowledge, there is a complication. Dependencies go hand in hand with functional alignment. Functional alignment is perhaps the single greatest cause of role-based silos within an organisation. If we’re operating in a functionally aligned organisation then we are implicitly limited in our ability to affect customer outcomes. Even with an open and collaborative culture, you are still going to be expected to excel at your deep and narrow speciality. And if you don’t then you’re stepping into someone else’s territory so prepare for a battle.

Purpose

I believe this aspect to be impacted the least by dependencies. Although a challenging workspace may impact the drive to pursue your purpose it won’t directly diminish it.

Summary

Let’s assume that you agree with my original assessment of the impacts of IT dependencies.

  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling unproductive
  • Tension or conflict with those around them
  • Lack of ownership

If my subjective assessment of each motivation model is roughly accurate then we can agree that the above items are deeply affected by IT dependencies. Not only do dependencies cripple our ability to affect positive customer outcomes and respond competitively to the market, it severely damages the motivation of those we work with. No matter the model we use, it is inescapable that IT dependencies are one of the most harmful aspects affecting our success. And like many of the most damaging things, they’re hard to detect and poorly understood.

Footnote

I’d like to thank you for sticking with me on this one. It might not be the longest article but it’s been one of the most challenging and rewarding. I intend on revisiting this in order to expand on my original thoughts. I’d be delighted to hear your opinions.

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