Toxic Superiority in IT: How it Hurts Us All

It’s been awhile since I wrote something with April vacation, a respiratory infection, and life in general. It hasn’t helped that VMware has had a pretty quiet release cycle in Q1. An area I have been thinking a lot about recently is soft skills. I’ve been watching more Reddit threads than I’d like, where a constant theme has surfaced: “People enjoy tearing others down far too often to try to bring themselves up.” Today, I thought we would talk about something I’m referring to toxic superiority in the IT industry. Let’s discuss the problem that has continued to evolve in recent years.

What do I Mean By Toxic Superiority in IT?

As I wrote about a long time ago, everyone comes from somewhere. People in IT start out somewhere, whether its an intern, desktop support, help desk, etc. When you start out, it’s really challenging. You struggle from issues with confidence, trying to find out footing, etc.

The idea behind Toxic Superiority is that people have forgotten where they came from. Mostly, they paid their dues, but now “on occasion” have become pretentious jerks who sit in their ivory tower flinging insults at people they feel are serfs in their IT fiefdom.

The concept is so dissimilar than toxic masculinity, which we can all agree is a major problem. The superiority of people in IT is damaging to us all. It can take many forms. Some of the examples are:

  • Constantly interrupting when others are talking.
  • Talking down or belittling people
  • Poking fun and embarrassing others for misusing terms or saying things that they think are incorrect.
  • Minimizing or being dismissive of the contributions of others
  • Refusing to chip in or constant belief that certain jobs or asks are beneath them
  • Trying to do everything yourself because no one could possibly do what you can do.

Obviously there are countless other examples, but the overall idea is that people think they are the overlords of IT and you should go sit in your corner and revel in their greatness. Let’s discuss why this is such a problem.

Why is this Toxic Superiority Such a Problem?

I’m fully aware that writing this article is probably going to be divisive. There are people I like and respect that are guilty of this sort of behavior. Others will probably say “they should just ignore them.” Let’s be honest with ourselves, words permeate our inner most thoughts. You also have neuro-diverse personalities that will sometimes say things that can be misconstrued (like myself). Some of the reasons that toxic superiority are problematic are:

  • Creates divisiveness among and within teams.
  • Damages and potentially breaks good employees.
  • Its Self-serving and only makes you feel better.
  • Potentially stunts your own growth.
  • Overall, its counterproductive and damages the culture.

Let’s discuss a few of these more items in detail.

Creating Divisiveness with our Actions

Let’s discuss a bit what divisiveness is:

a tendency to cause disagreement or hostility between people.

Sometimes people who think they are superior have a tendency to prove that their the smartest people in the room. From experience, this can occur because of insecurity, self-esteem, lack of confidence, etc. In my own experience, I think I did this early in my career because of impostor syndrome.

Some of the ways I’ve seen this manifest are:

  • Interrupting people in meetings
  • Constantly correcting others even when its irrelevant
  • Frequently taking the contrarian point-of-view

It is a misnomer that there are no politics in IT. These sorts of behaviors are such a problem today. Most of us have worked with at minimum a few of these sorts of personalities. Our jobs are already difficult enough especially for people new to IT. When people create these problematic/hostile environments, it makes a good job into a stressful and miserable situation. The thing that makes it even more unfortunate is how often these behaviors go unchecked.

The Toll of Damaging Employees

As I just mentioned, toxic superiority can take a major toll on our psyches. Some of the behaviors that can damage people and ruin them are:

  • Spreading gossip/talking about co-workers behind their back often in a derogatory way to flex their superiority.
  • Backstabbing.
  • Creating lies/falsehoods.
  • Being dismissive and overly critical.
  • Constantly tearing people down to build themselves up.

I see this a ton especially with high-potential employees in entry-level positions like the help desk/desktop support/etc. A person is not their position. Those things are mutually exclusive. Sometimes people feel this need to talk about others, betray their confidences, tearing others down, poo-pooing their ideas, etc.

Our words hurt and doing these sorts of things to people may provide a slight boost in our own moods, but they create lasting effects. I’m a nerd just like many of you and I remember the miserable years of high school. I don’t need to relive it and neither should anyone else. Sure maybe you were bullied in high school and love the idea of being a bully now, but that doesn’t make it okay.

There are many high-potential people in IT that have been torn apart by bad people. I try to remember that many things are teachable, but when you find someone with special intangibles you should covet that. Damaging people doesn’t just damage them, but I believe that it damages you deep down in ways you don’t truly understand.

How Toxic Superiority Holds Someone Back

The last thing I wanted to cover is about a sense of superiority can hold someone back. My favorite mentor once taught me that “It’s not about what you do, but how you do it.

Some people think that tearing others down makes them look cool, smart, and like a rock star, but the truth is that it makes people wonder about you. Superiority works in some environments, which I won’t name directly but in finance for example historically that track record has existed. This is something I personally have known before I was able to get my ADHD in check. Sometimes ADHD can manifest in similar ways and most good companies will not tolerate this type of destructive behavior.

One day, you are a legit rock star doing amazing things. Fast forward a few weeks, and the house of cards is caving in.

Toxic superiority can destroy relationships, minimize great work, and spoil careers. Even the greatest talents in IT can be damaged by a whiff of egotistical behavior. I’ve seen companies where this is the difference in a raise, a promotion, or proper support. For example, if you alienate enough people you won’t have friends when you really need them when it matters.

So Why Does It Matter?

You might be asking yourself, why does it matter what this jerk is saying about this stuff? Or, who cares about people who are bad and blah blah.

The truth is if you think it doesn’t matter then you’re shortsighted. Who cares if that person said BES Server or On-Premises. If you’re really THAT pretentious that you want to make fun of people on the interwebs like a Nynex ninja then good for you. I’m honestly tired of seeing people trolling others for the words they use. So, you have an English degree? Congratulations!

People are human and make mistakes. The psychological term that some people use is rankism. I am beyond tired of the ivory tower mentality that we use in IT. This is why people don’t like IT people. If you understand what someone said, why correct them? It’s nonsense honestly and a waste of time and energy in my opinion.

But Why Does it Really Matter?

Here’s the strategy on why you want to treat others like they’re human beings. Let’s say you are an IT Engineer on a Messaging Team managing Office 365.

We should be putting in the time to develop, teach, mentor, and train people like administrators, help desk support, desktop support, etc. because by building them up it makes OUR lives EASIER. Don’t forget one small piece of advice:

As amusing as that famous quote from Caddyshack is, the spirit of it is that everyone has a role. People who like to tear apart people who ask lots of questions or need more help than the rest of us are narrow-minded. I KNOW that these people are vital to my success and I always give them whatever they need because it makes my life BETTER.

How Can We Do Better?

In the same spirit as I was just saying, there are some things we can do to help:

  • Share your work with others, e.g. blog, document, post, etc!
  • Donate a few hours per month to help mentor young engineers
  • Try to be a little more patient with people who are new because we all come from somewhere
  • Consider their point-of-view
  • Try a little bit of personal reflection and think about how you might do better
  • Spend more time on the little things at work e.g. documenting your work, building relationships, leading by example

Some Closing Thoughts

I know that some of my sentiments aren’t going to be popular, but luckily I’m not very popular. Some people I follow on Twitter have been talking quite a bit about Emotional Safety. I never realized this was a thing and as someone with ADHD, I have a ton of appreciate for the concept. We should all be safe so that we can build lasting relationships and do what we love.

We should always feel comfortable enough to be ourselves. Creating a false sense of self is very tiring. Let’s be better and do more to support the people around us. There is a constant stigma around IT and how we are these wizards that cast spells with our fancy acronyms and are unapproachable. We can be so much better and change the perception.

1 thought on “Toxic Superiority in IT: How it Hurts Us All”

  1. Pingback: This weekend’s reading and thoughts – Unstable Path

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