CIO, how does your garden grow?

Outsourcing. Layoffs. Budget cuts. Ho-hum projects. If that sounds like a description of your IT department, chances are you have a morale problem. And you’re not alone. “CIOs have to recognize that IT worker morale is at its lowest in decades,” says Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology.

With low morale as ubiquitous and insidious as spam, recognizing that the problem exists is the first, necessary step toward correcting it. As Glen points out, when the going gets tough, far too many executives tend to hide in their offices, crossing their fingers and hoping that any problem related to soft and squishy issues such as their employees’ “feelings” will somehow fix itself — maybe when the economy improves; maybe when the snows melt.

Aiding and abetting those executives in dodging the problem has been a dismal job market that has in effect prevented those disaffected employees from departing for greener fields. Of late, all the IT fields they see around them have been uniformly brown. So, with employees unhappily stuck, it’s been relatively easy for CIOs to glumly contemplate their own navels and ignore morale issues because they haven’t translated into turnover, or anything else tangible.

Well, it’s time to lift up your head, fling open those office doors and take a look around. The job market is about to improve. Eleven per cent of CIOs plan to hire IT staff this year, according to the Robert Half Technology Report. While a modest gain, that represents a six per cent improvement over last year’s hiring projections. If the fields around yours start to green up, doing nothing about the morale crisis will damage your IT department on two fronts. Employees with in-demand skills will flock to the exits, and few prospects will be knocking down your doors to replace them because poor morale is like poison: It often leaves a residue that people can smell.

Improving morale is also an issue that goes beyond mere body counts and retention statistics. The charge to do more with less that the business has laid on IT these past few years has placed a moral obligation on the shoulders of CIOs who have asked their staffs to carry the load. Making sure that the (extra) time they spend at work is productive and, yes, happy, is simply the right thing to do. Raising morale, in other words, is a moral imperative.

Tend to your garden

Where to start? First admit that you’re operating within limits. Instead of concentrating on individuals, says Glen, CIOs need to focus on creating an environment where motivation can flourish. To borrow an analogy from gardening, think of employee morale in terms of improving the soil rather than fertilizing individual plants.

CIOs can start creating that good, friable soil by coming out of hiding and finding out what ails their staff.

While there’s no cookie-cutter approach to plumbing the depths of your IT staff’s despair, certain practices work better than others. For example, employee surveys are a standard method of gleaning employee feelings, but Glen cautions they may be of limited utility.

“Surveys give you some information about precise questions, but the answers can be misleading,” he says. Employees may fear repercussions if they answer truthfully, and some pressing issues (such as hiring outsiders for all the new, cool projects) won’t be uncovered at all if there aren’t specific questions designed to ferret them out.

The best approach, says Glen, is simple. It’s called listening. Sure, everyone knows that listening to employees, customers and family members is a good thing, yet it’s a practice that gets short shrift because it requires everyone’s most precious commodity these days: time.

To tune in to their employees, CIOs need to listen to both their staff and to trusted advisers who have the gumption to tell CIOs the truth about what’s going on in the department, whether it’s good, bad or ugly. In essence, says Glen, CIOs need to work harder at developing their own internal network of people who can serve as the CIO’s eyes and ears. While there’s a danger that such folks may be viewed as informers, CIOs can quell those fears if they focus on the big picture and don’t act on any petty information that comes their way.

CIOs should also attempt to forge relationships with IT workers at every level. “Everyone hears what’s going on around the water cooler except the person in the corner office,” Glen says. For that reason, CIOs have to make a concerted and sustained effort to know people throughout the IT ranks. CIOs can do something formal, like taking a randomly selected group of employees to lunch once a month and asking them questions, or something spontaneous like walking around and inquiring about current projects. Ideally, says Glen, CIOs should do both.

What about your morale?

By listening to the concerns of the IT staff, CIOs send a strong signal to their employees that they care about them. Another strategy for sending this message is to help people put what they do in a larger context. Let’s face it: For many IT workers slogging away on tactical or maintenance kinds of projects, who haven’t seen a promotion since 1999 and wouldn’t recognize a pay raise if it slapped them in the face, work itself may not be terribly inspiring.

“A leader’s job in creating an environment in which motivation thrives involves helping employees make sense of the work they do and the contribution they make to the organization,” Glen says. Sure, debugging that database is a tad repetitive, but a well-oiled application saved the company US$125,000 last quarter and enabled customers to spend less time on the help line. That’s the kind of context that can transform drudgery into purpose. Right now, most CIOs don’t provide their employees with enough of it.

CIOs themselves frequently suffer from low morale. But it’s your job not to let your morale affect the morale of your employees. And by creating a better environment for the people who work for you, you may find that your own environment — and your morale — will improve as well.

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