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Squeeze the Best Out of Your IT Staff

Master the art of unique motivation

Do you have a great manager who knows how to motivate and reward his or her staff? Tell us why you think your boss is an exceptional manager. We'll pick the winners and give them the recognition they deserve in a future issue of Windows IT Pro. To nominate your boss, go to and enter InstantDoc ID 45249.

As an IT manager, you face the important challenge of getting the most from your employees. Perhaps you have a staff that already feels overworked. How do you motivate that staff when new projects materialize and your boss denies your requests for additional employees? The ability to maximize the efficiency of an overworked staff is what separates great IT managers from good IT managers.

What does a great IT manager do that a good IT manager doesn't? Motivate, motivate, motivate—and I'm not talking about the occasional pep talk or a Lombardi-esque halftime speech. Great managers motivate not only their teams, but also the individuals on those teams.

Building Individual Morale
To motivate and retain employees, you must understand how they want to be rewarded. Nearly everyone's preferred reward structure lies in some combination of compensation, work-life balance, and recognition. Compensation includes salary, bonuses, and fringe benefits but isn't limited to monetary compensation. For example, ad hoc rewards such as gift certificates and tickets to sporting events are also important forms of compensation, provided they're awarded frequently. Work-life balance includes rewards such as time off, flexible working hours, and the ability to work from home. Recognition includes formal awards, public acknowledgments, and title changes.

Different employees will value different combinations of motivators, and these combinations will change over time as aspects of employees' work life and home life change. Younger employees are often motivated more by compensation and recognition than by work-life balance; employees with families are more often motivated by work-life balance. Rewarding employees within their preferred reward structure helps reduce stress, increase productivity, and improve long-term, individual motivation. Rewarding employees outside of their reward structure does little to motivate employees in the long term.

You likely have limited resources with which to reward your employees, so feel free to get creative. Suppose one of your employees has recently worked above and beyond the call of duty. You could reward him or her with a $150 dollar prepaid gift card (compensation), an afternoon off (work-life balance), a special award at a team meeting (recognition), or perhaps a combination of two or more of these rewards. Which do you choose? Knowing what an individual employee values most at a given time eliminates the guesswork and lets you maximize your reward budget.

If you don't already have a reward budget, it's usually easiest to think of the budget in terms of dollars per person per year. In general, a budget that allows $300 per person per year will help keep your employees motivated in the long term. You'll be surprised how far a $25 gift certificate to a movie theatre will go.

You can also build individual morale by talking to employees about reward structures. Periodically ask your employees how they value each of the three categories of compensation. Ask them to define their preferred rewards in each category. By doing so, you'll be prepared to give appropriate rewards to employees—and you might also learn a lot about your employees.

Building Team Morale
Team morale is contagious—which makes it both powerful and dangerous. Although good managers recognize when morale is low, great managers are continuously striving to build team morale. You can build team morale in several ways, but typically it involves three principal tasks: building team identity, setting clear goals, and letting loose.

Building team identity. Before a team can be effective, it must establish an identity. The team must operate as a single entity rather than as a collection of individuals. The seminal team-building work is Dr. Bruce W. Tuckman's 1965 paper "Developmental sequence in small groups." In the paper, Tuckman outlines the following four stages of team building.

  • Forming—When team members join the group, they're dependent on the manager, and they focus on distinct, individual tasks. Communication is poor.
  • Storming—Individual egos and personalities clash as the team becomes less insular and works on meta-tasks—that is, distinct individual tasks that combine to form a higher-level team task. Communication is often contentious.
  • Norming—Team leaders emerge. Team members give and take constructive criticism. The focus starts to shift from tasks and meta-tasks to solutions and strategies.
  • Performing—Team members begin to identify first with the team. Communication is open, honest, and positive. The focus is on delivering solutions and strategic goals by accomplishing tasks and meta-tasks without requiring direct leadership from the manager.

During each of these stages, IT managers must not let team members get discouraged. In early stages, the manager will likely need to closely direct team interaction. To help accelerate the building of a team identity, you might encourage activities as simple as having team members write down their three favorite movies. Team members can then match the movies to each person and start building simple, common bonds.

Setting clear goals. Few things damage team morale as much as the lack of a sense of mission or objective. Be sure to set clear, obtainable goals for your team and work with team members to build a strategy to attain those goals. Fortunately, IT is a nearly perfect business unit for setting clear goals because it offers so many readily measurable criteria. Goals should meet the SMART rubric. (SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timed.) For example, a Help desk manager might set a goal of reducing the number of calls on the top three support problems by 25 percent within 6 months. After working with the team to build a strategy for accomplishing this goal and assigning responsibilities for completing tasks within the strategy, the Help desk manager can chart progress toward the goal.

Letting loose. In theater and film, directors and actors must learn to manipulate the emotional attachment of their audience. Otherwise, they're entirely at the mercy of audience members' state of mind. Have you ever wondered why some of the funniest films are the most heartbreaking? The director makes you laugh so that he or she can later make you cry. The same concept applies to team morale. Occasionally letting loose with your employees at interesting and fun morale-building events can make the prospect of putting in long stressful hours easier to digest. Morale-building events might include taking the team out for dinner with their significant others, going to breakfast as a team one morning per week, arranging a team cooking lesson, or racing go-carts for an afternoon. And don't forget to celebrate major milestones and accomplishments. The party at the end helps unify the team, the company, and the project. It's the outward expression of the satisfaction the team feels after putting in all the hard work.

Great managers always have their finger on the pulse of team and individual morale. Using the tips in this article and your own ideas, you can build morale and evolve into a great manager. The resulting gains in productivity and organizational health, as well as the decreases in employee turnover and job-related stress, will help you make a strong case to your supervisor about your ability as a manager.

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