Motivation incentives for IT staff when salary increases not an option

How can you provide motivation incentives for IT staff members when you can't increase salaries? Offer them meaningful work and IT job opportunities, advises our CIO columnist.

In recessionary times, how do you motivate your IT staff when you're unable to raise salaries?

Niel Nickolaisen
The Real Niel
Niel Nickolaisen

Let me start by having you think about this: What was the best IT staff job you ever had? (Hopefully, it's the job you have right now.) What made it the best job you ever had? I am going to go out on a limb and say that the motivation incentives that made it such a great job were not based solely on your compensation or salary increases. You loved the IT jobs you undertook because they were meaningful and fulfilling, not because you were highly paid.

One of the best IT job opportunities I ever had was when I was a young engineer. My employer quickly learned that I had average to below-average engineering skills but better-than-average leadership abilities. After a relatively short time on the job, my employer promoted me to manage the other engineers. This turned out to be one of the most difficult yet rewarding IT job opportunities in my career. I had to hone my IT management skills quickly. I had to motivate people and get a massive volume of design work done. I had to develop the softer skills I lacked -- all while being the lowest-paid person in the group.

I reflect back on that experience when I consider motivation incentives for attracting and retaining great IT staff talent without guaranteed salary increases in this economic recession. It taught me that most of us are not entirely motivated by money. This does not mean that money is unimportant, but that as long as we are being paid and treated fairly, we really enjoy doing meaningful work. As a leader, I have learned that one of my most important roles is to make sure that what I ask my IT staff to do matters, is interesting and helps them achieve their own development goals.

Sounds simple, right? It has not been simple for me as a CIO. If I want to make sure that the work my IT staff does is meaningful to both me and them, I have to find a balance between the needs of the organization and the needs of the individuals on my staff. I approach this task using what I call the "X Model."

Imagine an X. One leg of the X represents the IT organization's needs. These are the things on our IT project list, our strategic initiatives and our tactical imperatives. The other leg of the X represents the career and life needs of my IT staff members. As a leader, I need to make sure these two legs intersect and form the X. I like the visual of the X because it reminds that my job requires both legs -- otherwise, the X cannot stand.

I define and deliver the "organizational needs" leg when I engage my IT staff in our strategic and tactical planning. This provides context for their tasks and helps them understand how their work is meaningful to the organization. I define and deliver the "personal needs" leg by spending time with all my staff members and understanding their goals. We then build an individual development plan that define how the work I give them will intersect with their interests, goals and desire for future IT job opportunities.

Some years ago, my software development manager told me that her goal was to have a job like mine. "Like mine?" I asked. "Do you want an early heart attack or ulcer?" She remained convinced that she would not only enjoy a job like mine but also be good at it. With that as her goal, we brainstormed the types of experience she would need in order to get a "job like mine." We then looked over our project portfolio and task list to see which of these she could own -- thus creating an intersection of the IT organization's needs and her goals. We decided she should lead a critical but not-too-complex infrastructure project that would give her IT-operations experience. She did well, and we moved on to the next intersecting task.

Along the way, both she and the IT organization benefited. Even better, she was fully engaged and motivated. In order to be fair to her, I proactively increased her compensation as she added more value to the IT organization. But she never once came to ask me for a salary increase. Why not? Because her work was meaningful and was helping her achieve her goals.

Given the economic realities of the past couple of years and the lingering uncertainties for 2010, one of my critical goals as a CIO for 2010 is to make sure I am balancing the "organizational needs" leg of the X with my IT staff members' "personal needs" leg. This is my proven way to make sure I retain and provide motivation incentives for my talented, dedicated staff and provide IT job opportunities that allow them to grow, even when salary increases are not an option.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at nnick@wgu.edu.

This was first published in January 2010

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