IT managers are a clever and diligent bunch, but they are completely useless when it comes to leading and managing people. That is the common perception among HR managers who have to pick up the pieces after the latest IT resignation, or after a particularly bad employee engagement survey. And research among large IT functions shows that while this is a wild exaggeration, there does seem to be something behind this bleak observation.
The same research suggested that despite today’s much trumpeted technical and digital skill gaps, the big IT capability gap is still in leadership and people management capability. CIOs seldom have enough good motivators or “people managers” at their disposal.
So their teams are often disengaged and not excited to be at work. Some of us will have worked in teams where people go through the motions, but their heart is not in the job. Compare those times with the times when you’ve enjoyed being at work, doing stuff you care about and being really productive. Bosses need to remember that engagement is not just a fashionable word used by fluffy folks in HR: it can boost profits and help clients.
Fortunately, the research shows that CIOs’ direct reports perform well at most aspects of their jobs.
Identifying and explaining strategies, planning and organizing work and people — these are done very well. And closer examination shows IT leaders are seen as honest, and as having integrity. It is mainly the leadership and people management parts of the job that let them down. Specifically, too many struggle to motivate or inspire people to throw themselves into their jobs. Result: morale problems and under-performance. So the big question is: what’s going on? How can we improve things?
Reaching hearts, not just minds
It is a truism that people’s weaknesses are the flip side of their strengths, and this provides a clue to the reason for the chronic IT people management deficit. The factor that makes IT managers good at most of their jobs is the same factor that means they struggle at leading and managing people. I am talking, of course, about the natural tendency of many IT people to be very logical and to demand binary clarity in their dealings with the world. This, obviously, is a winning trait for IT workers because of the utter clarity and structure that systems demand.
But it doesn’t work in the complex world of those ambiguous, inconsistent, capricious and often confused things we call humans. There are, of course, many people who can pick their way through a complex piece of logic or code and tune in quickly to the subtle foibles and motivations of team members. But not nearly enough of them. And maybe there never will be. So what can we do to make things better? How can IT managers reach the hearts, and not just the minds, of team members?
Can you buy your way out of trouble?
For some, the answer is simple: hire better IT leaders. But, for the above reasons, better candidates are hard to find so this is not a great option. IT has no alternative: it must knuckle down and improve the leadership of its existing managers, with all the faults they may have in this area.
The solution: poetry in action
It might seem odd, in 2017, to find the solution in a poem written in 1786. But poets are, after all, supposed to get to the heart of things and that’s what Robert Burns, the Scots poet, did when he wrote about blunders we make and how to fix them. In reading his words — translated from the old Scots dialect — think about the blunders that IT leaders might make when leading their people:
“O would some Power this gift give us:
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us…”
So one way to improve our performance is to understand how we are seen by others. And “how we are seen” is particularly important when thinking about those who look to us for leadership. So why not give IT leaders reliable and impossible to ignore data about how they are seen by team members, and why they are seen that way? That could help them to change and become more effective.
Seeing ourselves as others see us
Upward appraisal and feedback is of course perfect for this. But too often, those activities have no impact because the simplistic ratings of a few random team members are summarized in such a way that allows them to be ignored as the grumblings of a few malcontents. And managers are left to absorb such input with little or no assistance from those who can help them improve how they manage. So after a week or two they have mentally moved back to other work priorities. Result: no improvement, so morale and productivity suffers.
Upward appraisal is the penicillin of our time: the miracle drug that becomes powerless through being used too frequently, or by being sloppily administered. To develop leaders, one needs something better than the quick cursory annual 360 degree appraisal used mainly for pay management reasons. And, just like penicillin, this more robust in-depth process must be administered and maintained over a longer period.
Only by refusing to give up and by keeping leadership skills firmly on the agenda can employers make any difference to their leaders’ effectiveness. That means holding leaders’ feet to the fire of uncomfortable and undeniable truths. It also means allocating an experienced coach to help them make sense of this data. The message of any such coach is, at heart, good news: it’s not you they don’t respond to — it’s your behavior. By helping the individual understand how their behavior impacts on others, they can help identify ways of behaving that are much more effective. And put some improvement plans in place. Such help will be needed over a period of months not, as is so often the case, delivered in one or two sessions.
The actions needed
By taking this approach leaders can understand, perhaps for the first time, just how important they are to their teams. And that the details of how they behave really impacts on others. For example, their visible enthusiasm, or lack of it, is soon picked up and mirrored. Or they may unwittingly and unfairly be seen as uninterested, or reluctant to recognize good work. They may learn, too, that part of their job is to shield people from some of the uncertainty that can surround the workplace. Many of the necessary changes will be unique to them: we all have our own characteristics that can undermine our performance in unique ways.
2017 could be the year when your IT managers are systematically taken through a process that transforms their own morale and performance, as well as that of their workers. Make it a good year for clients, workers, shareholders and managers!
Iain Smith is Director of Diaz Research, a research and advisory company focusing on IT people and organization best practices. He has 25 years experience working with blue chip companies on the IT HR issues and solutions .
His clients are mainly $20billion-plus US and European companies, who recognize the specialist knowledge that he brings to the subject of organizing and managing the IT workforce. He is a keen observer of both publicized and underlying trends and this informs his thinking and approach.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Iain Smith and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.