IT leadership: 3 ways to show gratitude to teams

It's more important than ever to let your teams know you appreciate them. Consider these tips to express gratitude thoughtfully and sincerely
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CIO Praising Progress

Here are two things that currently keep CIOs awake at night:

  • The increasing workload their teams face as companies are forced to accelerate their digital transformation agendas due to the pandemic and remote work
  • Hiring challenges and fears of attrition in the face of talent shortages

When I discussed these challenges with the instructors on our platform, one solution kept coming up again and again: Gratitude.

Showing gratitude doesn’t just mean being nice for the sake of being nice. Gratitude has real business value. A ten-year, 200,000-person study by O.C. Tanner found that 79 percent of respondents who’d quit their jobs cited lack of appreciation as a key factor in their departure. In addition, 65 percent of North Americans surveyed felt that they had not been recognized even once in the prior year. That’s a dangerous position for any company to be in.

This is why CIOs and IT leaders, in particular, must be cognizant of team morale and keep the gratitude flowing. It’s not always easy under pressure, but here are three elements to keep in mind.

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

1. Gratitude must be thoughtful and never feel cheap

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini explains how giving people a small amount of money in exchange for blood donation is actually counterproductive. People would gladly donate blood for free knowing that it goes to a higher cause. However, a pint of blood (and the time and effort spent in the donation) is definitely worth more than $20! In fact, its life-saving potential is priceless. By assigning value to the donation, we are bound to offend people, negating the gratitude meant by the gesture.

[ More on this topic: 9 ways to show gratitude to your team. ]

Let’s say that your team works through the weekend to make major improvements to one of your company’s platforms. In return, you give them Monday off. Is that gratitude? Well, not really.

Yes, you’ve given your team a break after going above and beyond, but giving back one workday to make up for a missed weekend of quality time with their family isn’t an equal trade-off. The two are not even comparable.

People will appreciate some time off to recover and recharge. Two floating paid days off might be a good place to start.

However, there are times when gratitude in the form of reciprocity is not enough. Team members will only believe that you’ve invested in their growth and professional well-being if you are willing to acknowledge your own failings. Necessitating that the team work on weekends is a sign that you’ve created an unsustainable pace of work.

In these instances – if you truly appreciate your team’s efforts – it's critical to allow them the opportunity to voice their ideas about improving work processes and architecture so acts of heroism are not necessary in the future. They have been generous with their time, and you must be generous with yours. Invite them to solve challenges with you so they feel part of something bigger.

Team members will only believe that you’ve invested in their growth and professional well-being if you are willing to acknowledge your own failings.

2. Gratitude works best when it’s personalized

If someone on your team takes initiative on a project, let them know that you appreciate them. Pull them aside, look them in the eye and speak truthfully about how much their extra effort means to you, the team, and the company. Make your thank-you’s genuine, direct, and personal.

Most individuals value physical tokens of appreciation in addition to expressed gratitude. If you choose to offer a gift, make it as personalized as you can. For example, an Amazon gift card is nice – but a cake from their favorite bakery is even nicer. Personalization means that you’ve thought about them as a person, taken the time to consider what they like, and recognize their contributions as an individual.

3. Be honest, and save effusive gratitude for when you really mean it

Contrary to the common belief that we should be lavish with our praises, I would argue that it’s better to be selective. Recognize behavior that lives up to your company’s values and reserve the recognition for situations where it is genuinely deserved. If a leader showers praise when it’s not really warranted, they devalue the praise that is given when team members actually go above and beyond. When we abuse our opportunities for recognition, they become watered down and eventually meaningless.

When you see a good opportunity, take the time to write a genuine message to share with the team. This should include some lessons learned – not only for the team but for you. Explain how this person’s personal sacrifice motivated you to become a better leader.

Above all else, trust is the glue that keeps teams together. And that trust is gained when you follow up on your promises. So, if you promised to learn something from a failure to create an environment that can operate at a sustainable pace, show it with actions. Create change. Invite your employees to create the change with you as a trusted partner. In instances like these, gratitude is shown not only with words but with actions.

True gratitude is a powerful but often overlooked tool in the leadership toolkit. In business, we’re often taught to think ahead and tackle the next foreseeable challenge. Gratitude, in contrast, requires us to look back and reflect on what has just happened. It’s critical to make the effort, especially now. At a time when the pressure is on and teams need more fuel to keep going, gratitude is the oxygen that keeps the fires alight.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Krikor Dzeronian is the co-founder and COO of Electives. Prior to Electives, Krikor led the engineering division at Acadian Asset Management and served as Director of Engineering at Eze Soft where his group was responsible for the creation of a SaaS trading platform for Hedge Funds. Krikor holds an MBA from MIT Sloan.