IT leadership: 5 ways to create a culture of gratitude

Want a happier, more motivated team? Consider making individual and team recognition part of your culture
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Showing appreciation for your team falls under the category of low effort = big impact. Frequently expressing gratitude fuels a culture where people feel recognized, valued, and respected - and the best part is, anyone can do it. What matters is that recognition is personal, genuine, and specific to individuals’ contributions.

We asked winners of the 2022 Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to share a few of the unique ways they show thanks to their team members - and how these efforts impact IT culture, morale, and retention.

Read on for ideas you can replicate - from peer recognition programs, to letters to employees’ families, to fun swag, and more.

Recognize employees’ support networks

Steven Miller

Steve Miller, CTO, Steelcase Inc: The most powerful expressions of gratitude are personal. For example, a hand-written note of thanks is great. Sending that letter to an employee’s family, telling them how important they are and about the great things they do is even better. Recognizing the support network that helps that employee succeed creates a broader connection to what they do.

I also host “birthday breakfasts” every month where I provide breakfast for everyone that was born in that month. This is an opportunity to personally show appreciation for what each person does, but also give them a chance to share what is on their minds. That forum is critical to learning about potential culture, morale, and retention issues, and to show respect for what people are experiencing.

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Bring a personal touch to peer recognition

Dev Ganguly

Dev Ganguly, EVP, COO & CIO, Jackson Financial Inc: Gratitude is infectious, and dedicating time to share thanks and appreciation goes a long way in building a culture of mutual support, collaboration, and success. Internally, we spotlight individuals on our company intranet with personal and professional stories that illustrate how they are exemplifying Jackson’s corporate values of Execute, Empower, Respect and Create. We also have a formal internal recognition program that allows for accolades to be given to associates from both leaders and peers - putting the power to provide recognition into the hands of every associate.

I believe a personal touch to gratitude goes a long way, so I often make an effort to recognize members of my team in key meetings with their peers and business partners. Jackson has some of the most dedicated, driven and thoughtful associates, and it’s critical that those in leadership demonstrate how their teams’ contributions are meaningful and appreciated.

Make gratitude a part of team culture

Cathy Curley

Cathy Curley, CIO, University of Michigan – College of Literature, Science, and the Arts: We have multiple programs and structures in place to show appreciation and gratitude for the effort that our team puts in each and every day. We started an “on the spot appreciation” program last year to display immediate thanks for staff who make a personal sacrifice (extra time and/or effort) or were impacted personally in supporting/enabling the teaching, learning or research mission. We also recognize team members in this way who provide exceptional service, delight, and /or surprise as shared by faculty and staff. Staff are given their choice of fun swag when they are recognized this way.

We also have a formal staff recognition program in which peers can nominate each other for exceptional demonstration of our organizational values or contributions to strategic initiatives. Staff receive a pin for each award they receive and many wear them on their lanyards with pride.

Each week, I send a message to staff and include several shout-outs to folks who have achieved a positive result or overcome a challenge during the week. This helps to share the many different types of work we do with others across the organization and helps staff feel connected to the mission and each other. I try to provide both formal and informal ways in which staff are recognized on a daily, weekly, monthly basis and quarterly basis. By demonstrating to others this expectation of gratitude, it has multiplied and grown as part of our culture, which is greatly appreciated by our collective team.

Make words of thanks genuine and specific

Carrie Shumaker

Carrie Shumaker, Chief Information and Strategy Officer, University of Michigan - Dearborn: Expressing gratitude is an integral part of a healthy culture. I think it starts with a leader maintaining healthy personal humility and respect and empathy for their staff, so that gratitude is coming from a genuine place. Thank-yous should be prompt, specific, and connect the accomplishment to its impact on our mission of educating students. Thanking a team for finishing a project, as in: “Your team successfully implemented this project, which I really appreciate” is more powerful when it adds, “The new UI will help our students better determine what classes they still need to take in order to graduate.” It’s helpful to give customer feedback as well, such as “I talked with an adviser who says this will really help her more accurately advise students.”

IT teams always see a steady stream of problem tickets, so hearing how their work is impacting students and faculty, and/or hearing verbatim feedback from delighted users, can be very encouraging. In addition to thanking employees individually, department emails and all-staff meetings and parties should all include recognition and gratitude for recent accomplishments, and a little free food and swag never hurts, either.

Recognize people who are brilliant at the basics, not only those who go above and beyond

Jason Joseph

Jason Joseph, CDO & CIO, Corewell Health (formerly Beaumont Health and Spectrum Health): Treat people with respect, gratitude, and empowerment, and they will feel appreciated. My executive team meetings start out by discussing team members who went above and beyond. This does not always have to be extraordinary and is often about recognizing those who are “brilliant at the basics.” I make a point of sending a personal thank you message to the named individuals, and I include their managers. Sometimes team members are surprised to get a thank you note, but they always appreciate being recognized. To a great extent, appreciation is about feeling you belong. That sense of belonging contributes to our culture at Corewell Health.”

[ Check out essential advice from 37 award-winning CIOs. Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.