How to motivate IT pros

Unhappy workers are unproductive workers. Here are some tips for motivating IT pros.

I recently heard a news program remark that 85% of the people working today are either unhappy with or completely hate their job. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what effect this kind of employee dissatisfaction can have on productivity. As an IT leader, this is a huge problem for you, especially if you're on the front line.

There are some unhappy tech workers out there, but you can change that if you know what gets them excited. Here are some tips.

Starting with the obvious

It's logical to assume that higher paid workers are happier workers. Cash, in some shape or form, is a great external motivator. For example,  I was once in the final stages of a data warehousing project with a large high-tech firm, just as they were deciding to upgrade their ERP-our upstream system. They approached me with a residual project, to help maintain continuity with the data warehouse while the upgrade was being done. That's the last thing I wanted to do --until we discussed the fee. At $300,000, I actually started to like this project, and I happily did a great job.

If you use money as a motivator, keep these three rules in mind:

  • Money can be used only as a temporary motivator; it will not have lasting effect. Use it for a short stretch (i.e., three to six months).
  • Make the amount significant. A $10 gift card to Starbucks is nice, but it's not going to motivate anybody.
  • Make it clear up front what the goal is and what the reward will be when the goal is attained. If you want the team to work together, make sure it's a team-level reward and not specific to high-producing individuals.

Motivating from within

The advantage to intrinsic motivation is its permanence. If you plan to have your team for longer than a year, you must focus in this direction to keep the team members in a consistent stream of motivation. The key to understanding intrinsic motivation for technical experts comes from understanding their sense of professionalism. Most have a technical degree of some sort; some have advanced degrees. That means they've devoted a significant amount of time and energy, before they even met you, to a discipline that they care very much about. They define themselves by what they do for a living, which transcends your company.

With this in mind, you must motivate them down three paths simultaneously:

  • Through the greater good of the organization. Technical experts like to know that they're contributing to a greater good and hear what impact their contribution will have on the company. They want the company to succeed just as much as you do. Tell them specifically how their work will improve the company's situation.
  • Through the advancement of their professional skill. Give them an opportunity to master their skill as technical professionals. Send them to technical training once in a while and give them the opportunity to go vertical with their skill (i.e., learn new and advanced tools of areas they're already good at) and horizontal (i.e., learn tools in a related but different technical discipline).
  • Through the development of their problem-solving skills. Technical people are problem solvers by nature. That's what they love to do, so the more problems you give them to solve, the better they feel. It's important to note that you should allow them to solve the problems. Do not micromanage. Set the objectives and allow them to figure out the problem. It's a very rewarding experience.

Your resources are the most important part of your organization. With the vast majority of people in this economy unhappy with their jobs, it's important now more than ever that your technical team is motivated and excited to be at work, not just thankful that they have a job. Cash is OK for temporary bursts, but the real power lies in your ability to motivate from inside.

John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps executives turn chaotic information into profitable wisdom. For over 20 years, John has been an information management consultant to clients of all sizes, including Fortune 100 icons such as Sun Microsystems, Cisco, and eBay. For more information, please visit