The Do's and Don’ts of Cultivating a Winning IT Culture

Jeremy Freeman, CTO and Co-founder at Allstacks, shares his perspective and experience around what it takes to create a winning IT culture.

What it takes to win

When it comes to building an efficient and successful IT team, combating burnout is a top priority for IT leaders. It’s easy for the work environment to become a pressure cooker that brings out everyone’s worst impulses and slowly transforms the office into a toxic environment. The top job of any IT leader is creating a culture that combats burnout, encourages a sense of trust and comradery, and rewards team members for contributing to a positive atmosphere. Of course, this is all easier said than done, so here are a few tips to keep in mind as you strive to build an IT culture that is both welcoming and highly effective:

DO: Be the primary example of how to choose the best actions daily.

Culture is the total of the day-to-day decisions each employee makes. This could include choosing kindness over blame or choosing to focus on outcomes over outputs. A strong leader should strive to be the primary example of how to make the best choices every day that will help build trust, infuse a sense of community, and encourage a positive attitude for the whole team.

DO: Talk consistently with your team about why the company’s cultural rules are important.

Having a list of cultural rules in writing is a helpful reminder, but building that list is only the start. It’s critical to walk the walk and talk the talk. Leaders should both lead by example and also talk about why these rules are important in day-to-day interactions. Seeing leaders embrace cultural rules and extol their values will encourage others to buy in. 

DO: Provide instant feedback.

Letting mistakes go unacknowledged can allow a small problem to become a big one. One strategy to prevent this is to constantly provide [and invite!] feedback when people feel incorrect choices are being made. A coaching and feedback model can help your team grow into a strong and efficient unit. When you detect a problem, bring it up immediately. Start your feedback with the impacts. For example: - “Your comments in yesterday’s team meeting were problematic because they made everyone defensive and that prevented us from tackling the issue in a constructive way.” It is essential to follow up with a suggestion on how the team member could have approached it differently. This feedback-based strategy allows you to focus on the impacts of bad culture in day-to-day interactions. As you address these small daily missteps, the instant feedback will stop small mistakes from becoming big disruptions, and your culture will improve. 

DO: Seek internal support for building a winning IT culture.

Often times you may not need much support to implement your initial changes. It is really important to start adopting a winning strategy, like the model for providing constructive feedback, with your own direct reports. Once they understand how it can help them through examples, encourage them to try the same feedback with their teams. If you are trying to instill a change laterally or “up” the management chain, use the same model to provide and even ask for specific feedback. Your team will see the cultural improvement and will want to learn more about your magical culture-building ability.

DON’T: Discourage a winning IT culture.

Sometimes leaders with the best of intentions can inadvertently discourage a positive IT culture. The most common way this happens is when well-meaning leaders transition the organization into a command-and-control-based team. While there are times when that may be needed, taking a rigid management stance may create a false sense of alignment. What may initially look like a "winning" culture, may just be fear-based compliance. When people have the autonomy and coaching to make their own positive decisions, they start to understand why these things are important, and it’s never just because the “boss said so.”

Set a goal to have your lasting legacy as a leader be a winning IT culture

The true measure of a leader is how their team acts when they’re not in the room. Building a winning culture is no different. If you’re doing it well, it will outlast your monthly culture meeting. It may even outlast your tenure at the company. Encouraging honest and open communication, urging respect amongst team members, and empowering people to make good decisions can have a long-lasting positive impact on any company.

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