Team motivation is a tricky topic for some project managers. Often your project team is drawn together at short notice. People don’t know one another, and don’t have a formal responsibility to do as you ask. So, when your project is under pressure, motivating your team is the only way to enhance their performance.
The challenge of team motivation is the reality that the things that motivate us are as many and varied as we are. Different people find different things motivating, at different times. So there is no easy one-size-fits-all formula, which you can quickly apply.
The good news is that you can understand the many things that will motivate your team members, from a very simple framework. This is another of our giant guides. It will give you a comprehensive overview of what motivates team members. And in our next article, we’ll look at how you can motivate individuals, with personal leadership.
In this guide, you will find:
Team motivation is all about applying what we know about motivating individuals, to a whole team at a time. To make it easy for you to remember the principles, we’ll start with a simple framework of four basic principles of motivation.
Some things worry us deeply. So, if we do not feel that things are right, we can focus on nothing else until we get them sorted out.
Here, we’ll see things like the needs to feel safe and secure. But we’ll also see that the things we worry about don’t always motivate us at all. It’s just that if you get them wrong, then your team will be demotivated.
These are some of the most profound motivators of all. They often account for the things we do for their own sake. They lead us to a sense of pride, satisfaction, and wellbeing. When you can use these to motivate your team, you will see great results.
Humans are social creatures. Our needs to be a part of a social group, to fit in, and to be respected lead to a series of factors that lend themselves extremely well to team motivation.
When we can’t get what really matters to us: social and intrinsic rewards, material rewards often serve as proxies. These rewards come from outside and create a short term sense of wellbeing. Simple gifts can work, but you need to understand how to use them well, as part of a successful team motivation strategy.
As well as this framework, we also want to discuss how you motivate individuals in your team, day-to-day, through personal leadership. So, we will turn to that aspect of motivation in our next article. In the meantime, you may also like Interpersonal Skills for Project Managers – how to develop yours.
Our sister YouTube Channel, Management Courses, has 20 videos about different aspects of Motivation.
Check out the full Motivation course.
And I’ll refer you to individual videos where appropriate, as we work through this article. But you may also like to take a look at this one…
Perhaps it’s better to ask how pay can adversely affect team motivation.
Because the starting place is usually pretty simple for a Project Manager. Most Project Managers have no ability to control – or even influence – the pay and conditions of the people working on their project team. It’s lucky then, that pay is not often a big motivator.
Instead, pay is usually a proxy for the things that really matter to us. It is a way that our employer can show us that it recognizes our contribution. We take it as a sign of respect and, for some people, it gives a sense of status and power. The money itself is rarely a significant motivator.
If you are sitting next to a colleague, who is doing substantially the same job as you, what would you expect them to be getting paid? Probably, the answer is something like ‘the same as me.’
So, how would you feel if they let slip that they are getting paid 15 percent more? Or 20 percent?
Let’s try another one. Maybe you know your colleague is getting exactly the same salary as you are. Fine. But what if you often see them surfing the web, checking social media, taking long coffee breaks, or talking to friends on their phone? How does that make you feel, when you are working hard all day?
What you are feeling here was summed up by John Stacey Adams when he wrote about how we are motivated by fairness – or equity. We’ll talk more about this later in the article. But for here, let’s just say that since you probably can’t exert much influence over your team’s pay, it’s best to avoid the topic as much as you can.
But don’t worry, you have plenty of other ways to motivate your team.
Perhaps the best-known model of human motivation is Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. This is often represented as a pyramid.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are our our biological needs, and our needs for safety, security and a measure of certainty in our lives.
My guess is that our project team will have their biological needs met. Their pay should cover the costs for them, of housing and food. If they don’t, this will be a distraction and they won’t be able to focus on much else, other than earning more money. This could be important to you if it means you have a team member who needs to work outside of your project to earn sufficient income, and if that other job leaves them too exhausted or not committed enough to fulfill their team role properly.
There is a second lesson to learn about bedrock motivation. There are some things that don’t motivate us, but they do de-motivate us if we don’t get them. Nobody will get excited about coming to work for a Project Manager who treats the courteously and with respect. Nor will they choose a project role, just because the offices have clean restrooms.
But, if you fail to treat your team with good basic manners, or if your office cleaners can’t keep the restrooms clean, people will quickly complain, and feel demotivated.
These are what Frederick Herzberg called ‘Hygiene Factors’. It is very much part of your role to get these right. If there is something that’s really bothering your team, you must make sure to get it fixed. If you don’t, the dissatisfaction can fester, and there will be nothing you can do to build strong motivation.
Intrinsic motivators are the reasons why we feel good about doing something, when no one else is looking. Let’s look at seven of them.
Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to motivate your project team is to share with them the reason why they have come together to do this project.
If people do not know the reason why you are asking them to do something, they will never be fully motivated to do it. On the other hand, when they understand the purpose behind a task, and they recognize its value, that task becomes intrinsically motivating. When we feel that our effort has a purpose that we understand and, better still, share, we find ourselves wanting to do it.
We all want to have control in our lives. So, giving your team members control over some aspect of their work will be motivating. Psychologists refer to this as ‘autonomy’ – the ability to direct our own work and make our own choices. The more popular workplace jargon is ’empowerment’.
Whatever you call it, by selecting the level of tasks you give to each team members, you can get the balance right between:
When I talked about the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, I referred to our need for certainty. Yet we also have the opposite need too.
Because too much certainty is dull, boring, and even stifling. That’s one of the reasons why Project Managers choose our career: our craving for a little novelty and uncertainty is greater than our need for certainty.
Giving team members a plan that is too rigid can rob them of autonomy and uncertainty. So, it can leave them feeling stifled. One solution is to hand over some control, so they can build their own plan around specific outcomes and deadlines in a master plan. Another way to balance too much certainty, is to craft project roles with a bit of variety.
Of course, to get this right, you have to get a sense of each individual on your team, and select the right place for each one, on the certainty – variety spectrum. Remember that team motivation always boils down to individual motivation in the end!
Some of your team members will be curious people. They will be motivated by discovering, learning, or trying new things. Project work will often appeal to them because of the novelty.
Where you can, create opportunities for your team to exercise their natural curiosity. Let them explore new ideas and opportunities, and encourage them to question everything. ‘Why’ is the ultimate expression of curiosity.
A good project environment is a place where your team members can always be learning. You facilitate this in the work assignments you set people. But you can also ensure that you set up regular chances for your team to share what they have learned in Lessons Learned sessions within team meetings.
One of the things that most motivates some of us is the feeling that we have achieved something. For this reason, milestones are one of your most powerful team motivation tools.
If you set lots of small milestones, your team members will frequently be aware of what they are achieving. This will have a major motivating effect. Contrast it with yet another day of making some small progress to a big milestone three weeks away. At the end of that day, I feel like I’ve not really achieved anything.
If you possibly can, create mini-milestones for every work-package, that will see a visible achievement every day.
How have you felt in the past when you realised you did something really well? Especially if it was the first time?
Giving people the chance to achieve high levels of mastery and create measurable excellence is a huge intrinsic motivator. Two approaches are common:
Once we have achieved mastery, however, a task quickly becomes routine. There’s too much certainty and therefore little motivation. So you need to be able to spot when this happens, and step in to increase the challenge that this team member has to meet.
As social creatures, all humans find social interactions motivating. Mostly, they are a positive motivator. We want more:
Sometimes, social motivation appears negative:
However, in all cases I can think of, these apparent negative motivations are really positive motivations in disguise. For example:
Here, we will examine some of the most powerful social motivators that you can use in your projects, for team motivation.
Do you work full time? If you do, then did you realise that you spend more of your waking time with your colleagues than you do with your family, friends, and life partner?
Is it any wonder that people see work as a valuable source of social relationships? We’re there and awake more than we’re with our families.Tweet
A nice way to boost team motivation is to arrange work patterns and out-of-work opportunities to enhance workplace relationships. Not everyone will take you up on the out-of-work part, but some will. For them, developing new relationships is an enticing aspect of taking on a temporary project role.
The camaraderie of working together is also something many of your team members will enjoy. It is also something that it’s easy to lose with the shift towards increasingly remote virtual teams, and home-based working.
So, where you can, find opportunities to co-locate small teams of people and set them to work together on a part of your project. Problem solving is a partcicularly good way to build this kind of fellowship.
Some people enjoy the practice of collaborating. So, another team motivation tactic to consider is this:
Instead of allocating task A to one person and task B to another, why not allocate tasks A and B to the two people. Not only will they get the pleasure of working together but, with two minds and two different sets of experience, it is likely that both tasks can be done better this way.
Our need to conform is a deep one. So, by allowing your team to create group norms, more people will feel comfortable, than not.
Conformity is one reason some people like to wear the project baseball cap, as an example. But some people don’t, so only make conformity mandatory where there is a very good reason to do so, like health and safety.
If you have built a strong community among your team, then a sense of duty to that team can be your friend. My tip is never to exploit this. But, if your project is running late, and one or two volunteers like and respect you enough to offer to work at the weekend, you may find a snowball of other team members signing up.
As far as I can tell, the principal reason why well-paid people moan about their pay, is that it is a way for them to feel recognized by their employer. As a manager and a leader, a Project Manager must recognize the contributions of your team as a whole, and of individuals.
This does not need to be an elaborate awards ceremony. A simple conversation where you acknowledge a contribution and say thank you can work really well.
And, if you want to level-up the impact, try a hand-written note, or an email copied to the person’s line manager.
You can’t make one team member respect another. But it is true that our need for respect means that the chance to earn respect is motivating.
So frame some roles or tasks as ones that will earn respect – or at least be worthy of it. Also, you can act as a role model in showing respect for colleagues who have earned it.
Respect is a step towards a sustainable good reputation. Motivate team members by showing how their work on the project will contribute to their reputation within the organization and with their colleagues. And also encourage them to think about how to crystallize the reputational gains through the standard reputation currency in the world of work; their resumé, or CV.
Not everyone is motivated by the promise of gaining status. But some are, and others are equally motivated by the chance to keep out of the limelight. As a lever of team motivation, status is therefore something to be used with care. You need to choose people for status roles based on their capability and their desire.
This is one to beware of, so I shall mention it purely to acknowledge its role. A desire for power and influence is linked to status, but can take an uglier form, where people internally conceive that power means power over others. Creating the opportunity for talented people to gain positions of influence is one thing, but where you sense that power is a motivator, watch carefully how a team member uses it.
The ultimate positive social motivation is the drive to make a contribution to a social group. In the case of a project, this social group can be the project team – or a sub-team within it.
Or it can be the beneficiaries of the project. If you are working on a project that will deliver public good, social benefit, or worthwhile advancement for society, this is likely to be a hugely powerful form of team motivation.
There is a strong case to be made that extrinsic motivators, like rewards, are nothing more than proxies for social or intrinsic motivators, which are what really matter. For example, a prize can be seen as a proxy for respect, or even an acknowledgment of mastery.
So it is often far better to focus on the social and intrinsic motivators than to try to give external rewards. This should come as a relief to most project managers, who will find it hard to access funding to pay for them.
Indeed, there is something more to say…
The ‘Over-justification hypothesis’ suggests that, when you receive an external reward for something that you found intrinsically rewarding, then the extra incentive fails. In fact, it produces a demotivating effect. The reason – so the hypothesis goes – is that the extrinsic reward suggests to our subconscious that the task is not truly rewarding in itself.
Symbolism matters, often the really motivating extrinsic reward is celebrating the success, rather than rewarding it.
This brings me to my favourite team motivation technique of all…
When you celebrate your team’s success, they know you have recognized it, and they recognize it themselves. This makes them more confident, and so improves their motivation and often performance.
We’d love to hear your ideas, experiences, and tips. Let us know in the comments below. I’ll respond to every comment.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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