13.5. Team Motivation

To build believable performances, actors start by figuring out their characters’ motivations—their reasons for doing what they do. As a team leader, you can use the same line of thinking to better understand your team members. Start by asking this question: Why do your team members do what they do? Most people work because they have to, of course. Their contributions to a team are motivated by issues that go way beyond the economic pressures of holding onto a job.

In their book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer argue that the most important motivator for any team is making meaningful daily progress toward an important goal. In their study of 12,000 daily journal entries from team members in a variety of organizations and industries, they found that a sense of accomplishment does more to encourage teamwork, on-the-job happiness, and creativity than anything else. “Even when progress happens in small steps,” Amabile et al. (2011) explain, “a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one” (Amabile et al., 2011, p. 77).

According to Amabile and Kramer 2011, the best managers focus on facilitating progress by removing roadblocks and freeing people up to focus on work that matters:

When you do what it takes to facilitate progress in work people care about, managing them—and managing the organization—becomes much more straightforward. You don’t need to parse people’s psyches or tinker with their incentives, because helping them succeed at making a difference virtually guarantees a good inner work life and strong performance. It’s more cost-effective than relying on massive incentives, too. When you don’t manage for progress, no amount of emotional intelligence or incentive planning will save the day (Amabile et al., 2011, p. 10).

As you might expect, setbacks on a project can have the opposite effect, draining ambition and creativity from a team that, only days before, was charging full steam ahead toward its goal. However, setbacks can be counterbalanced by even small wins— “seemingly minor progress events”—which have a surprising power to lift a team’s spirits, making them eager to get back to work the next day (Amabile et al., 2011, p. 80). You’ve probably experienced the pleasure that comes from checking at least one task off your to-do list. Even completing a small task can generate a sense of forward momentum that can propel a team toward larger achievements.

Through years of practical experience as an executive, consultant, project engineer, and project manager, John Nelson has gained a finely honed understanding of how to manage teams. According to Nelson’s lecture on reliable promising for EPD612: Technical Project Management, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2017), the following are essential motivators for any team:

A sense of Purpose—Individually, and as a whole, a team needs an overarching sense of purpose and meaning. This sense of purpose should go beyond each individual’s project duties. On the macro level, the sense of purpose should align with the organization’s strategy. But it should also align, at least sometimes, with each individual’s career and personal goals.

  • Clear performance metrics—How will the team and its individual members be evaluated? What does success look like? You need to be clear about this, but you don’t have to be formulaic. Evaluations can be as subjective as rating a dozen characteristics as good/not good, or on a score of 1-5.

Assigning the Right Tasks to the Right People—People aren’t commodities. They aren’t interchangeable, like a router or a hand saw. They are good at specific things. Whenever possible, avoid assigning people to project tasks based on capacity—that is, how much free time they have—and instead try to assign tasks that align with each individual’s goals and interests.

Encouraging Individual Achievement—Most people have long-term aspirations, and sometimes even formalized professional development plans. As team leader, you should be on the lookout for ways to nudge team members toward these goals. It’s not your job to ensure that they fully achieve their personal goals, but you should try to allow for at least a little forward movement.

Sailboat Rules Communication, in which no one takes offence for clear direction—On a sailboat, once the sail goes up, you need to be ready to take direction from the captain, who is responsible for the welfare of all on board, and not take offence if he seems critical or unfriendly. In other words, you can’t take things personally. Likewise, team members need to set their egos aside and let perceived slights go for the sake of the team. When you start a big project, explain that you are assuming sailboat rules communication. That means that, in a meeting, no one has the privilege of taking anything personally.

Mentorship—Team members need to be able to talk things over with more experienced people. Encourage your team to seek out mentors. They don’t necessarily have to be part of the project.

Consistency and Follow-Through—Team morale falls off when inconsistency is tolerated or when numerous initiatives are started and then abandoned. Encourage a team environment in which everyone does what they commit to do, without leaving loose ends hanging. Be on the lookout for gaps in a project, where things are simply not getting done. (Nelson, 2017)

5. Team Formation, Team Management, and Project Leadership” from Technical Project Management in Living and Geometric Order by Jeffrey Russell, Wayne Pferdehirt and John Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Essentials of Project Management Copyright © 2021 by Adam Farag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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