Published here August 2013


Musings Index

Motivating Your Project Team

In a recent post in LinkedIn, Ian Mitchell[1] poses the question "How do you motivate your Project Team?"[2] Good question, but it is also a perennial one. It is central to project performance and presumably also to project success. Indeed, you might have thought that by now the answer would not only have been well established, but also institutionalized in various guidelines to project management. But apparently this is not so.

Finlay Parker responds with "4 Ways to Motivate Your Project Team" thus:

  1. Set realistic goals
  2. Measure Performance
  3. Celebrate Success
  4. Know your Team

We think you need to know your Team first, but otherwise, so far so good. However, at this point it is worth while asking what do we mean by "motivation". Simply put, it means releasing the forces - enthusiasm, gusto, and zest - that induce individuals to perform their best on the project.

Bill Duncan[3] chimes in with a more substantive recommendation:[4]

"When it comes to motivation, the foundation is built on Herzberg. Get a copy of his 1969 Harvard Business Review article."

True, this is a valuable read, but we think this specific issue goes back earlier than that - to psychologists' discussions in the 1950s that crystallized in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. This was followed later by Herzberg's controversial Motivator-Hygiene theory. Author Vijay Verma brought these two theories neatly together in 1998 in his "Review of Selected Literature, 1950 - 1970",[5] in particular in his Figure 1: Maslow's Modified Hierarchy of Needs.[6]

From this one can see that the response to the original question is far from simple. Nevertheless, we think that project managers in particular are in a unique position to motivate their teams. First and foremost the questioner specifically states project team and not just any team. One can reasonable assume then, that the members of that team are project-oriented people in the first place, and not just working-for-a-living folks. This makes a big difference. However, if the latter should be present, then they probably need to be reassigned to business-as-usual type work.

Assuming that the necessary care-and-feeding attributes of the employees' working environment are in place, then the benefits of a really project-oriented team can only be realized if the project manager presses the right buttons to set the right project culture. This means that project managers must be very clear in their own minds, and equally clearly express to the team, the following:

  • What the project is all about and why it is so exciting;
  • What the project objective are in terms of what benefits the resulting products are intended to bring (Check the project's Business Case here);
  • How the outcome will impact in a positive way those using the product;
  • How the project work will be divided up amongst those best able to do it and coordinated amongst colleagues;
  • How every effort will be made by project management to remove obstacles to individual progress;
  • How the project will provide stretch challenges for those willing to accept the challenges and maybe even a stepping stone to even bigger projects;
  • The extent of freedom to exercise creativity, in other words the degree of individual responsibility and expectation of reliability within the project team as a whole;
  • How collective success will be rewarded.

Be aware, and make this clear, that it is unrealistic to expect all the work to be satisfying all the time. There will inevitably be "grunt" work - but that is a part of life! Nevertheless, even this will be recognized as a necessary contribution to the project.

While on the subject of motivation, it is worth remembering that the following are positive turn-ons: Recognition for work well done; Increased responsibility and status; Advancement; Opportunity for intellectual growth; Opportunity for personal achievement; Opportunity to network; Flexible working; Good communication; Participation in the project's planning and decision-making; and the project manager's positive and enthusiastic leadership.

At the same time, the following are distinct turn-offs: Constraints of company policy and administration; An over-bearing bureaucracy; Below-average compensation; Poor quality supervision; Poor communications; A poor working environment, either sociologically or physically; and A negative attitude of the project leader.

Armed with these suggestions, and your management's authority to implement them, motivating your team should be fun and rewarding. Just make sure that you get these issues settled with your management first!

1. Programme Director at American Express, Warrington, UK.
2. See
3. Well-known trainer and consultant, Greater Boston Area, USA.
4. See
5. Verma, Vijay, Project Management Institute's Annual Seminar/Symposium "Tides of Change", Long Beach, California, USA, 1998.
6. See This is part of a set of six papers describing our search for a best practices linkage from project classification through management style to project success that we conducted in 2001, see, starting in December 2001.
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