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The Importance of Motivation in Project Management
By Michael L Young

A poorly motivated team has been known to unravel even the best project plan. A good project manager needs to know how to harness the initial excitement that comes with starting a project and use it to maintain motivation – leading to success throughout the project’s lifecycle. We now know that contemporary project managers need to be more than just schedulers and contract managers. They need excellent skills in managing those complex human elements that have the potential to bring any project down.

Motivation Theory and how it works

Most people who’ve been around management for a while would have heard of the key management theories about motivation. There’s the difference between intrinsic (like values and beliefs) and extrinsic (like money and recognition) motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is also often referred to. This theory proposes that people need to meet lower level goals such as the need for food, shelter and security before they are motivated by higher level goals such as the need for achievement and social acceptance.

All these theories are useful to give project managers ideas on how to motivate a team but at I have found that over time there are some key de-motivators and good motivational techniques that are the same across most projects. It is true that, often because a project is new, technology is exciting and new relationships are forged, at the start of a project most people are most motivated to work towards goals and achieve good results. The team often works well through sheer determination of individuals to create an interesting role for themselves and achieve recognition.

With the same degree of predictability, we find that unless a good strategy is put in place to maintain commitment levels over the longer term, the individual and teams levels of motivation typically dwindles from the middle to the end. A key role of the project manager is to create an environment in which individuals can maintain high levels of motivation in the beginning and maintain it throughout as problems are encountered.

Motivators and De-motivators

Let’s look at what turns people off and on in project work. In my experience, the biggest de-motivator is when a project receives poor support from senior management of the client organisation. Other demotivators include: internal conflict, an absence of effective performance management, micro-management or disparity in work allocation or rewards. It becomes clear that before even considering a strategy to build and maintain motivation, a project manager needs sufficient skills to be able to address de-motivators.

Project managers need to be able to garner stakeholder and client support and drive and manage expectations. They need the skills to effectively manage conflict within the team and understand how to match roles and salary levels to skills and development needs. All this needs to be done while maintaining open, effective communication with the team.

Conversely, I have found that intrinsic motivation, such as instilling in the project team an initial belief in and enthusiasm for the outcomes of the project is the number one contributor to good motivation in project teams. Other strong motivators tend to be regular and ongoing recognition for a job well done and establishing good relationships with team members and stakeholders. Money and career incentives are important but less strong motivators.

What initiatives can motivate people?

I have found that there are a few approaches to motivation that can generally get good results in teams – regardless of the industry or knowledge level.

  • Setting Goals: This is about getting team members to ‘buy into’ a project. It is about explaining, not just the required outcomes but, how the objectives relate to the organisation and its overall priorities. It is also important to get the team to contribute when setting goals, otherwise they will see it as a ‘management imposed’ solution.
  • Innovation: A good motivator we have identified is that of establishing a culture of innovation and celebrating success when new ideas come to fruition. To enable this requires providing ample time for interaction within the team – to ‘bounce ideas off’ one another. It is also important to allow the team to challenge assumptions.

  • Group Problem Solving: When the team comes across a sticky problem, encourage participants to use creative ways to reach a resolution together. In this instance, the project manager facilitates development of the solution.

  • Organic Team Development: Don’t try to force the team to grow in on direction. Provide opportunities for employees to work together on tasks, train, and learn from, each other, which leads to productive relationships being formed naturally. A truly effective team plays of each members strengths and minimises each individuals weaknesses. Also provide opportunity later in the project for team members to work with different staff.

  • Celebrate Wins: When your team reaches a milestone – such as attaining executive approval on a key element of the project – recognise their hard work. Lunches, trophys, letters of appreciation, a mention at team meetings and publishing stories about key contributors in the newsletter are some ways that recognition can be achieved. Never underestimate how powerful a simple ‘thank you’ can be.

  • Set an Example: Team members will learn from the leader’s behaviour and as a result will mirror such behaviours. As a project manager, you need to be sure your actions and words are consistent. Your enthusiasm and your reactions to adversity will guide the team and their behaviour.

  • Identify What’s in it for Them: Whether it is an important social project that aligns with their values, or it gives them an opportunity to gain a qualification and earn sufficient money to achieve personal goals – team members are ultimately concerned with their own needs first. It comes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy – the key to motivating team members is to translate project goals into something of personal value. This is about Project Managers getting to know what’s important to individual team members: what makes them tick.

Achieving Excellence Through Motivation

Excellence in project management is achieved through developing a kit-bag of skills. Of course experienced PMs should know how to prepare a project plan, identify and manage risks and work through procurement and contract management. However it is the higher level business skills such as communication, stakeholder management, conflict resolution and the ability to create and maintain motivation in the team – that are the difference between mediocre results and award-winning success.

Michael Young is Principal Consultant with ‘Transformed’ – Project Management Unleashed.

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