Motivating a project team

by Ty Kiisel, @task - When writing about and discussing project leadership with friends, colleagues and readers, I have noticed a recurring theme in some of the questions I get asked, including:

1. How can I actually trust the project team to self-direct their work?

2. What is the best way to keep members of the project team motivated?

Trust the Team

I have always believed what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Trust men, and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great."

I'll admit that what I'm about to say is probably easier said than done, but worth the effort. I have had the opportunity to work as a team member or a project leader on many teams over the years, and believe that fundamentally people "step up" when given the opportunity. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone will. In those instances, I think it's important to step back and evaluate whether or not that particular team member should remain on the team.

That being said, I recognize that not all project teams have the luxury of picking who's on their team in the real world, but depending on the organization, project leaders probably have a lot of influence. For any project team to be successful, it's critical to jettison the dead weight that refuses to contribute to the team or doesn't add value. The burden of doing more with less includes doing it with the right people, or projects are doomed from the start.

Motivating Teams

I don't think the argument between the carrot and the stick applies to project teams. The stick has never been a long-term solution to motivating anyone. Fear is only a motivator for a short period of time, but is ultimately a credibility destroyer and eventually team members tire of being threatened or insulted, and leave -- or worse, they leave mentally but stay physically.

There's also been a lot of discussion in leadership circles about whether or not the carrot really works. I don't think anyone would argue that better compensation is always appreciated, but I know some very well compensated people who are still unhappy in their work.

As a general rule, I believe that people are really driven by a desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Let's face it, most of us don't spend our time changing the world, curing cancer or fostering world peace, but there is value to what all of us do. Team members who are allowed to share in the vision and understand how their role contributes to the success of a worthwhile endeavor tend to be engaged and motivated. (And a good compensation package doesn't hurt.)

I don't pretend to have all the answers; there are just my observations and opinions. I am a firm believer in people's desire to do good work. I've worked with very few people who didn't want to be good employees and team members.

Ty Kiisel writes about project management issues and best practices for @task Project Management Software. Follow Ty on Twitter: @tykiisel

For more project management tips, see:

How to say no nicely: A tip for project managers

Project management: Scrapping a doomed project

Project Management: 4 Questions To Ask Before Starting Any Project

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