Project Management Institute

Get your ducks in a row


Motivating Teams Is Often Not Easy; Very Few People Are “Natural Leaders”

Studies imply that leadership is inherent in most people but it needs to be developed to reach the full potential. Philosophers and researchers going as far back as the 1800s have stated that there are very few “great men.” Leaders like Julius Caesar, Mahatma Ghandhi, Winston Churchill, and Nelson Mandela are cited as those rare examples of great men. The common denominator for these men seems to be their ability to inspire people to do things that they would not normally believe they could achieve. It also seems that the expression “cometh the moment, cometh the man” is very true. When society is in dire need of a charismatic and inspiring leader, one will step forward from the shadows and make those dramatic and sweeping statements that inspire the population to reach new heights.

John C. Maxwell, in his books Developing the Leader Within You and Developing the Leaders Around You, gave good guidance on developing leadership both in ourselves and in others. Jim Collins in Good to Great and Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People also discussed leadership development.

All of these authors talk about the need to inspire people, to lead by example, or to give people clear objectives, yet none of them seems to give project managers that one magic tool that will allow project managers to measure the effectiveness of their teams and the value of the motivational efforts put in place.

This paper attempts to share a few critical thoughts on how project managers can use a practical approach combined with some simple, but very relevant, metrics to help inspire their project teams to achieve what was previously considered as impossible.

Project Manager Background

Many (but not all) project managers come from “hard technical” backgrounds like engineering, sciences, IT, research, etc., and as such, project managers have a propensity to analyze not just what they are doing but also who they are working with in terms of mathematics, statistics, or other “value driven” methods

Secondly, formal management education mostly teaches project managers to set goals or targets, measure specific business-related results, and focus on short-term deliverables rather than longer-term capabilities. It should be recognized that over the past 20 to 30 years, this focus has indeed started to shift more toward developing future capabilities, but this still needs to propagate through the world of project management.

In a similar way, most project management training programs teach project managers (other than the basic technical skills) methods for decomposing the project to manageable details, to measure specific tangible results (EVM), and to “manage by exception” to maintain the baselines.

As a result, project managers are often ill equipped to really inspire their teams to exceed (or sometimes just plain meet) expectations.

Motivation Efforts Can Be Counter Productive

Expected Results Not Equal to Actual Results

“Travail plus pour gagner plus” was a slogan coined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It means that if you want to earn more, then you need to work harder. The author believes Mr. Sarkozy was restating Vrooms Expectancy Theory with the intention to motivate the French workforce to become more productive. As anyone living in France at the time would have noted, this did not have the desired effect; many workers were “outraged” at this apparent audacity and in fact, in many cases productivity was seen to go down. This negative response could be partially due to the way the message was shared but also could be due to the general feeling that “I'm already working hard and not getting paid enough, why should I have to work harder? It probably won't change anything anyway.”

Almost everywhere in management practices, things like SMART objectives are being used as a way of both motivating performance and as a way to set targets for measuring performance. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the objectives are more DUMB (Diffuse, Unmeasurable, Meaningless, & Boring) than SMART. Anyone who has been given a very fuzzy or unreachable target will recognize how this immediately becomes a demotivator. Boring tasks are even more demotivating.

Results Appear to Be Opposite to Desired

Extrinsic motivators like more reward for more work can actually have a completely opposite effect to the one wanted. In 1971, Edward L. Deci explored why people do what they do, in other words, what really drives people. Daniel Pink (2009) expanded on this in his book Drive.

In brief, it was found that if you offer people more money to produce better or more results, you can often see completely unexpectedly negative impacts. Experiments were conducted with children and adults in different cultural or economic environments. The findings were, as Pink puts it, a “little bit freaky”—when offering tangible, extrinsic rewards to people asked to perform creative or intellectual tasks, a large reward would actually decrease performance and lead to worse results than expected. In other words, the more you offer, the less you get! This seems to be totally counter to what would be expected, and therefore implies that our standard approach of dangling carrots in front of people will not work on anything other than the most basic or mechanical tasks. This last point will be discussed later in the paper.

Standard Views of Motivation in the Workplace

Standard View

The common or “normal” view of motivational theories implies that you should reward the behavior you want and punish the behavior that you don't. This is seen in all sorts of things from penalty/reward clauses in formal contracts through to rewarding/punishing approaches for raising children—just think of stories of Santa Claus and the fact that “if you've been good you'll get a full stocking; and if not you'll get a lump of coal.”

This viewpoint is described as a “Motivation 2.0” by Daniel Pink (2009, p. 34). Let's look at a few other assumptions related to this core idea.

Setting Targets Improves Motivation

A quick online search yields quite a few examples of what managers generally accept in terms of using targets to motivate performance. The generally accepted view is that having realistic targets to hit—and then hitting them—will improve morale and personal sense of achievement and thus future performance ( The problem here is again that if the target is set too high, then people will be demotivated when they don't reach it. Conversely, if the target is set too low then it does not present a challenge and thus does not motivate people to excel. In addition, the (project) manager needs to recognize that people have very different personal views on what motivates them and thus what would seem perfectly logical and valid for the project manager might be totally irrelevant for the team or team members.


Focusing on the Goals

By focusing the team on the final goals and communicating this to them, then they will work together to achieve the goals. Develop goals that will stimulate competition—not between the team members (although some would argue this is effective) but vs. the stated common goals. Keep the team looking at the horizon, not the floor. These and other ideas are used in many organizations as an apparent attempt to motivate staff to achieve.

Linked to this is the idea that if you visibly and publicly reward achievements, it will reinforce the positive behavior and encourage other members of the team to strive to the same level of achievement (

Conversely, we already know that any reward/recognition system can be a double-edged sword—as if they are not managed very carefully they can be counterproductive and undermine the credibility of the person delivering the rewards.

So even if there is a consistent way in which you manage these reward systems, the personal perceptions of some team members could make them consider the system to be “unfair,” and they will become demotivated. Worse still, in some cultures, it is not considered acceptable practice to call out specific achievements in a public way.

More Money Equals More Motivation—Not!

Deci has done, in conjunction with others at times, extensive research into the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and the effect of these on personal performance. His findings can be summarized quite nicely: paying someone to perform a task that they were originally quite happy to perform anyway, will transform this task into “work,” thus reducing our personal motivation to perform. In addition, if rewards are offered to perform some task, then if that reward is no longer available, then people are generally not intrinsically motivated to continue with the task. The example given is his use of the SOMA game (

So, even if there are some short-term improvements noticed when a reward is offered for tasks well done, there is a rapid decline in interest (motivation) in continuing with the task—whether or not the reward is maintained.

So What, If Anything, Can Project Managers do?

Using—or at Least Supporting—Intrinsic Motivation

Pink (2009) based some of the core ideas of his book Drive on the works of Edward Deci, only with a modern twist. Pink coined the phrase “Motivation 3.0” to describe the so-called third drive, namely intrinsic motivation. Since intrinsic motivation is recognized to be personal to the person being motivated, it would seem that this form of motivation would be inaccessible to the (project) manager.

Maybe this is not the case all the time. If project managers can find ways to appeal to team members’ internal drivers then it should be possible to tap this intrinsic motivation drive. So let's look at a few prerequisites and approaches that could enable this:

First, we need to try and get things like salary and benefits out of the picture; namely, there needs to be a recognition that a salary/benefits package merely sets the threshold. In addition, these extrinsic rewards need to be sufficiently valuable so that they do not interfere with the basic motivators; namely, most people's desire to achieve something of worth. Naturally, we do not often have the power to make this happen, as the basic salary package of the staff is something outside of our control. This is where we need to try to influence our management to make the change.

Second, we can use some standard performance tools in slightly different ways, or with a different approach, to make them actually work!


Using Performance Reviews

Reviews are a great opportunity to provide constructive feedback on a person's performance. The problem is that these are often done way too late after the work has already been done. In other words, the interviewee loses the benefit of getting “raw” feedback. Keep in mind that even negative feedback can be useful to an individual.

But to make performance reviews produce good results and show clear value, they should focus more on the learning goals for the future (developing capabilities) rather than on measuring performance to date (yes, we do need to report on performance against KPI's already defined and that are sometimes not well thought out). Unfortunately, there is a strong drive to make employees “fit” to some standard distribution curve; this means that staff members who work really hard at what they do, but doesn't come up with any shining breakthrough ideas, is automatically penalized because there is a need to manage the “fit” and someone has to be at the bottom it seems.

So give timely, constructive feedback during reviews, with the viewpoint that “I might have this person working on another of my future projects—so what can I do to ensure he or she can do the (future) job well.

Getting the Metrics Right—And the Reward Too

Make them varied

Using varied metrics for performance or achievements makes them harder to “game,” although at the same time, if there are too many rules or the targets are not clear, then teams can (and probably will) take advantage of this fuzziness. If the team is spending more time doing what gets “measured” rather than producing results, then you've probably got the wrong sort of metrics in place, or they are too varied. One response to this would be to focus more on “now-that” rewards rather than “if-then” meaning that whatever varied metrics you use for measuring performance, you need to always consider the future “now that you've done this, let's give you the next challenge/adventure” rather than “if you perform task X then I will give you reward Y.”

Make the reward modest

Pink, and others, suggested that it is better to have modest rewards for achievement rather than large bonus payouts. The reason for this seems to be that large rewards for certain specific achievements will tend to narrow the focus of the team—once again on only those things that get measured. This can stifle creativity, causing the team to overlook alternative solutions. Worse still, if the target is not carefully chosen, it could encourage the team to go down the wrong path. The result would be a solution that does not fit the customer needs and is therefore rejected and this rejection would rapidly demoralize the team.

Work vs. Play—Or “Try Adding Some Fun”

Work is what we HAVE to do, play is what we WANT to do

Looking back at our basic expectancy theory, we have a perception that we should be rewarded in proportion to our level of (perceived) effort. This applies to work, but what about when we want our team to go from merely “performing” to “excelling”? How do we get them to come up with those creatively brilliant solutions?

One idea is that it should be “fun” to achieve the result. Recall that Deci, and later Pink, implied that as soon as we start systematically rewarding people for an achievement, it stops being “fun” and becomes “work.” This reinforces the message that we need to move away from the thinking of “if-then” towards “now-that.” It also implies that we, as project managers, need to be conscious of what our team members perceive as work—and what gets them inspired.


As the reader has probably already surmised, getting the right metrics in place that help inspire team performance and also help the project manager gauge performance is not a simple task. Let's summarize:

  • - motivation is intrinsic and personal;
  • - different people will be driven by different motivating factors; and
  • - making the reward “automatic” can and probably will discourage creativity.

It appears that the first thing to do is to move more toward a “now-that” way of giving recognition by encouraging team members to build on what they have already achieved rather than just repeating what has already been done. This is a little like marathon runners who is always striving to improve their time.

Second, we need to have clarity on what the goals for the team are. Even if not everyone agrees with the goals, they need to understand them – otherwise there will be a lack of commitment. Lencioni (2005) stated that clarity is essential for overcoming what he refers to as “Team Dysfunction no. 3: Lack of Commitment.”

Next, the project manager needs to “sell” the goals to the team. Getting buy-in from the team members to achieve the project targets requires not only that the team understands the basic requirements but also that there is an element of “stretch” added.

Finally, the project manager needs to be a bit of a psychologist by identifying and understanding what motivates or inspires your team members will help when you need to put performance metrics in place. You might even need to be a bit “devious”. There can be the regular SMART objectives with extrinsic rewards associated, but you need to keep a few intrinsic motivators up your sleeve. Authors like Jim Collins, John C Maxwell, and Peter Senge (to name but a few) tell us that one good way to motivate team members is to “catch them doing something right.” So go out there and look for the good things in your team. (Collins, 2001; Maxwell, 1995; Maxwell, 1993; Senge, 2006)

And remember, if you want to “get your ducks in a row,” you need to be out front leading the way.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Covey, S. (2004). 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Free Press.

Kotter, J., & Whitehead, L. (2010). Buy-in. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Lencioni, P. (2005). Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Management Concepts. (2009). The 77 Deadly Sins of Project Management. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts.

Maxwell, J. C. (2005a). Developing the leader within you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Maxwell, J. C. (2005b). Developing the leaders around you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive. Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate Books.

Senge, P (2006) The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2012 Mark Gray
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France



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