Misery loves company

Desirée de Melo Oliveira, PMI-RMP, PMP, Capgemini, São Paulo, Brazil

Desirée de Melo Oliveira, PMI-RMP, PMP, Capgemini, São Paulo, Brazil

by Chauncey Hollingsworth * photos by Paulo Fridman

A bad economy can bring out some bad attitude.

Even as companies start talking recovery, traumatized teams aren't likely to soon forget all the projects that got nixed and people who got sacked.

To say the effect on morale has been profound is to point out that black clouds lead to rain.

It's often left to project managers to pick up the pieces of an anxious, deflated team. Is it possible to provide a captain's leadership to weather this perfect storm of a stagnant economy and rising expectations? Or will mutinies by demoralized teams force more projects under?

Before project managers find themselves walking the plank, they should look at the underlying factors that contribute to a team's mental malaise.

Desirée de Melo Oliveira, PMI-RMP, PMP, likens poor spirit to a quick-moving virus that can spread through an organizational armada like an anti-motivational malaria, leaving disaster in its wake.

“In uncertain times, fear can run excessively and workers can panic,” says Ms. de Melo Oliveira, program integration manager at consultancy Capgemini, São Paulo, Brazil. “When the whole project environment gets contaminated by insecurity, the team morale gets hit. Fear masks our ability to see positive possibilities, and over time this can evolve into a negative atmosphere in the organization, poor relationships and, finally, emotional breakdown.”

Look out for the troublemakers sowing the seeds of discontent, she warns.

“There are always those negative ones who like to generate fear,” says Ms. de Melo Oliveira. “The project manager should contact human resources to remove a member who creates crisis by spreading and increasing bad news. I would even call this person a psychological terrorist because his or her only goal is to destroy morale, cohesion and unity.”

As with any illness, team funk is best diagnosed and treated early on.

“It's something that's going to naturally develop in any organization over time if left unchecked,” says John Schaefer, author of The Vocational Shrink: An Analysis of the Ten Levels of Workplace Disillusionment [Schaefer Recognition & Media Group, 2005].

“People tend to gather around and share their sadness,” he says. “That sort of them-against-us attitude will tend to develop unless you consciously fight it.”

The megaphones of malaise can be easy enough to identify and either remove or isolate, but in the current high-anxiety atmosphere of many corporate workplaces, poor communication from upper management can become just as toxic. Lack of reliable information from above—either because it's not made available or, worse, deliberately obfuscated—can stoke the fires of doubt and conjecture.

One of the best ways to prevent paranoia is to maintain open lines of communication, even when it comes to bad news.

“What most motivates employees is feeling important, being informed and being treated with respect,” says Mr. Schaefer, founder of management consultancy Schaefer Recognition Group LLC, Glendale, Arizona, USA. “If employees don't feel informed, they wonder if you're talking about them behind their backs.”

What, Me Worry?

If your team is standing outside your barricaded office door hoisting torches and pitchforks, it's probably too late to sway their opinions in your favor. Chances are you could have stopped this insurrection earlier.

“Morale problems don't happen overnight,” says Desirée de Melo Oliveira, PMI-RMP, PMP, Capgemini, São Paulo, Brazil. “There are obvious external triggers that will impact the team morale. However, even if the cause is not under your control, as a project manager you have to take action.”

Try walking around. “Project managers must physically be close to team members in order to identify early signs of problems that may impact the team's morale,” Ms. de Melo Oliveira says. “I don't believe there's a moment when it's too late to turn the ship around. The project manager has to constantly monitor the team morale, trying to anticipate problems and step in whenever needed.”

So what exactly should tip you off?

Tension or anxiety in the workplace: “What's happening in the [corporate] climate?” asks Pollyanna Lenkic, Perspectives Coaching, Brighton North, Victoria, Australia. “There might be something happening that no one's talking about and that could have disastrous consequences on a project. That means that somewhere a process hasn't been followed or something has slipped.”

The solution is actually quite simple, she insists. “Read that anxiety and concern, and speak to it. Focus on communication. Really pay attention to what's happening in the team.”

Excessive gossip and rumors: Keeping team members in the loop is one of the best ways to shut down the rumor mill.

“Distant leadership destroys team morale, and this creates the perfect environment for rumors, gossip and anxiety,” says Ms. de Melo Oliveira. “It's your job as a project manager to support and be close to your team, constantly feeding people with accurate and reliable information. Be honest, consistent and truthful to the people you work with.”

Isolationism and territorialism: In a struggling economy, some employees will look out for themselves—at the expense of the project team.

“I was involved with a massive change project that involved redundancies and off-shoring,” says Ms. Lenkic. “People were confused. They weren't sure what would happen with the project. They weren't sure if their jobs were secure or not. People were starting to protect their own positions, so there wasn't a lot of cooperation and sharing of information.”

To address the problem, the project director “made sure that communication between the team and the team's stakeholders improved. It was all about them taking time to notice what was missing on the project and what it needed,” she says. “Team members also took time to talk about the things that weren't going well, and it started to turn the project around. They became more supportive.”

They're probably going to assume the worst.

The underlying thought pattern goes something like: “If the company's going down, who are they getting rid of first? Us! We're in trouble,” Mr. Schaefer says.


“That kind of talk kills motivation and productivity, so the first thing should be to stay honest and open and communicate,” he says. “It's all about the perception. Whatever people worry about is going to be far worse than reality.”


Project managers can keep undue fears at bay by encouraging team members to find ways they can increase their value to the organization.

“My guidance to my people is to try to invest in themselves and try to take more courses, training and education to prove that they're the ones who should be kept by the organization,” says Amr Salah, PMP, project director, Nesma & Partners, Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. “If you don't feel any security in the organization, you will naturally lose your motivation.”

There is always a risk that the gut instinct of self-preservation will take over. When team members are more stressed than usual, the urge to withdraw and look after one's own career often predominates over the needs of the greater good. Project managers may find a heartless fatalism taking the place of esprit de corps, and that transformation can be fatal to team morale in the long run. Oftentimes, executives only exacerbate the problem.

“Companies tend to default to that ‘You're happy to be here. Work hard or we'll get someone else who looks just like you.’ Sooner or later that's going to come back and bite you,” Mr. Schaefer warns. “The research shows that it's the emotional ties that keep employees together during tough times.”

Team members aren't just looking for raw information from management. They crave empathy, acknowledgement and understanding—basic, universal human needs that haven't changed since childhood or from one generation to the next.

Yet upper management clings to commodified terms when it comes to motivation: “We're going to pay you more, we're going to create a bonus, we're going to give you a Starbucks card.” Mr. Schaefer contends those so-called “motivators” can actually have the opposite effect, however.

“They reek of manipulation and they're very short-lived, even when they work,” he says. “The things that make the employee feel like you genuinely care about them as a human being beyond work—those are the things that hold people together.”

Team members themselves might not truly understand their own long-term needs.

“You do a survey and the results come back, and it says they want cash,” Mr. Schaefer says. “It's a lot like asking a bunch of third-graders what they want for lunch. Candy and ice cream is what they want—but it doesn't work.”

As corny as it may sound, the trick is getting your team members to like the parent organization and inspiring them to feel as if they're liked in return, he says.

Otherwise you may be facing a mass defection.

“When the economy starts to recover, all those people who have been mistreated and had their feelings hurt are going to run to other companies,” Mr. Schaefer says.

Project managers can avoid such a fate by making it clear they're part of the crew.

Let your team know you're in it with them, recommends Pollyanna Lenkic, founder of Perspectives Coaching, Brighton North, Victoria, Australia.

“Think about the position that others are in. What does your team need in order to feel that it can perform its roles productively? Hear team members’ needs, really understand the individuals within your team as individuals.”

Understand your own headspace as well. Your attitude can have a huge effect on your team.

“If I'm coming from a position that's anxious and concerned, how am I going to do my own performance?” Ms. Lenkic asks. “I'm going to come across as defensive, possibly as pushing my own agenda. So what you start with really impacts how you communicate with others.”


Project managers can reinvigorate team spirit by making it personal.

“Many writers, speakers and experts mention ‘magical formulas’ for creating enthusiasm and motivation in a team,” says Ms. de Melo Oliveira. “But putting all those techniques aside, what the project manager really needs to do is show the team member how the work will promote his or her own personal or professional goals, even through uncertain times.”

Remember that morale doesn't build itself—or tear itself down, for that matter—in a flash. Maintaining team spirit requires regular attention, and some techniques that worked well in the past may no longer spark a tidal wave of enthusiasm.

“Project managers are already too busy, so avoid getting into things that are too formal and too complicated,” Mr. Schaefer says.

Instead, focus on creating a culture of openness.

“Schedule regular time where people can be themselves and open up. The idea is to just be genuine and talk about things that aren't necessarily work-related,” he says. “Be in the trenches with them. Ask their advice on what we should do during these tough times. Let them know you're in it with them and you don't know the answer any more than them. But if we hang together, we'll win or lose together.”

And that could be just the right remedy for a leaky ship. PM




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