Successful motivational techniques for virtual teams

Ginger Levin, DPA, PMP, Lecturer, University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Project Management

Parviz F. Rad, Ph.D., PMP, Principal, Project Management Excellence


Global projects with virtual teams have emerged as the vehicle by which the cost and duration of projects can be reduced while still maintaining a reasonable control on the quality and scope of projects. Through the use of virtual teams, managing organizations by projects has become the reality because teams and their associated projects are no longer limited by geographical and physical boundaries. The ability to work with people we rarely, if ever, see on a project is increasingly required to be successful since the virtual project organization is the model for the future.

Typically, in project management our success is measured by how effective we are in terms of meeting the triple constraints – complete the project on time, according to budget, and within the scope and quality requirements of our clients. On the surface, this approach concentrates on technical areas; however, projects are performed by people, and without a high-performing team dedicated to the project's objectives and the organization's strategic vision, it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the project's scope, time, and cost objectives.

This paper describes the importance of focusing on people issues on projects and motivational challenges in project management. It also presents an overview of some critical motivational mistakes. The paper then describes work done by David McClelland tailored to project management that categorizes team member behaviour based on the need for achievement, affiliation, and power. Each of these motivational approaches is presented with examples of how each style is best suited to work on the virtual team. Challenges people with each dominant style will face are noted as well as the critical roles and responsibilities they can perform. The project professional then can use these approaches to maximize the success of both their projects and the overall organization.

The Importance of Focusing on People Issues on Projects

People issues often tend to be the most frustrating aspect of project work. They also are complicated as each person who is part of a project team may have a specific personal agenda to fulfil along with their assigned roles and responsibilities for work packages or project tasks. Often these private agendas do not coincide with the objectives of the project or with the strategic objectives and vision of the organization. Another concern is that at times, people are assigned to project teams when they would prefer to work on other initiatives or on other projects. Or, they may be asked to take on another project in addition to their existing workload. As a result, there can be resentment, and even anger, by many people when assigned to specific project work, and they may feel that they are powerless when they are assigned to work on the project. Such an attitude can be demonstrated through:

  • Argumentative meetings with references to “how we used to do it” on a previous project, especially if there is a reluctance to come to a resolution of competing alternatives
  • Constant, unrelenting (and at times “behind-the-back”) criticism of other team members or
  • Excessively high standards especially if one is in a project lead position that others may find almost impossible to meet
  • Team members further may further attempt to transfer their responsibilities to others.

Of course, there are others who will enthusiastically join the project and will fit right in and do whatever is required to ensure success. Many, though, will find the project environment to be an extremely stressful one and may resist their project assignments, either passively or actively. If they do have a negative attitude, it can often transcend to others on the team, and it may suppress any creativity or innovative approaches that would flow from enthusiasm and willingness to be active participants in the process. A feeling of hopelessness because of all the work to be done can then set in, leading to depression or perhaps to just adopting an attitude of only doing what is necessary to complete assigned tasks rather than working diligently to become a high-performing team in all aspects of the project. Such an attitude of ‘just doing what is necessary to get by’ becomes a prescription for failure.

As the project manager, it is critical to understand each team members' hidden agendas and recognize what must be done to create the stage for a successful project from the outset. The project manager must ensure that the client's measures of success in terms of the triple constraint are met. This further must be done in an extremely stressful environment that is dynamic and noted by continual change. The project manager, therefore, must establish an administrative structure that sets the stage for a successful project. Such a structure must be one that is not overly restrictive and should also encourage creativity and innovation. An effective project manager, who is interested in the needs and well being of each his or her team members, is critical for overall project excellence and is the key to project team effectiveness. As Collins states (2001, p. 11), “Under the right conditions, the problems of commitment, alignment, motivation, and change will largely melt away.”

The importance of Focusing on Motivation

Therefore, the project manager must focus on motivation as it is a critical element of any high-performance project team regardless of whether the team is collocated or is virtual. “Groups only become teams through disciplined action” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p. 14). Katzenbach and Smith (2001) further note that a team works together to shape a common purpose, define a common working approach, develop complementary skills at high levels, and hold themselves mutually responsible for results.

Motivation is a concept that is difficult to describe, but it is used throughout organizational theory and human resource management. One definition of it is: “A process, action, or intervention that serves as an incentive for a project team member to take the necessary action to complete a task within the appropriate confines and scope of performance, time, and cost” (Flannes & Levin, 2001, P. 134).

However, while the presence of motivation does not guarantee stellar performance, its absence certainly will result in long-term problems (Rad & Levin, 2003). The project manager must manage, and modify as needed, the behaviour patterns of project participants. Motivation and encouragement of positive behaviour by the project manager further is critical since each customer presents additional challenges. And, it is rare if a project is limited to a single customer or a single stakeholder. The project manager, and team, must identify all the customers and stakeholders and prepare a plan to deal successfully with each one. No matter how wide and varied the project manager's arsenal of people skills are, the tools that he or she elects to use must be guided by a clear understanding of the nature of the problem which he or she confronts. While fear of failure is the root of the problem difficult as it may be to believe, fear of winning or success is a close second. While failing to meet the goals and objectives of the project may result in demotion, assignment to another project or functional area, or even dismissal, success also results in many changes. The successful project is scrutinized to determine why it was successful. Was success due to the use of new approaches, methods, tools, or technologies that should now be implemented corporate wide? Was it due to heroic efforts of the project manager or the team members or instead, hopefully, was the success due to following established processes and procedures and improving upon them? The key client and team factors of success must be identified and replicated in future projects.

The project manager must adopt specific approaches to motivating each team member as well as the team as a whole. This means that often the project manager should experiment with different approaches to motivating members of his or her team and also should be aware of motivational efforts that do not serve the cause of creating a positive team environment. It is important to ask the right questions to gain understanding. According to Flannes and Levin (2005), some well-intentioned but questionable motivation strategies and beliefs include:

  • “Whatever motivates me will motivate others.” This strategy is based on the assumption that everyone wishes to be treated the say way that we would like to be treated. As Collins notes (2001, p. 78), “Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision.” The project manager should not make assumptions about one's preferred motivational approach and instead should ask the team members involved.
  • “People are motivated primarily by money.” Of course, this belief is valid for many people, but it does not explain the full range of human motivation such as personal acknowledgements, achievements, recognition, and the opportunity to work in a conducive work environment in which one can continue to develop new skills and competencies.
  • “Team members love to receive formal awards.” Many people will value a formal reward to note a specific achievement. But, often these awards are presented in a way that is somewhat cynical, such as if a team member perceives that the person who is selected to receive the award is chosen for reasons other than accomplishments, such as company politics or political correctness. Awards are more likely to be motivating forces when the team members themselves vote for the recipient, and when the award is not created to mask another issue.
  • “Give them a rally slogan.” Slogans can help gain initial team member focus and purpose, but if the slogans are overused, this approach may backfire on the project manager. They often turn the message behind the slogan into a sham, and their overuse can have a patronizing effect on many self-directed professionals.
  • “The best project manager is a strong cheerleader.” Similar to the use of slogans, the project manager should avoid overuse of cheerleading. Cheerleading comments can be positive, but they need to be used carefully. Often the best way to motivate a team member is to let the person come up with the inspiration and energy for his or her own actions that is free from outside cheerleading.
  • “These people are professionals. They don't need motivating.” While it is true that most project professionals are self motivating and follow an inner drive that leads to achievement and productivity, most people benefits from occasional outside sources of motivation, especially when they are working on long and complex projects. Furthermore, as Meredith and Mantel note (2006), based on work done by Souder, some people want considerable direction, while others believe a lack of freedom leads to a lack of creativity.
  • “I'll motivate them when there is a problem.” This approach is comparable to the “no news is good news analogy” taken to an extreme. Most people do not tell others when motivation begins to suffer unless the level of motivation is seriously low, and then in turn, they speak up and address the issue. The project manager who is a skilled motivator should take a proactive approach to motivating the team rather than waiting for motivation issues to surface.
  • “I'll treat everyone the same. People like that, and it will be motivating for them.” Project managers should treat everyone the same on issues of basic fairness and project performance standards. But, project managers should recognize each team member as an individual, especially when creating strategies to motivate each of the individuals on the team. Different things motivate people at different times in their lives.

McClelland's Need for Achievement, Affiliation, and Power Categorization

There are a number of motivational approaches available to the project manager, but one that is particularly relevant to the project management environment is that by David McClelland. McClelland (1961) classified team member behaviour into three categories: the need for achievement, affiliation, and power. The need for achievement can be characterized as a desire to seek attainable but challenging goals and to receive feedback on one's performance. The need for affiliation is one characterized by the desire to be part of a group with friendly relationships and with roles involving human interaction. The need for power is one that focuses on a desire to make an impact and to be viewed as influential and effective. For example, if assignments with measurable objectives are given to two team members with achievement and power motivations, the achievement-oriented team member is likely to produce successful results, while the power-oriented individual is likely not to do so until he or she negotiates to craft the assignment to his or her standards (Rad & Levin, 2006). And, in this situation, the affiliation-oriented person would wish to make sure that everyone on the team is comfortable with their assignments before fully deciding to execute them.

Using a different example, the achievement-oriented individual, who is interested in team goal setting, will be the one who initially develops the team charter. Once the project is under way, the power-oriented individual, who is interested in being a leader, will call frequent meetings to modify the objectives and content of the charter to ensure that they continue to relate to the organization's strategic vision and mission. The affiliation-oriented team member, who is interested in providing an amicable working environment, will try to moderate the efforts of these two individuals, facilitate meetings, and mentor individuals as they join the team so they understand the team's operating protocols are described in the team charter (Rad & Levin, 2003).

Achievement Orientation and the Virtual Team

Someone with a high need for achievement then should be placed in project roles in which he or she is asked to complete a challenging task. This individual, however, enjoys freedom and flexibility in executing assigned tasks, and as a result, the achievement-oriented team member is well suited to work in the virtual project environment as this person does not need the close interaction with others characteristic of the face-to-face environment to succeed. This person is particularly effective and productive if the assigned duties deal with an entire work package for which he or she has primarily responsibility. If this is the case, this individual then can easily build a sense of identity around the content of the work and does not require face-to-face interaction with others on the team in order to identify with the project. Achievement-oriented individuals do not have a great desire to interfere with, be involved in, or even know the specific details of the work assigned to others. Often, they set personal goals to complete their work ahead of schedule. Further, they are well suited for the virtual environment since they tend to be able to easily adapt to the use of technology for communications. The achievement-oriented team member can use technology to disseminate key technical issues for the edification of other team members. They may find the virtual forum as well to be an easier setting to present complex information, issues, and ideas and to exchange insights as the electronic forum will focus more on the technical aspects of the work rather than on possible personality traits. This person likes to receive feedback on his or her own work and recognition from subject-matter experts, and would find it to be perfectly acceptable if such recognition is presented and announced in a medium other than face-to-face interaction. The achievement-oriented team member thus enjoys the independence afforded by working in a virtual project environment and is the ideal candidate for virtual projects (Rad & Levin, 2003).

Affiliation Orientation and the Virtual Team

By comparison with the achievement-oriented person, the affiliation-oriented person may find it difficult to work on virtual projects. This person may be reluctant to work on a virtual team and may resent being assigned to work on one, as he or she enjoys interacting with other team members, discussing ideas, providing assistance, seeking approval from other team members, and socializing with them during the life cycle of the project. However, with the increase in virtual teams on so many projects, the affiliation-oriented individual will need to be assigned to them. The project manager then must work to create a setting in which this type of person will find the virtual project team experience to be a rewarding one, and in which the project team member is enthusiastic to be part of the project, working as diligently as he or she would on a traditional team.

One approach to consider is to use this person as a relationship manager for the team. In this role, this person could provide a sense of identity for the team. His or her efforts could focus on ways to enable team members to learn about the strengths and areas of expertise of others on the team and to introduce some common ground among the entire team to enable team members to get to know one another. During actual project execution, this person may find satisfaction in areas such as:

  • Introducing new team members to the team and its method of operation
  • Making sure each person understands the project's goals and objectives and recognizes their own roles and responsibilities
  • Serving as a communications expeditor
  • Ensuring that people are aware of key upcoming milestones and project status
  • Facilitating virtual team meetings to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate
  • Checking to see that consensus is reached on team decisions
  • Following up on action items assigned during team meetings
  • Serving as a neutral party if team members are having a conflict
  • Mentoring younger team members in the project management profession and helping them learn new concepts and
  • Ensuring that the team celebrates success when key deliverables are completed (Rad & Levin, 2003).
Power Orientation and the Virtual Team

Of the three personality types, the power-oriented individual may find it most difficult to be on the virtual team. These people are noted for influence and control. Even if they are not the project leader, they like to persuade people to do things their way and to understand their points of view. They often may try to define and redefine team goals in response to their own interpretation of them. They further are noted for being competitive and are eager to make decisions as they are comfortable directing the work of others, taking risks, and receiving public recognition for their contributions (Rad & Levin, 2003).

On a virtual team, the power-oriented individual may have a more challenging time persuading others to accept his or her views as they are not collocated and do not have the opportunity to interact regularly with team members. They also may not have the opportunity to participate regularly with other members of the team in a variety of tasks at any time. This may lead these individuals to feel a sense of frustration in working on a virtual team as they will not be able to easily take initiative to solve problems, at least not to the degree that is available to them on collocated teams. They also may lack the opportunity for extensive involvement with project stakeholders. However, they too will be working on virtual project teams, and the project manager must determine how best to motivate them so they are active and productive participants. To capitalize on their natural strengths and orientations, the project manager could ask them to help relate and clarify the project's purpose and critical factors for success and to relate the project's purpose to the overall strategic vision of the organization. Additionally, these team members can lead team meetings, help the team come to closure in problem-solving sessions, ensure that stakeholders' expectations and requirements are met, force a forthright discussion of the issue when team members are experiencing conflicts, and point out the merits of possible opportunities that others may perceive as risks.

Importance of Understanding One's Primary Motivational Approach

Since motivation involves goal-directed behaviour, with an understanding of one's primary motivational approach, specific project roles and team responsibilities can be determined to enable each team member to pursue them and make the greatest contribution to the project's goals and objectives. With an understanding of a project team member's specific categorization in terms of high achiever, high in affiliation needs, and high in power motives, the project manager can determine the most effective way to motivate members of the team. Then, the project manager can work with each team member to identify his or her specific motivational orientation to match it with the project resource requirements. Further, the project manager must determine how each team member's individual needs relate to the project goals. Additionally, the project manager should continue to look for opportunities to help each team member accumulate new knowledge and skills to make his or her profile more well rounded (Rad & Levin, 2003).


Sophistication of the virtual team is measured in terms of how well the team responds to the client's expectations in the areas of scope, quality, cost, and schedule. However, the success of the team in achieving these project results depends on how well the team members relate to one another and to the project as a whole. As a result, the project manager must use a variety of motivational approaches that are specific to each team member as appropriate to help ensure project success (Rad & Levin, 2003).


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

Flannes, S.W. & Levin, G. (2005) Essential People Skills for Project Managers. Vienna, VA:Management Concepts.

Flannes, S.W. & Levin, G. (2001) People Skills for Project Managers. Vienna, VA:Management Concepts.

Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (1993) The Wisdom of Teams. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

McClelland, D. (1961) The Achieving Society. New York: The Free Press.

Meredith, J.R. & Mantel, S.J., Jar. (2006). Project Management A Managerial Approach Sixth Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rad, P.F. &Levin, G. (2003) Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams. Boca Raton, FL: J. Ross Publishing.

Rad, P.F. & Levin, G. (2006) Metrics for Project Management Formalized Approaches. Vienna, VA:Management Concepts.

© 2006, Ginger Levin and Parviz F. Rad
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain



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