The significant role of the project manager in establishing and maintaining team morale



The term “morale” is used to describe the overall feeling in a work center or project team. It is most often thought of as a set of work environment attributes, as perceived directly or indirectly by the people who work in that environment. Morale has a major impact on team members’ motivation, behaviors, and productivity; it is also one area over which the project manager has the most influence, because the morale of a specific work center or project team will reflect the leadership style of the manager. A manager generally performs several basic “tasks,” which in some way involve or impact team members. These tasks are listening, setting goals, planning, giving directions, rewarding, holding members accountable, and developing team members.

This paper presents six dimensions of team morale that are directly affected by the project manager’s leadership style, addresses how managers influence these dimensions, and discusses how the dimensions of team morale impact project success.


“Good leaders motivate people in a variety of ways. First, they always articulate the organization’s vision in a manner that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing. This makes the work important to those individuals. Leaders also regularly involve people in deciding how to achieve the organization’s vision. This gives people a sense of control. Another important motivational technique is to support employee efforts to realize the vision by providing coaching, feedback, and role modeling, thereby helping people grow professionally and enhancing their self-esteem. Finally, good leaders recognize and reward success, which not only gives people a sense of accomplishment but also makes them feel like they belong to an organization that cares about them. When all this is done, the work itself becomes intrinsically motivating.” (Kotter, 1998, p.48)

The general concept of motivation consists of three main ideas:

  1. Performance—the outcome of motives, abilities, and the situation.
  2. Motivation—the internal driver that moves a person to behave in ways to achieve or acquire a goal.
  3. Sources of goals—the wants, needs, and desires influenced by biological factors, emotional factors, cognitive factors, and social factors.

Morale has a major impact on team members’ motives and is reflected in how they view their job performance and overall satisfaction. Project managers can raise or stifle the motives of the team members in the way they shape the morale of their project team. A team member’s productivity is affected by how the work environment is perceived. This perception is affected by three factors: (1) the nature of the task being performed, (2) the team members involved and the strength of their motives, and (3) the leader’s leadership style.

“Work center morale” is the term used to describe the overall atmosphere of a work environment as perceived by the people who work in that environment. Team morale (also referred to as “organizational climate” or “work center morale”) is generally defined in terms of the following six dimensions and how each dimension is perceived by the team members —Flexibility, Responsibility, Standards, Rewards, Clarity, and Team Spirit.

Because morale is influenced by many factors, both in and out of the project manager’s direct control, he or she should evaluate team morale on a regular basis and develop action steps to make changes, if any are needed. The project manager has a major effect on morale, for better or worse

Causes and Impacts of Low Team Morale

Causes of Low Team Morale

When a new employee is hired or when a person becomes part of a project team, he or she normally does not come into the group with a bad attitude and low morale. Unfortunately, in many organizations it does not take long before project team members’ attitudes, motivation, and overall morale begin to decline, especially in a poor economic or pressure-filled environment. Why? Look at any business or project setting and it is easy to identify many factors that can lead to low team morale. Trying to list all of the causes of low team morale would be like trying to count the grains of sand on an ocean beach—there are many, many reasons why. Several common causes for low team morale are broadly discussed in the following section.

In most projects, trust is a frequently championed core value. If creating trust is critical to building a positive working environment, betraying team members’ trust is one of the quickest ways a project manager can tear down team morale. Trust can be violated many ways, but some of the common areas include little or no accountability within the organization, too much interdepartmental and cross-project infighting as a result of self-interest and hierarchy silos, as well as general organizational and resource mismanagement. Making commitments and promises and not following through is another serious way to violate trust.

In times of poor economic conditions, concern about layoffs, business closures, mergers, downsizing, and general job insecurity are among the most obvious. Most people can also quickly identify morale problems that resulted from poor communication between the project manager and team members or other stakeholders. Often one of the major morale-lowering behaviors related to poor communications is lack of clarity regarding the expectations of management toward the team members. In general, team members want to know what is expected of them and how those expectations will be measured. Unclear expectations can be caused by several things such as leadership changes, unclear or changing corporate vision, mission, or strategic direction, and poor leadership role models, just to name a few.

It is important not to forget team member performance and utilization—both underutilization and over commitment. If team members are underutilized, they quickly stagnate and become unmotivated. On the other end of the spectrum are those team members who are over committed due to the organization trying to do more work with fewer people. Regardless of the amount of work to be accomplished, most project team members want to believe that their work is important and will have a positive outcome. They want to feel that if they perform their jobs well and make a positive contribution to the project’s success they will receive proper recognition, promotion opportunities, and challenging professional development opportunities. When these opportunities are limited or not awarded when appropriate, then morale can suffer.

Another common cause of low morale is the stereotypical organizational “trouble maker.” Many project teams can point to one or two individuals who always seem to complain, gossip, and create issues for other team members. It is important that managers do whatever they can to control gossip and rumors, two of the biggest communication issues that can reduce morale and facilitate distrust quickly. If gossip mongers and constant complainers are not addressed appropriately by the project manager, then this negative attitude can quickly infect the rest of the team.

Impacts of Low Team Morale

Just as there seems to be innumerable causes of low morale within a project team, the impact of low morale also seems to be limitless. Depending upon one’s position on the project team or reporting level within the organization, the impact of poor morale may vary; however, there are generally accepted effects of low morale. For example, a common sign of low morale is a general dissatisfaction with the organization, lack of interest in the project, and apathy about quality, deliverables, and customer satisfaction. Team members typically wish they were part of another organization or at least part of another project team. Basically, productivity drops.

Some of the measurable costs of low morale include things like scrap and rework, resulting from poor quality due to negligence, apathy, or general malaise. In environments in which team morale is low, team members often talk about or spend time looking for new opportunities. Should a team member leave due to low morale, consider the cost to the team and the organization as a whole—new team members need to be recruited, training may be required, and other internal resources are distracted as they try to bring the new team member up to speed. Some effects are obvious and quantifiable, whereas others are less noticeable and more subjective. Depending upon the cause of the low morale, the effects can spiral out of control very quickly. The effect of low morale can be significant when it leads to team member dissatisfaction that sinks so low that he or she ultimately decides to leave.

In addition, consider the amount of time and money lost due to team members’ emotional and physical health as a result of stress and anxiety, increased absenteeism and lateness, and in extreme cases, outright sabotage. In most environments where morale is low, team members are more self-focused, typically paying little attention to other team members’ needs; however, in a low morale setting, it is not uncommon for team members to feel that the other team members are gaining an unfair advantage or are being treated differently.

Low morale is often noticed by stakeholders outside of the project team, before they are noticed within the project team, especially by customers. This attitude is often reflected in the way team members interact with the customer and talk about the organization. Low morale can quickly manifest itself in lost business. Consider the number of times a customer service help desk has been called and the person answering the phone appears to have only disinterest in his or her voice, a common sign of low morale.

Low morale reduces productivity, harms stakeholder relationships, and ultimately impacts the project’s output and organization’s bottom line. It is important that the project manager take quick and decisive action to curb a declining morale.

Dimensions of Team Morale

Superior project managers understand the importance of building pride, team spirit, and overall morale. Even when working conditions are less than optimal, if team members believe that they are valued, that their work has meaning, and that the project manager is concerned about their welfare, they will be more inclined to have a more positive view of the project and the project manager.

To facilitate the creation of good team morale, there are six areas the project manager can influence, either directly or indirectly: Flexibility, Responsibility, Standards, Rewards, Clarity, and Team Spirit. (Goleman, 2000, p 81; Stringer, 2002, pp 10–11)

Six Dimensions of Team Morale

  • Flexibility: The feeling workers have about the freedoms provided and constraints placed upon them by the organization. Flexibility also refers to the degree to which team members feel there are too many rules, procedures, policies, and practices to which they must conform rather than being able to do their work as they see fit. Low flexibility is often a hindrance to team members taking calculated risks and taking any initiative.
  • Responsibility: An indication of how much team members are trusted to do their jobs. It is the feeling that team members have the proper amount of responsibility assigned to them, given their skills, the task, and the situation. It refers to the degree to which they can run their jobs on their own without having to constantly check with their manager. Responsibility also indicates the degree to which the project manager delegates tasks and monitors performance. For a team to be effective, project managers should delegate responsibilities to the appropriate skill level and regularly monitor performance, but not micro-manage.
  • Standards: The degree to which team members feel their manager or the organization places on doing a good job and the degree to which people feel that challenging goals are set. Evaluating standards includes questions such as: Is the organization more concerned about getting a task completed or ensuring that it is done right? Are all applicable standards met? Are goals too simple or unrealistic?
  • Rewards: When used as an indicator of team morale, rewards refers to the degree to which team members feel that they are being recognized and rewarded for doing good work, rather than being criticized and disciplined when something goes wrong. The more difficult the job, the greater the reward should be. Too many project managers adopt the attitude that their team members are just doing their jobs, so why should they be rewarded? Appropriate rewards build positive expectations and helps in team building.
  • Clarity: The feeling that the organization and the project are well organized rather than disorderly, confused, or chaotic. It is the feeling that reporting structures are clearly understood and communicated.
  • Team Spirit: The feeling that “good relationships” exist in the work environment and that the manager and team members trust each. Team spirit indicates the degree to which team members are proud to belong to the organization and the team.

Team Morale and Project Management Skills

Morale is also affected by how well the project manager performs his or her duties as a project manager. All of the dimensions of team morale are influenced, positively or negatively, by the project manager’s skills. In general, project managers perform the following duties in three general skill areas: supervision and management, leadership, and personal character and professionalism— all of which focus on making sure that the project team has the support it needs, when it is needed in order to complete the project work. In return, the team provides the project manager what he or she needs in order to be successful.

Supervision and Management

Supervision and management focuses on actions project managers take to accomplish specific objectives and tasks. Some of these actions include:

  • Establishing and Maintaining Standards – Project managers have the responsibility to stress the importance of doing a good job and enforce high performance standards. Taking the time to clearly communicate performance standards helps team members understand that the work is expected to be done correctly the first time. Establishing and maintain high standards not only applies to the project team, but to management and other stakeholders, as well. In most cases, failure to enforce standards will imply that standards are not important or that the standards have been lowered.
  • Managing Resources Efficiently – Defining and organizing tasks help to best utilize time and resources. All projects have a finite amount of resources, so the project manager must identify systems and processes efficiencies and work to improve any inefficiency. He or she should work to improve operational efficiency by clearly delegating tasks to the appropriate team member, and if necessary, use on-the-job training and cross-training as techniques to improve efficiency. By encouraging all stakeholders, including senior stakeholders, to use the right tools, techniques, and methods, the probability of overall project success is increased.
  • Planning and Organizing – Understanding the organization’s long-term and short-term plans and objectives is an important element in helping to establish and maintain morale. By working with the team to set priorities and goals, the project manager can develop detailed plans and schedules that optimize allocated resources. The project manager also needs to anticipate obstacles to those plans and make adjustments accordingly.
  • Supervising for Optimum Performance – Project managers should strive to obtain optimum results from team members by setting and clearly communicating expectations for project team performance and stating those performance expectations up front. Communicating the consequences for non-performance and holding team members accountable emphasize the importance of performance standards. In addition, if the project manager works to match team members to the appropriate tasks in order to get the best performance, cooperation and teamwork can also be enhanced.
  • Monitoring and Controlling –Project managers need to be engaged and stay aware of internal and external events, especially those that could affect team morale. Routinely gathering information, observing work results, auditing documentation, and evaluating resources are common techniques for monitoring team performance. Throughout the project, he or she should also routinely ask team members questions to assess the overall health of the project and their contributions to project performance, as well as any personnel issues that could affect project success.


Project success depends upon the project manager’s ability to recognize what motivates team members and other stakeholders. Leadership differs from management in that the project manager is focused on motivating team members to take personal responsibility for accomplishing tasks rather than being primarily concerned with task completion. Typical activities performed by the project manager as a leader include:

  • Displaying Commitment to the Organization’s Vision and the Team’s Mission – By acting in a way that demonstrates a strong commitment to the organization, the project, and the team, the project manager communicates the importance of an integrated vision and mission.
  • Assuming Leadership Role – Identifying him- or herself as the project leader, the project manager becomes a key factor in helping the team be successful. Taking a leadership role not only helps to clarify the project manager’s role and responsibilities, it can also serve as an example for less experienced team members.
  • Communicating – Providing and receiving information throughout the organizational and team structure to facilitate the understanding of project-related issues. The project manager needs to make sure that all stakeholders are kept informed of applicable information and data. He or she also needs to maintain an open mind and listen to team member suggestions and input.
  • Influencing – Successfully using a variety of strategies to influence others toward task accomplishment. Project managers often persuade others by pointing out benefits to them, presenting logical arguments, and their positional authority. An effective influencing technique for motivating and maintaining morale is to provide reasons for decisions.
  • Developing Project Team Members – Providing timely and appropriate training and work opportunities to improve team member performance. The project manager should make training opportunities, diverse jobs, and expert help available to team members. It is also important that he or she also provide constructive feedback, both positive and negative, focused on improved project performance.
  • Caring for Others – One of a project manager’s most important tasks is to be aware of the welfare and morale of the project team members. Actively supporting team members to overcome project issues and problems, recognizing team members’ achievements, and emphasizing their ability to do a good job are significant responsibilities. Expressing positive expectations about team members’ abilities is a good technique for increasing team morale. The project manager should ensure that team members are rewarded and recognized appropriately based on work performance.

Personal Character and Professionalism

In an ideal situation, the project manager would only have to express his or her expectations to influence team members and other stakeholders. In many cases, he or she often has to work hard using personal skills and characteristics to change attitudes and achieve project objectives. Some of these characteristics include:

  • Demonstrating a high concern for task achievement – The project manager should continually be seeking new challenges and striving to reach higher levels of accomplishment. The project manager can model desired behaviors by accepting challenges and assignments enthusiastically, even if they are not the most desirable. Enthusiasm can be contagious. It is also important to encourage project team members to perform their best and to exceed normal standards, while stressing team work and cooperation. This helps to build a real feeling of accomplishment and helps build team confidence each time the team reaches a higher standard.
  • Using Analytical Skills to Solve Problems – All project managers face complex problems and situations. Analyzing these situations and evaluating information in order to solve the problems is a critical project management skill. Therefore, project managers should not jump to conclusions or act hastily. Impulsive actions almost always have a negative impact on team morale. Identifying the central issues and causes of a problem helps focus limited resources on the appropriate solution. Otherwise, actions might be taken that are contrary to good team morale.
  • Interpersonal Awareness – Interpersonal awareness is having an understanding of the relationships between people and what motivates stakeholders. By understanding these relationships, the project manager can better anticipate others’ actions and respond appropriately. To better motivate and maintain team morale, it is always helpful to understand others’ “hot buttons.” If the project manager critically thinks about the impact of his or her actions, as well as the actions of others, there is a lower probability of reacting inappropriately, potentially lowering morale.
  • Taking Initiative – Initiative is simply taking actions without being told to do so. As a project manager, sometimes it is necessary to initiate change or initiate the handling of a difficult situation. The project manager often needs to identify new and creative ways to address an issue or situation. This requires that he or she be willing to take calculated risks. Risk can be lowered by actively seeking information to accomplishing tasks, making decisions, and developing appropriate plans to accomplish the work without waiting for someone else to give direction. Of course, this will only work if people are encouraged to take the initiative and the environment is not one that has a “shoot the messenger” mentality.
  • Demonstrating Persistence – Persistence is taking repeated actions and expending whatever effort is necessary to complete a task, overcome an obstacle, or influence a stakeholder. Persistence is often a major factor in project success. The project manager does what he or she needs to do (ethically and legally) to ensure that project goals are successfully accomplished and team members’ issues are addressed.
  • Demonstrating Assertiveness – Assertiveness is important when dealing with conflicts and issues. The project manager needs to confront issues directly. The manager might have to insist on being given authority necessary to effectively manage the project. When being assertive, it is important to maintain self-control, especially because assertiveness is likely to create some degree of stress or conflict. The project manager needs to tactfully address key issues and conflict and act appropriately. Project managers need to display confidence when dealing with senior-level managers and significant stakeholders.

The Relationship between Team Morale and Project Management Skills

Each of the six dimensions of team morale is affected by one or more of the skill areas addressed above. A project manager’s day-to-day actions and the way he or she interacts with the team members and other stakeholders has a significant impact on how team members feel about the organization and project team. Each dimension is listed below, along with several skill areas that are applicable to that dimension.

  1. Flexibility (constraints and rules) – It is well understood that having some rules, regulations, and constraints are necessary for good order and operations. However, having too much flexibility can create chaos if everyone can do what they want, when they want. Flexibility can be demonstrated when the project manager shows a genuine concern for the success and well-being of the team members, applies project and organizational standards appropriately, and maintains open and trusting communications, All of these skills help the project manager step back, look at the big picture, and determine how flexible he or she can be based on the situation..
  2. Responsibility (self-direction) – Most people will agree that a valuable technique for motivating team members is to give them the responsibility and authority to make decisions about their work. A working climate that emphasizes individual responsibility and accountability for success or failure is more motivating. While individual responsibility is important, it is also understood that the project manager will still need to monitor work results in order to provide feedback regarding task performance. The key is to provide the right amount of oversight and appropriate feedback that encourages increased performance and professional development.
  3. Standards (quality) – Establishing, communicating, and maintaining high performance standards plays an important part in encouraging team members to try and do their best. If the manager stresses effective planning and organizes the work to efficiently manage resources he or she can communicate the importance of standards. Standards reflect the level of expectations placed on the team members by the project manager. High expectations can generate a need to try and achieve a task, whereas low standards often reflect lower performance expectations.
  4. Rewards (recognition) – Recognition in the form of material compensation or verbal praise is important for creating a climate of high morale. It is critical that the project manager ensure that team members are recognized for good performance and receive feedback on how to improve when performance does not meet defined standards. If rewards are viewed as being timely and performance based, then team members are more inclined to be motivated toward higher performance. Giving rewards or recognition that is unearned or seems arbitrary does not create high morale. In fact, undeserved rewards or discipline have the opposite affect – they lower morale.
  5. Clarity (organization and structure) – Clarity is communicated by how well the project manager plans and organizes the work, assigns and manages resources, and structures the project team through defined roles and responsibilities. Task clarity is dependent upon the amount of information available, how well the project manager shares that information, and the degree to which team members are allowed to make decisions. Another aspect of clarity is organizational hierarchy, which communicates the status and authority of stakeholders.
  6. Team Spirit (relationships) – Team spirit is strongly affected by how the project manager establishes and maintains standards, plans, organizes, and coordinates, all of which requires cooperation with others and effective communication. By trying to match team members to the work to get the best performance, the project manager demonstrates a concern for both the interests of the team members and the needs of the organization. Team spirit is demonstrated by the degree to which the project manager creates a climate of trust, support, and organizational/team identity. The manager needs to emphasize the development of positive relationships through encouragement and support.

Leadership Styles and Team Morale

Leadership Styles Overview

A project manager’s leadership style is effective if it is appropriate for the people being led, the requirements of the work being performed, and the situation. There are no good or bad leadership styles. Effective leadership is the art of using the appropriate style with specific people in specific situations. In all situations, the project manager as the leader performs six basic tasks that affect team members. He or she needs to:

  • Listen to team members in order to understand, diagnose, and resolve issues and problems
  • Set goals and performance standards and develop long- and short-term plans
  • Clearly define project roles, responsibilities, and accountability criteria
  • Provide feedback on project performance
  • Reward or hold team members accountable for project deliverables and personal actions
  • Develops team members’ project and team-related skills

The degree to which these six activities are handled by the project manager at any point in time varies with the nature of the project, the organizational culture, the specific tasks being performed, and the team members. For instance, one would expect the project manager to use a different leadership style for routine tasks than for tasks that require more innovation or are of a critical nature.

Although each project manager may have a dominant or preferred leadership style, to be effective, he or she will most likely have to use a variety of leadership and management styles. Generally, the broader the range of styles with which a project manager feels comfortable, the more flexible and adaptable he or she can be to changing situations. Typical leadership thoughts and actions can be clustered into six general styles (Goleman, 2000, pp 82 – 86):

  • Coercer – Do it the way I tell you.
  • Authoritarian – Firm, but fair
  • Affiliator – People first
  • Democrat – Participative
  • Pacesetter – Do it myself
  • Coach – Developmental

Factors that Affect Leadership Style and the Manager’s Approach to Team Morale

Robert Stringer, in Leadership and Organizational Climate, (Stringer, 2002 pp 100–101) states that “a boss’ behavior—his or her day-do-day leadership practices—is the most important determinant of climate” for the following three reasons:

1)  Leadership pervades an organization. The various other determinants of [team morale] such as organizational arrangements and strategy are communicated to the members of the organization through the words and deeds of the manager or boss of the work group. They are an expression of leadership.

2)  Stinger’s research has shown that leadership has the greatest impact on climate

3)  Leadership is the [morale] determinant that is easiest to change, or at least work on, and so changes in [morale] and, thus performance are most readily achieved by changing leadership practices.

A leadership style does not develop overnight; it is cultivated over a lifetime. There are several inter-related factors that influence a project manager’s leadership style, and, to varying degrees, team morale. Some of those factors include:

  • A manager’s personal motives and values – those things he or she considers to be important.
  • Previous and current managers who serve as role models, both good and bad and directly or indirectly. For example, if a boss is an authoritarian or pacesetter, then the project manager will probably lead that way also.
  • The organization’s culture and norms, such as the formal and informal hierarchical structures, communication mechanisms, or view of quality, standards, and regulations, have a great impact on reporting relationships and the need for control.
  • The project manager’s past experiences has perhaps one of the strongest influences. If a leadership style has worked in the past, then he or she will be inclined to use it again.
  • The project objectives and specific tasks to be accomplished greatly influence a manager’s leadership style. For example, undertaking a project to reach a critical customer-driven milestone generally requires a leadership style (perhaps more authoritarian) that is different than that most likely used if leading a team of peers to plan and execute social gathering (Affiliator or Democrat).
  • And, finally, the overall situation and environment within which the project or task must be executed are also critical in determining leadership style. Factors such as the number of people being led, the amount of pressure from key stakeholders, and the abilities of the team members influence a manager’s leadership style.

Relationship between Leadership Style and Team Morale

  • Coercer – The Coercer’s philosophy is “Do it the Way I Tell You.” Coercive leaders tell team members not only what to do, but usually how to do it. They rarely listen and often seek little input from the team. This type of leadership style expects immediate compliance and obedience to given direction and maintains tight control —a stereotypical micromanager. Coercers require many detailed reports and must approve every decision or change. Coercers almost never provide any type of reward and they tend to give more negative (and often personalized) feedback than positive feedback and will resort to threats of “discipline” or “punishment” if things do not go their way. Coercers almost always create an inflexible work environment, but often have high standards. A Coercive style is also a cause for low responsibility because team members are discouraged from taking calculated risks.
  • Authoritarian - Authoritarians are considered to be “Firm, but Fair.” They tactfully provide clear directions, but leave no doubt about what is expected. They frequently solicit input from the team on how to get the work done and seek best practices based on others’ experiences, especially if it helps to improve results. Authoritarians see their influence as a key part of the job. They persuade team members by explaining the “whys” behind a decision or action but it is clear as to who makes the final decision. They are generally aware of what is taking place and provide both negative feedback (to improve performance) and positive feedback (to increase or maintain performance.) Authoritarians generally emphasize high standards as well as high clarity. However, although this style is positive with respect to responsibility and clarity, it can quickly have a negative impact on team spirit if overused.
  • Affiliator – For the Affiliator, it’s “People First. Team members’ comfort and happiness and their own personal popularity are their highest priorities. They generally do not provide very clear directions, emphasize performance standards, or stress goals. Those with this leadership style strive to ensure that team members have job security and whatever fringe benefits they can provide in order to keep them happy. They will try to avoid any conflict that might create hard feelings and typically reward personal traits rather than on task performance. Affiliators rarely provide negative feedback, punish, or discipline. An overuse of the Affiliator style generally leads to lower standards, because the team members are not held accountable for poor performance.
  • Democrat – This style of leadership emphasizes group participation and team-based decision making, often by consensus. This leadership style considers specific direction and close supervision unnecessary in completing tasks when trust has been established within the team. Democrats hold many meetings and frequently solicit team members’ feedback. They usually reward average performance and rarely give negative feedback or hold team members accountable for inappropriate behavior. If the project manager relies primarily on a Democratic leadership style, the team members are likely to have too little responsibility because everyone decides, so no one is responsible for the outcome. An overuse of the Democratic style can also lead to lower standards, because the standards are based on consensus and what is “best” for the group.
  • Pacesetter – Pacesetters would rather do the job themselves. They maintain standards that are often difficult for others to meet. Because they tend to be “loners,” they expect team members to be self-directed. This leader has great difficulty delegating because he or she does not believe that anyone can do the job as well. Therefore, Pacesetters do not spend time trying to develop team members’ skills, except to the degree that they model the Pacesetter’s example. It is not uncommon for Pacesetters to take over a task already being performed by another team member. They rarely provide positive feedback or rewards for above average performance, but tend to become coercive when team members have difficulty or when things do not go as they expect. The Pacesetter style can lead to high standards but can be ineffective because the project manager is not developing any team members through effective delegation.
  • Coach – Coaches are primarily concerned with the development of the project team. This leader generally sets high standards and works with the team, as necessary, to meet those standards. Often, having difficulty communicating performance standards, he or she usually directs team member performance by letting the team members set their own goals. The Coach gets team members to develop work and performance plans and identify solutions instead of providing clear, concise directions regarding what to do or how to do it.

Techniques to Improving Team Morale

Ask any project team how to improve team morale and the answers will vary based on what is important to each individual answering the question. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, (Collins, 2001, p 41) stresses the importance of organizations hiring the right people and making sure that they are in the right positions based on their skills, abilities, and attitude. This practice, when possible, is a great starting point for increasing team member morale. However, the option of choosing team members is a luxury that many project managers do not have. So, what can a project manager do to increase team morale regardless of the level of authority he or she has? Some basic tips and techniques include:

  • Communicate with and listen to team members - Good communication between the project manager and the team as well as among team members is crucial for good morale. Team members need to feel their opinions are valued and that management is listening to what they have to say. Frequent and honest communication provides an opportunity to share information and develop trust.
  • Establish clear and specific performance goals for the team and each team member – Meet with the team on a regular basis to develop and periodically review project objectives and confirm accountability for deliverables. Clear expectations are critical to good team morale. Team members need to know what is expected of them. They also have the responsibility to make sure that they take the initiative to clarify what is expected of them if they are not sure.
  • Ensure everyone on the team knows who has responsibility for what work – Prepare a Responsibility Assignment Matrix, focusing on placing the right people on the right tasks. This is an opportunity to allow team members to have an input into task assignments. This not only gets team members involved, it is also a way that the project manager demonstrates trust by allowing them to provide input and help with decision-making related to their project work.
  • Demonstrate commitment to team goals and project success – If the project manager expresses his or her commitment and shows passion for achieving project goals, team members are more likely to become more committed as well. It is important for the project manager to exhibit the kind of behavior he or she expects from the project team.
  • Provide team members honest and useable feedback on project performance – Team members want to know how well they are performing. It is important to regularly provide team members with information regarding their performance; however, to be useful the feedback must be timely, address specific behaviors, and be something over which the team member actually has control and can change.
  • Encourage team members to be innovative and to take calculated risks – Allow team members to be creative and experiment with new ideas. Address the impact of risk taking and the potential for failure. While understanding that failure and mistakes will happen, it is important to differentiate between mistakes that are catastrophic and those that can be tolerated. It is one thing to talk about risk taking, it is something else to actually encourage and reward risk taking.
  • Implement a performance-based reward and recognition system – Team members need recognition. Rewards and recognition should occur more often than negative comments or criticism. By clarifying and communicating performance standards and monitoring performance, appropriate rewards and criticism can be provided. Consistency is the key; in other words, the project manager should not show favoritism, reward positive performance, and hold poor performers accountable. Be enthusiastic about the success of others. Recognize team members’ potential and help them achieve it.
  • Support team members in the accomplishment of their tasks – One of the project manager’s most important jobs is to remove obstacles so that team members can do their work effectively and efficiently. It does not mean“micro-managing” the team members’ work. If team members make a decision within their given authority, the project manager should support that decision. Sometimes this means that the project manager might have to be their advocate or champion when they are challenged by a senior manager or other significant stakeholder.
  • Seek best practices from the best people by focusing on their strengths – The organization should not spend a lot of time and money trying to “fix” skills that are weak or trying to make sure that those who lack specific skills can do something even if that “something” is outside the team member’s domain of expertise or interest. Instead, the organization should focus on strengthening the domain skills and areas of interest (Buckingham, 2001, p 7)
  • Work to achieve a safe, healthy, and friendly workplace – To the greatest extent possible, project managers should strive to ensure that the work environment is free from physical hazards. The project manager can never guarantee that accidents will not happen or that the conditions will be the best; but, even in less than optimal working conditions, morale can be maintained if the team believes that the manager has done everything he or she could and is concerned about their physical, emotional, and mental welfare. It is also important to provide for the team’s social development and growth as well. Short discussions in a break-room allow team members to share ideas, address common issues and problems, and to connect with each other on a personal level, thereby building trust and increasing good communication throughout the team.
  • Find ways to instill a sense of team spirit – Group identity is crucial to creating a feeling of belonging and membership. The team should develop a way to create a team identity through a shared symbol, team logo, motto, and so forth

Ask the project team and they are likely to say that it is the project manager’s responsibility to create and maintain team morale. In the purest sense, they are correct; the project manager has the greatest influence on team morale. However, it is also important to remember that each member of that team also bears some responsibility for the team’s morale. Effective project managers work to help team members see how they contribute to their own and the team’s morale.


Experience has shown that team members who are actively and appropriately engaged in project and organizational efforts tend to more satisfied and have higher morale. Higher morale leads to greater productivity, creating a win–win situation for them, the project’s customer, and the organization. Team member morale is based on their perception of the work environment and the degree to which they feel that management is concerned with their well being as well as the project deliverables.

When team members are forced to follow inflexible rules, policies, and regulations, that they believe to be meaningless or burdensome for a given situation, it can create a high-stress environment and negatively affects morale. Over time, a project team with low morale will experience frustration, feelings of hopelessness, and overall dissatisfaction. Team members are more likely to have greater satisfaction and higher morale if they clearly understand their level of authority and the basis for their job accountability and are involved in decisions that affect their ability to perform their professional responsibilities. Team members want to feel that they can exercise their own judgment without having to check everything with the project manager before taking any action.

In addition to wanting an input into project and organizational activities, team members also want to know that they will be recognized for a job well done, and that when their performance does not meet standards, appropriate feedback will be provided. It is important to team members that the project manager provide fair and equitable performance-based rewards, to the greatest degree possible, and that the organization provide career advancement opportunities.

It is also important that the project manager and the management team understand the team’s composition and when necessary be willing to customize organizational practices, policies, and processes accordingly. The project manager, and in the larger context the organization’s senior management, has the biggest impact on team member morale. A project manager does not have to be everyone’s friend, but he or she should always strive to be professional and treat team members as professionals.

Buckingham, M., & Cliffton, D.O. (2001). Now discover your strengths, New York, NY: The Free Press

Chief of Navy Education and Training (1989). Navy Leader Development Program Chief Petty Officer Course, Pensacola, FL

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great, New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Goleman, D, (2000, March-April). Leadership that gets results, Harvard Business Review Reprint R00204

Kotter, J., (1998) What leaders really do. In Harvard Business Review on Leadership, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Litwin, G. H., & Stringer, R. A. (1968). Motivation and organizational climate, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Livingston, J.S. (1988, September-October). Pygmalion in management HBR Classic, Retrieved from

Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

McClelland, D.C. (1961). The achieving society, New York, NY: The Free Press.

McClelland, D.C. (1987). Human motivation, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stringer, R. (2002). Leadership and organizational climate, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

©2011 Lowell Dye Lowell D. Dye, PMP®
Published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2011 – Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX



Related Content

  • PM Network

    Life Hacks member content open

    Project practitioners from all over the world answer the question: How do you apply project management skills in everyday life?

  • PM Network

    Strategic Deficits member content open

    By Ali, Ambreen CIOs know what's needed to deliver value. But those expectations don't jibe with the reality of organizations' strategic capabilities.

  • PM Network

    Leading the Data Charge member content open

    Once a novelty, chief data officers (CDOs) are now the new normal.

  • PM Network

    Shazlee Rosli member content open

    PM Network interviews Shazlee Rosli, Project Management Office (PMO) Strategic Planning Manager, COO office, Hong Leong Bank Berhad.

  • PM Network

    Vent session member content open

    Whether it's last-minute change requests or oblivious stakeholders, recurring problems can push project managers to the edge. We asked practitioners: What's your biggest project pet peeve?