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Five ways to keep your project team motivated

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March can be the hardest month in which to motivate yourself as you plug away through the short days with a snivelling cold to boot. If you’re working on a project that balloons and drags on, it can knock the wind out of your sails.

Project professionals need to get motivation right. It’s a complex and personal issue and it can have huge implications for a project’s success. Demotivated people may begin to coast, start skipping critical meetings or jump ship altogether — all of which can have a dramatic impact, especially when the project runs into problems.

Here are five tips to ensure your project team remains in the game…

1. Find out what people want

Don’t assume you know what motivates people. Ask them. Money is just one common driver. Others include training and development, organisational values and career opportunities. And even they won’t spur everyone on in the same way.

“Just because you’re offering a brilliant leadership development programme doesn’t mean that’s what everybody aspires to,” says Carol Tansley, Vice President, UK New Build Projects, at X-energy.

A little can go a long way. Whether it’s a different job title, a desk by the window or decent coffee, there’s plenty you can offer that people value highly, but which won’t cost the business much. Just make sure you ask the team — and still offer the best money and development you can too.

2. Involve them from the off

Tansley previously led the delivery of four nuclear reactors at a power plant in the UAE, a project spanning more than 10 years. She says there’s nothing more demotivating on long projects than the ‘designed and announced’ leadership style, where senior leaders design an approach, dump it on their project teams and expect them to go off and deliver it.

“When people are invited to participate in the planning process, they feel they own it,” says Tansley. “Once you have your work breakdown structure and you’ve identified all the different scopes of work, invite the people who will be tasked with delivery to develop the schedules.”

When challenges then arise, that sense of ownership will inspire people to help resolve the issues.

3. Be invested

Project teams need their managers to show they’re interested in their development; that those leaders trust them and want them to do well; and that they’ll handle missteps in a way that leaves the individual still feeling secure as a professional.

Jenny Segal, speaker and author of On Motivation, describes a “ladder of vulnerability”, where different issues trigger varying degrees of reaction in people.

“It all goes back to how you were treated by your parents and teachers,” she says. “No one wants to be told they’re lazy or doing a bad job. Be clear and specific and give feedback they can work on.”

But sugar-coating bad feedback may ultimately prove demotivating too. “People often go too far the other way,” Segal adds. “They may be so worried about how to deliver bad news that they hide it.”

4. Set shared milestones

While people feel a great sense of agency when encouraged into the planning process early, that doesn’t mean you can tap out and leave them to get on with it.

“The best I’ve heard it expressed is the idea of 200% accountability,” says Tansley. “Leaders and their team are both accountable for delivery.”

Interim project milestones can be a great way to instil a sense of accomplishment and pride. If you make these markers meaningful to everybody across the project, they can be embedded in everyone’s personal objectives, from the CEO to the chief programme officer and the team.

“Everybody should be encouraged to deliver milestones and objectives together,” says Tansley. “So if those milestones get challenged, people will naturally work together to resolve the issue. Everybody gets there as a group.”

5. Get people mixing

A change in leadership can really affect motivation. People develop allegiances, relationships and sponsors through the life of a project and may find it deflating when people they’re fond of leave.

The solution is to build an environment where everyone talks to each other. Make sure people feel able to raise problems and challenge decisions in a respectful way. And encourage them to check in on each other and to share how they’re feeling about what’s working and what’s not.

This helps to build strength among people, which remains even when the project manager leaves. And when a new lead takes over, they can help stoke motivation – by asking that network how everything runs.

“The key here is talking to people to find out what worked and what didn't, and to collect suggestions for future improvement,” says Tansley. “The project team are the ones who know what’s happening. So they need to be part of that change process. That will keep their motivation up.”


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