Capability growth · Leading change

Ways to motivate people on projects that often backfire

I recently posted an article about motivating people on projects and as a result we had an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues.

We  discussed several approaches that are sometimes successful and sometimes detrimental.

So here is a collection of some of the approaches we discussed.

Tell the team they are the most elite team ever

People often perform better if they believe that they have been hand-picked as the experts in their field. So some project managers (and consulting companies) find great success in motivating people by telling them that they are awesome.

Feeling they are awesome not only makes people feel good, but also often makes them work harder so that they continue to live up to their reputation and continue to receive such positive feedback.

But it often backfires when people:

  • Start to ignore the input of “the less awesome” people outside the team, resulting in solutions that fall far short of what they could have achieved with the input of others; or
  • Start to over-estimate their own importance and either skimp on the detailed boring work that the less awesome must do, or even become corrupt (thinking “the rules don’t apply to us because we are awesome” is the beginning of a slippery slope towards slef interest and eventually corruption for many elite teams); and

Most importantly, there will often come a time when someone has to support the existing project or go and do some of the critical but boring work. This would not be a problem, except that other members of the team are being offered more awesome work and being told they are still awesome. This can lead to resentment among the “recently awesome” and to friction within the team.

Tell the team failure is not an option

Some projects are so important they simply can not be allowed to fail. When people realise this they often go the extra mile in both effort and ingenuity.

Unfortunately there is a risk that the team will start to believe that the project will come together because “its just so crazy it has to work”.  This is unfortunate because usually (outside the movies) crazy ideas fail the first time they are attempted.

What often happens is that the team redefine success near the end of the project so they can deliver something they can call successful. What happens next is that people get angry with them and the team start to feel badly treated because nobody appreciates the heroic efforts and innovative thinking the team employed to deliver what they did get done.

So if the project is too important to fail (or you want to motivate people by claiming it is) then the best thing to do is to really really focus in on what really needs to happen. Then if you can deliver the bare minimum before the end date and build upwards from there if time permits then you will be a hero instead of a cautionary tale for others.

Truly understanding the root cause of the problem or opportunity often also leads to the truly innovative, achievable and maintainable solutions.

Unlike the movies of course, the “too important to fail” speech can’t really be delivered every adventure or people become cynical and start ignoring the call to action.

Tell the team that this is the CEO’s most important project

I once worked with an organisation where every single project seemed to be described as “Someone-important’s top priority”.

This seemed to have a similar effect to turning on a light when there are moths around. Stakeholders and potential team members all rushed forth at as soon as you turned the lights on. And people often seemed more than accommodating.

But then when things got a bit tougher, or the senior manager went away to look at something else, then a lot of the people seemed to wander off, just like moths do when you turn the light out.

So while having senior managers engaged on a project is a real key to success, claiming that senior managers are interested often gains only temporary or apparent motivation.

But even when the project is the senior manager’s most important initiative, people are sometimes more motivated to give the manager good news or highlight their own prowess than they are to engage in intense debate or challenging thinking.

In other words, gaining executive buy-in helps and having a key stakeholder passionately explaining the importance of the project are both very good for motivating the team. But you still need to shift the discussion quickly to WHY the project is the executive’s most important initiative.

Tell the team that the project will  drive career growth

Some projects are real career builders. This can be because of the new skills and experience that people gain; it can be because of the visibility that the project gives people and it can simply be because of the relationships that people form while on the project.

But once again there is a potential dark-side.

  • Just because the project has the potential to create career growth does not mean that it will do so; and failing to deliver on promised rewards will de-motivate people as quickly as the prospect of career growth motivated them in the first place; and
  • There is a risk that people will focus on the opportunity to impress or fight over the juiciest pieces of work on the project.

So if you are using the carrot of career growth, you really need to work on the implementation of the promises you are making, while also making sure that people understand that they will need to commit to hard work and real commitment to the outcome if they are to share in the spoils.


All of the approaches I have listed above work, at least in the short term. But all come with issues and risks. So I am left back where I started in concluding that to motivate people on projects what you really need to do is:

  • Show them how can make a contribution;
  • Show them how their contribution will make a difference; and
  • Show them how their contribution will be rewarded, preferably through intrinsic rewards like satisfaction in a job well done or learning something new.

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