Leading change · Techniques

Complications when motivating people on projects

I wrote an article on how to motivate people on projects and I still think that the article contains everything a project manager really needs to know in order to motivate people.

But there are some consistent forces at work that enhance or upset your ability to motivate people in each project. So I thought I would list some of the ones I am aware of here:

Consistency theory

Consistency theory says that people will trust you if you act consistently because they can predict how you will act.But it also says that people will do things because that is how they should be done, rather than doing them because they make sense.

And worst of all it says that “believing is seeing”. People will interpret data and events in a way that makes reality consistent with what has already been agreed, rather than adjusting their expectations based on reality.

Consistency theory means that people often mistake activity for progress.


Consistency theory is relevant in two ways when motivating people.

Firstly, people trust you if you are consistent, even if you have consistent weaknesses. So when you motivate people it is good to be consistent in the way you do it and to be consistent with who you are.

If you are a tough general who rarely gives praise then people will appreciate the rare but heartfelt comments all the more and if you are a nice guy who has to be tough occasionally then people will appreciate that as long as you don’t fester then randomly explode.

But the more interesting aspect of contingency theory is that people try to act in a way that is consistent with how they acted in the past, or at least how they said they would act.

So some of the things that really surprised me on projects were

  • Getting people to commit and deliver to small things makes them far more likely to deliver on big things;
  • If people are used to doing things a certain way, then even if they think that approach is bad they will tend to keep doing it. So even when you replace ineffective processes, people will still try to keep the remnants of them going;
  • People like heroes who break the rules, as long as it is not inconsistent with the rules. This is a bit weird, but if you want to really make change then changing one significant thing can really send the message that the world has changed. But changing bits of things (even things people don’t like) can leave them feeling unsettled; and
  • Most importantly of all, people actually change their perception of events to make them seem consistent with what was supposed to happen. So if people say they are customer focused and then make life harder for the customer with a new workaround then they will somehow convince themselves that they are acting in the interests of the customer.

This last point is a real worry, because it means you can measure things and report trouble but that people will somehow ignore all the measures to assume things are OK.

The simple way to understand consistent theory is to simply step back and ask yourself if that the things that need doing now are consistent with what people are doing and with what you set out to do.  But if you want to get into a more detailed assessment then I recommend using an approach like the “the arenas of change” to assess the reality of the team as they perceive it.

Escalation theory

Escalation theory applies where people start to be motivated by the fear of wasting the work that has already been done, rather than by the value they can add from here.It is probably the number one cause of death march projects where everyone knows they are doomed but marches forward until outside forces end the project.


Escalation theory has led to many projects continuing to run for a long time after everyone knew they should be killed. And this has often damaged the reputations of the project managers involved with the project because people thought that they were either incompetent, cynically exploiting their customers or politically weak and cowardly.

Unfortunately, we are all subject to escalation theory. What happens is that we assume that the more we have already committed to something, the more we should see it through.

If you train for 3 years to get into the SAS (or any elite group) and then finally make it, you are unlikely to accept a good job offer somewhere else the next day because it means you had just wasted 3 years of your life. But in fact you have spent those 3 years regardless of whether joining the SAS or taking the other offer is better.

So escalation theory motivates people to see things through and, to an extent, that is what you want. But it combines with consistency theory to cause people to assume that because something has been hard, expending more effort on it will be a good idea. Yet this is absolutely not the case.

If the project has struggled the best thing to do is usually to change course or even write off all the work that has been done to date.

And since most teams suffer from escalation, it is really up to the PM to step back and see whether people are starting to be motivated by the fear of wasting the effort that has already been expended, rather than by the value they are adding.

If you don’t intervene at this point then motivation will slowly sag and people will continue to work hard but will actually start going through the motions rather than thinking creatively about solutions.

So, once again, people might start to mistake activity for progress.

Equity theory

A fair days work for a fair days pay … what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.Equity theory says that people will increase or decrease their effort based on how others are contributing, being rewarded or being recognised.

Sadly, it means people will do things that are not in their own interest, or in anyone else’s – just because they perceive someone else is being better treated.


Equity theory is a strange one. We all believe in justice but most of us underestimated the power that perceived justice or injustice has.

Soldiers will stay on the front line under fire because others in their platoon have done so in the past and they feel an obligation to do the same. Most cultures have a custom of giving and receiving gifts to build trust and a feeling of obligation. And in many parts of the world, people will riot and burn down buildings that they need to express their anger at injustice.

Where equity theory bites on projects is this:

  • If you do favours for people and go out of your way to provide even small benefits to them, then they will become more and more motivated; but
  • At the same time, everyone is watching to see what favours others are getting. For example they may perceive that contractors get paid more than permanent staff or that a select few get all the good roles.  And if they perceive others are getting additional favours or benefits then they will be motivated to decrease their own effort to the point where their diminishes contribution matches their perceived diminished value.

So strangely enough, a few chocolate brownies might result in people working overtime without thinking about it. But the perception that key staff are being favoured then people will start to do little things like not changing the paper on the printer, even when they need to print.

This is the strange part for me – people will actually start to contribute less (or even sabotage things) even when it means they themselves will be worse off as a result.

External rewards become expectations

Once is a surprise. Twice might be a surprise and three times is a pattern.If you gave a reward to someone for doing something, then the next time someone does something similar then they will expect an equivalent reward. And not getting it will often demotivate the person more than the original reward motivated them.


People are often motivated by a gift voucher, a free dinner when working late or an award at a company function.

But after you have done this a couple of times you will find a double impact that makes it less effective:

  • Equity theory means that the people who were not rewarded feel left out because they believe they too have made a difference and should thus be rewarded; and
  • Consistency theory means that those who were rewarded for something once start to expect the same reward again for doing something similar; which means that they stop being motivated by the reward and start being demotivated if the reward does not appear.

So outside rewards can work well but often lead to diminishing returns over time.

Interestingly, things like saying thankyou or showing that you the positive impact someone’s effort had on the outcome do not seem lead to diminishing returns.

So I think the good project manager will focus on highlighting the connection between effort and the outcome that resulted from it, and then complement this sometimes with external rewards.

Winners and losers

Often the things you do on a project shift the balance of power in the organisation and that can have a serious impact.  But it is not just managers who are impacted because job titles are not the only source of power.  I won’t expand on this any more here but you can look up an old article of mine if you are interested in what I mean by that.

People are who they are

After all this theory, it turns out that some people come pre-motivated and some are already upset with you when you start. You can do a lot to change the motivation in a group, but in one project you need to understand you can not change the entire world view of the entire organisation.

And to build on this, things happen in people’s lives way outside the realm of the project. And some of these things have substantial positive or negative impacts on their motivation.

So the best you can do is often to listen, adjust what you are doing based on what you hear and focus on addressing those factors you can control.


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