Ask a PM: How to Motivate the Team When It Thinks It Should Stop

Elizabeth Harrin | April 2, 2019

Motivate the Team
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Dear Elizabeth: My project team and the exec leadership team are not on the same page. How do you motivate the team when it thinks it should stop but the senior stakeholders direct us to keep going?

This situation has a major disconnect in it. Your team thinks the project should be stopped, but the people in power, the decisionmakers, are instructing you to keep going on the project. As a result, motivation has plummeted.

I get that. Your team knows it is working on something that is doomed to failure, so team members are struggling to stay motivated.

As I see it, you have a couple of options to pursue in this case.

  • Try different tactics to improve morale.
  • Address the underlying problem, which is that your team and the leadership team don’t agree on the value of the project.

Develop Motivation Tactics

I believe you can only go so far with motivating people in this situation. Anything you try might give you a motivation win for a short period of time, but ultimately your teammates’ fundamental issue—they don’t think the project should continue—will still be there. There’s a limit to how long the goodwill generated from staff recognition schemes and high fives is going to last.

Let’s quickly look at some ways that you can motivate a team, in case any of these are something you want to try. However, let me put it out there now: I think you will have to address the underlying problem sooner rather than later.

For a start, one motivation approach will never work for the whole team. Everyone is different, and people are motivated by different things. You’ll often find people with similar motivations end up in similar roles or industries, but you can’t rely on that to motivate a group (unless the motivation is “staying alive by finding food” in a disaster movie or something).

People are motivated by different factors that include the following:

  • Money
  • Status and recognition as an expert
  • Career advancement
  • Helping others and serving
  • Proving others wrong
  • Lots of other reasons

If you want to tap into how best to motivate a team, break the team down and target individuals. Find out what motivates each person and then look at how you can give it to them in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse. For example, if someone is motivated by earning more, giving them a massive pay rise and giving everyone else nothing is going to backfire. People find out; they always do.

You can do some things to improve the lot of the team overall, which will have positive effects on group morale as these are hygiene factors that we all need to stay on track at work.

  • Provide strong leadership. A leadership vacuum is not a pleasant place to be. Make sure you are demonstrating leadership.
  • Make your processes work. All the basics of how you manage projects should simply work. Fix processes that aren’t optimal, reducing waste and improving efficiency.
  • Give people the tools they need to do their jobs. Not having the correct tech to schedule work, allocate assignments, or track time all contribute to general dissatisfaction in the workplace. Make sure people have robust project management tools that help and don’t hinder.
  • Make sure the basic needs are met. The team should operate as a trusting, respectful unit with good work/life balance. If that isn’t happening, put it right.

Whatever you do to improve morale, expect the benefits to only last a short time. New things soon become expected things, so ultimately the boost you got from giving out rewards or changing a process will become the normal operating procedure. That’s why you will have to address the fundamental issue here: the fact that your team thinks the project should stop while management believes it should carry on.

Understand Different Viewpoints

I don’t know your project or your business, so I can’t advise on whether this project should be stopped or continued. However, someone in your business has the answer to that. Your job is to broker a solution between the team and the executives. To do that, you need to start by learning about the opposing positions.

Start with your team. Find out exactly why they don’t think the project should continue. What flaws can they see? How are the benefits going to be affected? What do they think they know that they haven’t been able to explain yet to management?

Then, talk to your project sponsor. Why is this project so important? What do they think the benefit will be? Have they heard about the argument to stop the project; how would they respond?

At the end of this fact-finding mission, you may have a clear idea about what you feel the correct route forward is. For example, if the project is strategically important, and your team is simply bored of working on it as it has been going on for some time, that’s a problem. You can fix that by switching out team members and addressing the poor attitude.

On the other hand, if the team has identified something that fundamentally undermines the business case, but management doesn’t want to hear about it, that’s a totally different problem. Let’s look more deeply into that situation as I feel that’s most likely to be the case.

Make Your Case

Next, organize a meeting with your project sponsor. You need to discuss the current performance of the project and how likely it is to hit its goals. It’s in everyone’s interest that the project is a success. The company doesn’t want to be throwing money at a project that is not going to deliver anything of value, so on the assumption that your project is genuinely in difficulty, you need to address that.

Talk to your sponsor openly about the issues you’ve uncovered with the team. Talk about what mitigation plans there might be. Can you add something else into the scope or remove elements of the project that are underperforming? What changes could you make to the schedule to help make the project more successful? Does another stakeholder need to get involved to improve the outcome? These are all useful things to consider before talking to your sponsor.

Make a recommendation. Tell them what you would suggest doing next. Ask for their help in ensuring a decision is taken. Who needs to be involved in changing the project to make it successful?

You can see I’ve taken the approach that the project can be salvaged. If you make a few changes, you could deliver something of value. If you go into that meeting and say the project should be canceled, that’s a far more difficult message for your sponsor to hear. They may come to their own conclusion that your mitigation plans don’t go far enough and request that the project is closed anyway. You can always keep project closure as a reserve strategy once you have fully discussed how to get something out of the current work so you wouldn’t have wasted too much of the effort that has already been invested.

Keep an Open Mind

One of the things I see often in project-driven businesses is that the board-level members don’t keep the delivery teams up to date with company strategy and the why behind tasks. There seems to be a huge communication issue between the top management levels and the people who are actually supposed to be delivering strategic projects, so bear in mind that you could be suffering from this. An open conversation with your sponsor may help you better understand why the project is still worthwhile from management’s perspective.

Finally, pass all your information back to your team. You’ll get a morale boost simply as a consequence of them seeing you trying to do something about their issues, even if the end result is not what they would have wanted.

This is an intensely difficult situation to be in with many conflicting stakeholder opinions, so tread carefully, listen thoroughly, and then take appropriate action.

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

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