Leading the troops

27 March, 2013

During World War I, officers frequently climbed out of their trenches and charged at the enemy lines, armed with nothing but a swagger stick. On these occasions, I’m sure a fleeting moment of doubt passed through their minds: would the troops follow him into the charge? Or even, if morale was particularly low, would the bullets that cut him down come from behind instead of in front?

Project managers also have these doubts: will the team rise to the challenge? Will they get the work done when they said they could? Anyone who has taken a PMP® preparation course or sat the PMP® exam will be aware that the Project Management Institute has devoted an entire knowledge area to Human Resource Management. Despite years of cost cutting and cutbacks, a fundamental fact remains: for project work, your people are your most important assets.

A common question for new project managers is: How do you motivate your team? Well, the simple answer is that you can’t! Motivation is an intrinsic characteristic: I cannot give you motivation. However, what I can do is tap into your motivation and offer rewards and punishments that resonate with you. Unfortunately, motivations are constantly in a state of flux, so what worked for an individual this time around, might not do the trick on the next project.

This means that you need to get to know your staff. For instance, if you need a member of staff to put in some extra work and you know that this person has just bought a house (or an engagement ring), then offering a financial bonus at the end of the project will be attractive. However, for someone whose finances are in order and who might have a time-consuming hobby, some extra time-off in lieu could do the trick. Indeed the company might consider sponsoring events their employees enter, associating their advertising with their people.

You also need to know your people in order to diagnose poor performance. I had a guy working for me once who was so wrapped up in his wedding arrangements that he might as well have stayed home for six months. Similarly, the arrival of a new baby or being confronted with the care of a sick relative will throw off performance for a time. We need to plan for this and work to support the person. Take people off the critical path, if this is possible and allow them some leeway to get through the distraction. This will pay dividends later on as the person really appreciates the support and understanding.

But how about those hard-cases - the ones whose performances are consistently sub-par? Well it’s useful to remember the old adage: there is no such thing as problem people, only problem behaviours. Can you objectively and quantifiably identify the problem behaviour? The textbook example is timekeeping: the person has arrived late every day for a fortnight. The reason why it’s important to do this is because the problem might not be with the team member, but with you! You simply might not like the person. If you cannot put your finger on the problem, there likely is not a problem with that person.

But if there is a problem, what should you do? The first thing is to confront the person. The worst thing that can happen is to let this fester. The meeting has to be matter of fact: state the problem and illustrate this with undeniable evidence. Emphasise that this is a problem and explain why. For instance, in the timekeeping example, the previous shift has to hang around for longer awaiting relief and this is upsetting the unions. Also, show how this problem is going to affect the person causing the problem. Explain the disciplinary procedure – the verbal and written warnings, etc. Then, make sure that the person gets ample opportunity to explain their side of things.

This is important because, when dealing with problem behaviours, you need to answer one question: is the person unable to do the work, or is unwilling to do it? If someone is falling down because of competence, then a training course or some mentoring might be enough to get them up to speed. However, there are cases where that particular role is simply beyond them. For instance, there are people, bright people, who cannot for the life of them program computers. But they can be very productive in other software roles, like testing or documentation.

It is the unwilling worker that is the problem. A good example is of someone who expected to get the project manager role and is really annoyed that you were hired instead. In this case, the best response is to make this person the technical lead or officially recognize them as your number two. You have no need to justify your position – you did not hire yourself – but you can offer a career path for the person which may inspire them to work diligently in anticipation of future advancement.

In any project management training course and specifically in PMP® exam prep training courses you will definitely see a lot of tools around Managing the Project team. You will also learn about Maslow, Herzberg etc and their theories on motivation and how you as a Project Manager can use these with your team. It is an intersting topic and knowing there will be questions on the PMP exam focuses the mind!

In conclusion, it really goes back to the motivation question: learn what your people like and direct them in ways that align with their own self-image. Many centuries ago, a scholar made a study of quarry workers, who were effectively paid slaves. The first worker he approached was irate at being asked what he was doing: “I’m hauling blocks, what do you think I’m doing?! The second one explained that he was working to support his family, but the third one declared proudly: “I’m building a Cathedral!”

Ask yourself how your team would answer this question, the next time you climb out of your trench and charge the enemy.

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