Motivation: An Asymmetrical Concept

28 September, 2015

If you are a Project Manager then part of your role is the management of your project team. This is why Project Human Resource Management is such a crucial part of the Project Management Professional (PMP)© courses we run. We explain how to acquire, develop and manage a project team and the main thing we want to achieve is a cohesive, motivated unit.

Motivation is an issue that all Project Managers have to deal with and many have searched high and low for the Silver Bullet that will motivate everyone on the team. Sadly, they search in vain, because the crux of the matter is: you cannot motivate anyone! The important thing to realize is that motivation is an intrinsic characteristic and what Project Managers need to do is tap into someone’s motivating factors.

The trouble is (just like projects) everyone is unique and is motivated by different things. The real difficulty arises because motivation shifts over time – what worked on a team member in the last project, might not help this time around. 

Suppose, for instance, that you have recently bought a house, got married, or rashly took a bath when the water bill is due, then money is likely to motivate you. So the prospect of a bonus payment at the end of an arduous project might be just what you need to stick the course. However, if your finances are good and the project is eating into your evenings and weekends, a week off at the end of the project may be a more effective carrot for you.

Another important thing to realize is that motivation is not just about providing benefits to team members; it is also about removing irritants and obstacles. Little things, like a squeaky office chair, or drafty air-conditioning, can have certain team members exploring opportunities outside the organization. A wise Project Manager will make sure these irritants are dealt with.

Back in 1959, a paper published by Herzberg, Mausner and Schneiderman highlighted the asymmetry between rewards and irritants in terms of motivation. The researchers used a very effective metaphor to explain the effect of irritants. They likened them to sewers. No one ever thinks about the sewer until it gets blocked and needs immediate attention. If your sewer is working, no one has any interest in it; when it is blocked, it becomes the centre of your world.

Thus, what the researcher called “Hygiene Factors” can destroy motivation when they are not right but, strangely enough, they will not provide added motivation when they are better than expected. Think about your sewer again – as long as it is working, you really do not care if it is a just good enough sewer, or if it is made from platinum ingots. So, if the Project Manager can provide a working environment where everyone is content, s/he will not improve motivation by improving the quality of anything that everyone is happy with already.

As the Project Manager, you need to understand the difference between Hygiene Factors and motivating factors. The important thing is to make sure the Hygiene Factors are adequate but work to enhance the motivating factors. Strangely enough – and probably the most significant aspect of Herzberg et al’s work – pay is a Hygiene Factor. If I feel that I am being paid less than I am worth or, more seriously, if I feel peers in the team are paid more than me, this will distract me from putting in my best efforts. However, if I feel I am properly rewarded, giving me extra pay will not inspire any more effort on my part.

It is widely agreed in the literature that it is the work itself that is the primary motivator for project teams. If the project is truly ground-breaking in nature, the Project Manager should have no problem getting people to do their best. However, if the work is routine, then the Project Manager needs to lead by example and raise enthusiasm for the work. It might not be intrinsically interesting, but it could be a vital component in a critical, larger programme, for instance.

Another motivator is recognition. Again, how the Project Manager handles this depends on the individual. Some team members will be delighted with a private pat on the back and informal acknowledgement, whereas others crave public recognition and dream of getting the Employee of the Month parking space. The Project Manager needs to know which suits.

This is really the bottom line: To manage a project team, the Project Manager needs to get to know each one well enough to understand what is irritating them and what would motivate them. Then do your best to eliminate the irritations and apply appropriate motivators. Whatever you do, do not forget to praise team members when they do good work – recognition is usually a more powerful motivating force that reward.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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