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How to Motivate Your Teams & What to “Unlearn”

With Ruth Pearce
July 15, 2022

In this exclusive interview, Ruth Pearce, who will be speaking at IPM Day 2022 on “Burnout: Source, Signs, and Solutions,” shares pearls of wisdom on how project leaders can motivate individuals, teams, and organizations. Read this insightful conversation about motivation best practices, challenges and solutions, and what project leaders should unlearn

A Conversation with Ruth Pearce

Thought Leadership News: Wise leaders tune into trends in workplace culture to help their teams and organizations thrive and succeed. In a business world and era of profound and accelerating constant change and disruption, individuals and teams need new ways to stay motivated. What are some new methods project leaders can learn and apply for motivating teams and organizations today?

Ruth Pearce: It is an interesting hypothesis that wise leaders tune into workplace culture trends. Workplace culture and societal culture are intimately woven together and each influences the other.

The wisest leaders may be those who set trends by listening to their employees and understanding how to support them – in terms of mental health, productivity, flexibility and more. Organizations are created from individuals, and while most organizations have some measures of fit for employees that lead to some shared beliefs, it is still important for leaders to remember that their organizations are full of individuals who not only have differing wants and needs, but whose wants and needs change over time in response to life experiences.

For project leaders who want to motivate their people, a great start is to learn coaching approaches. Ask powerful, open questions, empower people to come up with solutions to problems, model inclusive, curious behavior and set a tone that welcomes experimentation, and from time to time, failure.

Many times, we are conflict averse. While harmony is important, it is important to foster dissent too. The recent book by Todd Kashdan, “The Art of Insubordination,” and before that, other books such as “In Support of Troublemakers” by Charlan Nemeth, explain how psychological safety is only one part of the puzzle to make organizations effective and successful. Another part is to foster opposing opinions and use those opinions to validate and strengthen decision-making and solutioning.

In some cases, bucking the trend is more important than tuning into trends!

To find out what kind of dissenter you are, you can use this free assessment from Todd Kashdan, https://toddkashdan.com/insubordination-quiz/.

Thought Leadership News: If you could share some direct tactics on how to motivate teams, what would they be?

Ruth Pearce: There is a great deal of conjecture about how to motivate people. Should we use extrinsic motivators, such as salary, work environment, perks, etc., or should we focus on tapping into an individual’s sense of meaning, values and passions? In this either-or approach, we risk losing something which is the power of “yes and”. Strategies that focus on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sometimes miss that humans are motivated by many things in combination. Money will provide a certain level of motivation, tapping into the things that are meaningful to the individual will contribute something, offering vacation and the means to actually use it is often a good incentivizer because we all have finite amounts of time. Some people are motivated by status, recognition, awards or titles. That does not necessarily put them in a different place on the hierarchy, it means that motivation is complicated and is not one-size-fits-all.

Knowing the strengths of your team members, their values, what is important to them, their obligations and more is really helpful as starting points for motivation. Understand how the team members as individuals interact as a team or organization. What do they care about collectively that maybe at an individual level does not appear to be so important?

As a coach, a mantra is “ask your client,” and I believe this is something project leaders can usefully do in their world. ASK. Have discussions 1:1 and collectively about what motivates the team. What do people need and want to feel positive, enthusiastic, engaged and loyal to the team goal? 

On one project, the team complained that they were fed up with bad food. It made them disgruntled and resentful.

So when we worked weekends, we didn’t have the usual deli sandwiches and pizza, we organized catered food. And the team members had a hand in choosing the menu.

We expected that better food would make people less resentful – sort of bring them back to the center or feeling neutral. What we discovered was that the team was positively motivated collectively by GOOD food. We did not just go from -5 to 0 on the motivation scale, we actually reached a +3 or 4. In fact, our food was so popular, we used to get gate crashers who came into work voluntarily to enjoy the lunches! It was more expensive on paper but resulted in less wasted food, greater support for working additional hours, and it became a social event as our caterers provided the main courses, and our team members brought their favorite desserts.

Learn about strengths using a free assessment like the VIA Institute on Character Strengths assessment (available at http://IILIPMDay.pro.viasurvey.org).

Thought Leadership News: When it comes to motivating teams and organizations, what should project leaders “unlearn”?

Ruth Pearce: What a thought provoking question! I suggest that project leaders unlearn anything that suggests that there is a right way and a wrong way to do most things. “Either/or” thinking creates traps and ties us up in analysis paralysis. Very often, any choice has pros and cons. And often, we don’t have an opportunity to test our decisions. So, we don’t know what the outcome would have been had we chosen differently.

Add to that, unlearning any one-size-fits-all approaches to managing people and projects. People are individuals, and while they have similarities, they also have many differences. What works with one person may not work with another, and what works with one person on Monday may not work with the same person on Friday!

Thought Leadership News: As the old adage and Murphy’s Law goes: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Speaking to new project leaders on motivating teams, what would you say are the biggest challenges they will face and what are the solutions?

Ruth Pearce: To me the biggest challenges – and opportunities – are people. People are usually the source of project issues – because of ineffective communication, changing or uncertain requirements, discomfort with change, and the difficulty of translating specific actions into broader needs. Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” We didn’t need a faster horse – that was but one solution to the problem to be solved. We needed something that gets us from A to B in a shorter amount of time, that was more comfortable and that could carry more than one person and their bags.

It is popular to talk about VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – and yet none of these things in themselves are a problem. It is our reaction to them. So understanding how humans tick, appreciating the way the brain works to protect us and seeing how individuals vary in their reaction to the same stimuli is important to project success. Luckily, there is some fine work out there about these very things. The two books by Carole Osterweil, for example, including her most recent book, “Neuroscience for Project Success,” help project leaders understand how neuroscience can inform project decisions and experiences. Work by Dr. Josh Ramirez, Dr. Shari De Baets and Dr. Jodi Bull Wilson at the Institute for Neuro and Behavioral Project Management (NBPMI.com) is another source of training and materials about the impact of the human brain on how projects work – or don’t!

Chief Inspiration Officer

Ruth Pearce runs A Lever Long Enough (ALLE LLC-Project Motivator) and is the founder of In it Together coaching which provides group coaching to project managers and other groups. Ruth’s vision is for workplaces to be transformed into inclusive collaborative communities. Ruth has twenty years of direct experience in the project management field, supported by extensive study and research in the science of Character Strengths and Positive Psychology. Her book, Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management, was published in November 2018.

Browse IIL’s Project Management courses here!

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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