Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Motivation in project management

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In recent years, the focus in project management has shifted from technical aspects of the profession (scheduling, planning etc.) to people-oriented factors such as motivation. This is reflected both in professional practice and academia. On the one hand there is a growing interest in courses on soft skills and leadership; on the other, an increasing number of research papers on these issues. In fact, I have come across two papers on motivation published in the Project Management Journal (PMJ) within last six months. I reviewed one some time ago, in my post entitled Motivation Rehashed. Here, I review the other: a paper entitled, Motivation in Project Management: The Project Manager’s Perspective, published in the June 2008 issue of the PMJ.

First a brief look at what the paper is about. In the introduction the authors emphasise that, “the interpersonal skills needed to motivate a project team are a project managers most important asset.”  Despite this, there is no clear definition of motivation in the literature. For example, some researchers have explained motivation as, “the level of energy people bring to their work,” whereas some others have viewed it as being centred on “expectations and reinforcements.” As a consequence, the authors claim there’s still a good deal of confusion about what motivates people. To address this, the paper begins with a literature review and an overview of the theoretical basis of motivation research. The emphasis is on research relating to  motivation in the context of project teams. The review is followed by original research on project managers’ perceptions of how they are able to influence motivation. The work is based on data collected from practising project managers.

Background and Literature Review

Recent research indicates that asking the question, “How do I motivate my team members?” might actually be counterproductive because most people begin new initiatives with enthusiasm and a desire to contribute to, and consequently feel proud of  their work and organisations. This suggests that project managers may be better served by focusing on how one can help people maintain their motivation levels through their work tasks and roles. The PMBOK definition of motivation which is, “energising people to achieve high levels of performance and to overcome barriers to change”, suggests that there is more to motivation than “maintenance of enthusiasm” by doing the “right things.” The authors delve into this in some detail, as I discuss next.

Motivation is inextricably linked with leadership and power. Research has shown that use of autocratic, coercive or laissez-faire leadership styles can have a detrimental effect on motivation. This is obvious to those  who have worked with such managers! More effective leadership styles emphasise the leader as an initiator, negotiator, coach and participant. The last one is interesting – if a leader is viewed as a participant – being “one of the group” – loyalty and motivation emerge more unconditionally. Such leaders employ a participatory approach that includes all team members in a meaningful way.

After discussing motivation and its connection to leadership, the authors move on to reviewing research on the sources of motivation – i.e. where motivation comes from. Motivation can be viewed as intrinsic or extrinsic. In a nutshell, the former is a desire to do something because one finds it interesting, whereas the latter is a desire to do something because of some anticipated rewards not related to the activity. Research indicates that an inclusive leadership or management style is conducive to intrinsic motivation whereas an exclusive approach (coercive or authoritarian) relies on extrinsic motivation. In their book entitled, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman state that the best companies focus on fostering intrinsic motivation in employees.

The difference between extrinsically and intrinsically motivated employees was explored by Gagne and Deci in their paper on the relationship between work motivation and self determination theory (SDT). In SDT, states of motivation are viewed as a continuum ranging from amotivation (no motivation) to intrinsic motivation. SDT uses the terms autonomous and controlled motivation: the former corresponding to intrinsic and the latter to extrinsic motivation. The Gagne and Deci model, identifies four stages of extrinsic motivation, starting from external regulation wherein the person works only to obtain a non-work related reward (no self determination) , to integrated regulation wherein there is some self-determination because the person has internalised some of the reasons for doing the work. Integrated regulation is thus just a small step away from intrinsic (or autonomous) motivation. Another interesting research finding is that intrinsic motivation is fragile in that the presence of a person with lower motivation on a team can reduce motivation levels of other team members.

Next, the authors highlight some practical motivation-controlling factors, linking these to research regarding the efficacy and limitations of each:

  1.  Optimising energy: This refers to the innate capacity for work, which differs from person to person. Research by Welbourne and coworkers shows that there is an optimum zone of employee energy, and that this limit should generally not be exceeded. This zone varies from person to person. Furthermore, it turns out that managers can assist employees to stay in the zone, or even raise it by timely interventions and enhanced one-to-one communication. 
  2. Autonomy: In an earlier post, I have written about the importance of empowering people to make decisions relating to their work.  Research indicates that autonomy results in better job satisfaction and, hence, increased intrinsic motivation. One practical way to do this on projects is to specify the deliverable (the “what”), leaving decisions regarding the method of creation (the “how”) to the responsible team member(s). 
  3. Feedback: Research shows that positive, constructive feedback enhances motivation. Negative feedback, on the other hand, reduces both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Perception of feedback is important too: feedback perceived as being controlling will have a negative effect on motivation, whereas feedback seen as being competence related can have a positive effect if properly delivered. 
  4. Rewards and recognition: Rewards are related to extrinsic and recognition to intrinsic motivation. In their book, Peters and Waterman point out that successful companies make it an organisational goal to repeatedly recognise employee contributions. Research by Deci and associates indicates that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, especially if those rewards are linked to specific tasks. This is particularly interesting because many organisations tend to use reward  systems based on task or project performance. Also relevant to project work, is the finding that teams should be rewarded as a whole. This is controversial because rewarding all team members equally can create conflicts if certain individuals are perceived as being “freeloaders.” On the other hand, though, both Deming and Drucker point out that individual rewards will eventually lower (team) productivity and morale. This because they lead to a perception of inequity amongst team members. Deming also pointed out that merit systems based on management by objectives are a major source of inequity (see point 11b of his well-known 14 points).

Following the discussion of motivational factors, the authors provide a brief organisational perspective on motivation vis-a-vis project team motivation. As far as organisations are concerned, research by Sirota and coworkers indicates that equity, achievement and camaraderie are factors that are strongly correlated to employee satisfaction within organisations. Equity relates to the perception of fairness; achievement to pride in one’s work and associated recognition; camaraderie to cooperation and a feeling of community. It is vey interesting that these factors were found to be significant regardless of gender, ethnicity or level within the organisation! Clearly, there are differences between organisations and project teams. The most obvious differences are: a) teams work within larger organisations, and b) projects, unlike organisations, have distinct stages. This brings up questions about how these differences are perceived and handled by project managers – questions that are addressed in the next section.

I found the authors’ literature review and associated discussion very interesting, particularly because they highlight some non-intuitive aspects of motivation. Further, the review provides practitioners some excellent suggestions for further reading on the topic.

Having painted the background with a comprehensive literature review, the authors move on to a discussion of their research on project managers’ perceptions of team motivation.

Project Managers’ perceptions of motivation

The authors pose the following research questions:

  1. What are the factors that most commonly cause low levels of motivation on project teams?
  2. What are the most successful (intrinsic) motivation techniques in project environments?
  3. Can a project manager influence team motivation levels despite (negative) organisational influences?
  4. Should different motivation techniques be applied at different stages of a project?

The authors conducted an online survey of practising project managers using a questionnaire that was based on the above questions. They received 115 completed questionnaires which, on analysis, revealed the following results.

Factors lowering team motivation:

The authors found that the following factors were the greatest team demotivators (in order of importance):

  1. Missing top management support.
  2. Personal conflicts between team members.
  3. Inequity in reward system.
  4. Schedule conflicts.
  5. Time overruns.

Having suffered the ill-effects of each of these at one time or another, I think there should be no surprises here for most practitioners (excepting perhaps the order).  Interestingly, content analysis of the results showed that each of the above factors are closely related to the project manager’s ability to communicate effectively. A project manager who can communicate well – be it with top management or team members – will be able to lessen the impact of the above factors.

The research also probed the de-motivational effects of changing each of the classical constraints of scope, time, quality and cost. It was found that scope had the largest demotivating effect followed by time, quality and cost. This highlights the importance of clear scope definition and management throughout the project.

Successful motivation techniques

Most of the responses regarding successful motivation techniques centred on the importance of communication. For example, over 90% of respondents agreed that providing positive, constructive feedback is an effective motivator. Many also agreed that personal conversations (e.g. Management by Walking Around) is also a useful technique. Respondents also agreed that it was important to develop an understanding of individual team members. This would be important, for example, in ensuring a good match of skills (and desires!) to tasks assigned.

Participation was also found to be a good motivator. For instance, a large number of respondents indicated that involving the team in creating the work breakdown structure is a good motivational technique as it offers the team involvement in a key aspect of the project at an early stage. What struck me was that “warm and fuzzy” factors such as involvement, communication, responsibility and trust are found to be very important to creating and fostering motivation. The hard-headed project manager with little or no time for niceties would do well to take note – and, yes, there are a few of those around!

Project team motivation vs. organisational motivation

Although organisational factors such as culture, strategy etc. have a clear influence on project teams, over 60% of respondents felt that project managers can influence team motivation positively, despite negative organisational factors. Content analysis of the data further revealed that setting of team goals  that are within the project manager’s control  can help motivate the team. On the other hand, scope change was found to have a demoralising effect.

Regardless of the mechanics of how project managers motivate teams in the face negative organisational influences, it is interesting that many feel that they can do so. Even those who struggled to motivate their teams on their last project indicated that it was possible to create a positive subculture within a larger, negative organisational culture. Is this just wishful thinking, or is it based on something more solid. Unfortunately the authors can’t (or don’t) tell, so neither can I!

Motivation at different stages of a project

The results indicate that team motivation generally declines as the project progresses. Over 80% of the respondents agreed that motivation is high at the start whereas less than 50% thought that it was high towards the closing stages. On the other hand, respondents indicated that the project managers role in team motivation is greatest at the start of a project, and becomes a shared responsibility (between the manager and team) as the project progresses. This, to me, seems a bit strange : if motivation is known to decline as the project progresses, shouldn’t the project manager take even more responsibility for maintaining it in later stages of the project??

According to me, the authors do not answer the question they pose – i.e. they don’t tell us whether or not different motivation techniques should be used at different stages of the project.

In closing

I found the literature review presented in the paper very informative. The authors have done a great job of presenting interesting and relevant work on motivation from the project manager’s perspective. The research, however, has an incomplete feel to it. The authors admit so themselves. In their own words, “The results of this study merely highlight trends in current opinions and should not be interpreted in other ways.” And in the final line, ” The trends expressed in this research should be followed up with case studies or ethnographic analyses to create a more thorough picture of the project manager’s perspective.”

In summary: the authors’ research is far from a comprehensive investigation of project managers’ perception of motivation,  but it does point to certain trends that make intuitive sense. The results may also help in the design of further studies. Be that as it may, in my opinion the literature review is what makes the paper a worthwhile read for professional project managers.


Schmid, Bernhard., & Adams, Jonathan., Motivation in Project Management: The Project Manager’s Perspective, Project Management Journal, 39 (2), 60-71. (2008).

Written by K

August 29, 2008 at 6:47 pm

9 Responses

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  1. you might be interested in my book about project team rewards http://www.project-team-rewards.com (freely available). in the book is also covered why monetary rewards might indeed be effective for rewarding project teams.


    Team Rewards

    September 16, 2008 at 9:08 pm

  2. Joran,

    I see that the book is adapted from your Master’s thesis. Have you published your findings in any academic or trade journals? If so, please send me links to these – I’m sure some of my readers would be interested.





    September 17, 2008 at 12:16 pm

  3. […] a similar note, as I have written in a post on motivation, the best way to ensure that people remain engaged in their work is to give them autonomy – i.e. […]


  4. […] varies greatly from one person to another and cannot be controlled by management. See my post on motivation in project management for a comprehensive discussion on extrinsic and intrinsic […]


  5. […] This is not just a warm and fuzzy notion, but one that is backed up by research on motivation (see this paper review, for example). Yes, this does mean letting go of the “reins of control” to an extent but it is […]


  6. […] i.e. the internal drive (or inclination) to do the assigned work.  Further, as I have discussed in this post, intrinsic motivation has more to do with interesting work than with tangible rewards or […]


  7. […] reasons why projects fail could also be luck of motivation. There are various ways to motivate a PM or the team. One very important according to me, is letting the people have an amount of autonomy […]


    Motivation » MacPM

    February 18, 2010 at 8:18 am

  8. […] A point that is often left unconsidered is the intrinsic motivation of the team – see this post for a detailed discussion of motivation in project […]


  9. Really insightful post. As a leader, I found this really useful. I’ve read before that the most important relationship you have at work is with your boss. And that can apply to a team where the team leader is the boss. I think that’s why a good team leader can keep a team happy and motivated even in a difficult organizational environment.


    Ken Ashe

    February 20, 2015 at 9:35 am

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