In my first job as a project manager, I very clearly remember having a conversation with my boss: he observed that high-performance teams seem to be able to deliver almost whatever challenges are thrown at them. Conversely, bad teams always find a way to under-deliver.
This conversation has always stuck with me. Not least because I think he was right. At least, from my time as a project manager I’ve always found this to be true.
As project managers, we don’t always get to pick our teams. Sometimes we’re simply given a team of people, each with unique abilities and commitment levels. Because of this, it’s common to begin a new project with a less-than-great project team.
Traditional project management training doesn’t help us overcome this problem of having a poorly performing team. One of the problems with most project management training courses is that they tend to focus exclusively on the hard skills of project management. How do you create a product breakdown structure? How do you schedule a project? What is the process of managing risk?
All too often, the people side of the project management equation is ignored. To me, that’s a shame, because, in my opinion, excellent people management is at least 50% of the skills it takes to be a good project manager. It’s an important leadership topic, as leading successful projects doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it happens with a work team, often in less-than-ideal environments. The mark of a true leader is in being able to build a high-performance team, regardless of the circumstances.
So, in this article, we’re going to look at four tactics to improve team performance. These tactics work even if you’re in a matrix environment and don’t have line management responsibility for those in your project team. You’ll find that the small actions you take can translate into team successes as they cause a positive ripple effect throughout your teams.
Tactic #1: Use Praise to Boost Performance
The first tactic in building a high-performance team is to understand what motivates people to perform at work—and praise seems to go a long way.
To create the book, The Carrot Principle, authors Gostick and Elton presented the findings of studying in excess of 200,000 employees over a 10-year period. They found that managers considered to be good at recognizing the efforts of their team had lower turnover and achieved better team performance levels than other managers.
An even larger study was performed by Gallop in 2004, where over four million employees were studied. This study found that employees who received regular praise (where appropriate) were more productive and better team workers than employees receiving little praise.
These two studies, between them, surveying over 4.2 million employees, both highlighting the importance of praise, should leave you in no doubt that praise is a useful tool for motivating your team.
So, how do you use praise effectively? The good news is its an easy tool to use with just a couple of points to remember so you’re effective.
1. The Praise You Give Must Be Genuine
Only give praise when a team member has done something that warrants it. Disingenuous praise will do nothing to boost productivity. Hollow praise offers no value.
2. Give The Praise In Front Of The Rest Of Your Team
- Firstly, the person receiving the praise will feel good about themselves. They will feel validated in front of their peers. They’ll feel warm, fuzzy, and appreciated.
- Secondly, all humans have a deep need to belong. When one team member receives praise the others will subconsciously want the same praise. Praising one team member acts as a subconscious carrot to the other team members to raise their game.
Tactic #2: Develop Your Inner Psychologist
Project managers aren’t the only people concerned with creating high-performing teams.
Since the advent of factories and production lines psychologists have attempted to understand and explain what drives performance in the workplace. This means there are dozens of psychological theories in existence explaining human workplace performance.
One such theory is the ERG Theory of Motivation. This theory proposes several techniques you can use to create high performance teams, including:
- Ensure that team members are not isolated and working alone or at home all day.
- Ensure each and every member of your team is aware of the growth opportunities available to them?
- Is each team member aware of the promotion opportunities available to them should they want to pursue them?
There are many different motivation theories, each one examining employee motivation from a different angle. Maybe you can find something that’s right for your team and your situation?
Tactic #3: Co-Create
Co-creation is a strategy used by businesses to create mutual value. For example, many organizations allow customers to answer queries from other customers. This creates value in the form of content that is then useful to other customers with similar issues in the future.
Co-creation is a powerful tool for project managers to utilize. Co-creation involves creating things with your team rather than on your own. For example, if you have to create a project plan, you can do this together with your team by getting everyone into the same room to plan out the project on a whiteboard.
Co-creation in this way will encourage everyone to buy-in to your plan because they’ll have helped create it. They’ll feel that because they helped create the plan they are essentially co-owners of it. This is much more motivating for your team than if you’d simply created the plan alone and then informed your team of it.
Because your team will feel a sense of ownership of the plan, whenever they encounter problems during the execution of the project, they’ll be much more likely to be proactive and investigate ways to work around the problem to keep the plan on track.
This is the opposite of what would happen if you’d created the plan alone and then forced it upon your team. Your team would feel that as the plan is yours, the problem is yours too. You’re the project manager who creates the plans, so it is your job to fix the plan and let them know the solution once you have it.
You can use co-creation in all kinds of situations. It works especially well when problems arise during projects and for project planning. Use it to create a high-performance team—you’ll find that people are much more committed to the results when they’re bought into the process.
Tactic #4: No News is Rarely Good News
The final step you can take in high-performance team building is this: put yourself into the shoes of one of your team members.
Now, imagine what it’s like working as part of a project team and not hearing how things are going? Do you think going a fortnight without news will be motivating? How about going a week? Or even a day?
The fact is, that if you want to keep your team performing at a high level and motivated then you need to communicate with them at least every day.
All it takes is five minutes each morning. Tell them what’s going well and what isn’t. Tell them what your worries are. Make sure each team member understands how what they do contributes to the success of the project. Make sure each person understands how the project contributes to the success of the organization.
Encourage your team to ask any questions they have. Sometimes you won’t have answers. Sometimes you won’t be permitted to answer for political reasons. That’s ok. By sharing what you can you’ll build strong, high performance teams.
You may even find that sharing your concerns with the team leads to some excellent suggestions for overcoming these concerns.
High-performance project teams are more likely to deliver successful projects than unmotivated teams.
Unfortunately, as project managers, we can’t always hand-pick our teams. We have to rely on the people we are given.
The good news is that we can take responsibility for creating motivated and high performing teams into our own hands. By using praise, motivation theories, co-creation, and communication we can day by day, week after week create and increasingly motivated teams. And the more motivated your team is, the higher their performance will be.
If you’ve found other ways to successfully boost your team’s motivation then I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Ever heard of self-managing teams? If you're wondering what that could mean for you, check this out: Project Teams Without Project Managers: Exploring The PM Dilemma (with Julia Ryzhkova from Railsware)