Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
December 17, 2020 · 16 min read

The Mindful Project Manager’s Guide To Team Motivation: 11 Strategies For Keeping Your Team On Track

Team Motivation

Talk to enough project managers and you’ll start to realize that there’s really just one thing that differentiates the great from the good:

Good project managers are masters of planning, gathering requirements, sticking to schedules, and hitting milestones…

While great project managers do all that while also keeping their team motivated and happy.

As we’ve written over and over, project management is as much about people as it is about projects.

When your team’s under pressure or losing their focus, it’s up to you to get them back on track.

Understanding team motivation is a major part of running a successful project. But unlike planning, resource gathering, and testing, there’s no established playbook for how to keep your team on track.

That’s because what makes your team members tick is complex, interconnected, and often totally unexpected.

Especially now with the spread of COVID-19 disrupting our way of living and working, your team needs more than just empty platitudes and slaps on the back to feel motivated to do their best each day.

Jump to a section:

In this post, we’ve exhaustively researched how to motivate employees and teammates and put together a comprehensive list of strategies and techniques you can start using today.

What is motivation? The 3 types of motivation you need to understand

What is “motivation” when it comes to leading a team? Let’s start with a simple motivation definition to put us all on the same page.

Team Motivation

Motivation is the psychological process that initiates, guides, and maintains our goal-oriented behaviors.

In other words, motivation is the why that drives your actions each day. When you’re loaded full of the right kind of motivation (which we’ll get into), tasks and projects feel effortless.

But when your team is unmotivated or relying too much on the wrong type of motivation, the opposite happens. Every task becomes a chore and they spend all day staring at the clock willing it to move faster.

As a project manager, you want your team to be excited about their work. But according to research, the average employee is just 60% motivated to do their work each day.

That’s a terrifying stat for anyone who relies on others to get their work done (aka all of us). But it’s especially scary when you’re leading a team. So how do we change this dynamic?

The first step in boosting team motivation is to understand what motivates people.

Motivation isn’t just about money (In fact, according to research, monetary incentives like bonuses can actually result in a negative impact on overall performance and motivation!)

And it’s not just about praise, acknowledgment, or lofty titles.

To truly understand team motivation, you need to look past the annual bonus and dig into the “meta-motivators” that drive your team’s behaviors each day.

The three types of motivation are:

Unfortunately, while these are the 3 types of motivation you can use in your project management toolbox, most people tend to rely on just one: extrinsic motivation.

We rely on salaries and bonuses and titles to keep our teams motivated. When in reality, what they’re looking for is much deeper. So what do you need to use to actually motivate your team to do their best work every single day?

The trifecta of team motivation: Purpose, mastery, and autonomy

You can’t force your team to be motivated. As leadership coach Ron Carucci explains:

“People ultimately choose to be motivated—when to give their best, go the extra mile, and offer radical ideas. The only thing leaders can do is shape the conditions under which others do, or don’t, choose to be motivated.”

So just what are the conditions that promote team motivation?

According to psychologists and workplace coaches, teams are more likely to be highly motivated when they work in an environment that fosters three key factors: purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

In other words, motivation is more about well-being, mindfulness, and trust than pay bumps, praise, and superficial titles.

Let’s look at each of these key motivating factors and how they relate to your team.

Team Motivation is more about well-being, mindfulness and trust than pay bumps, praise, and superficial titles.

Purpose: Your team needs to feel connected to a greater purpose

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is the biggest lie ever told.

We’ve all been told to “find our purpose” if we want to feel motivated. But as leaders have known for years, you don’t find your purpose. You build it.

As John Coleman, co-author of Passion & Purpose writes:

“In achieving a professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it.”

A sense of purpose is one of the strongest motivating factors at work. Teams who feel their daily tasks are connected to a bigger purpose are happier, more productive, and more motivated to work.

But what is purpose?

It can be any number of things. Your purpose could be personal growth and accomplishment, connected to some social good, or even just working towards your company’s larger vision.

Autonomy and Experimentation: Your team needs to feel “in control” of how and when they work

One of the few silver linings of our current working situation is the forced flexibility it’s created. When teams work from home, they automatically have more control over their working day. And this is a good thing.

As we wrote in our guide on How to build a sustainable business, the number one factor for workplace happiness is a sense of control. And happiness leads to motivation. Here’s what we said:

“Happier workers are more efficient, confident in their skills, and more likely to build better relationships with users and co-workers.”

Control, in this sense, comes down to how, when, and where your team works. As one study of 20,000 workers from around the world published in Harvard Business Review found:

“When people had no choice in where they worked… total motivation dropped 17 points, the equivalent of moving from one of the best to one of the most miserable cultures in their industries.”

But autonomy and flexibility in when you work isn’t the only aspect that increases team motivation. Motivated teams also need to be allowed to experiment and try different approaches to their work.

That same HBR study also found that:

“Experimentation results in a 45-point increase in employee motivation…”

Psychologists call this psychological safety–an environment where teams know they can speak up with ideas and concerns and not be punished or humiliated.

Mastery: Your team needs to see regular progress on their work and skills

The final piece of the team motivation puzzle is what’s known as mastery.

Simply put, this is your team’s drive to get better, make progress, and learn from each other. The more your team is driven by a sense of growth, the more intrinsically motivated they’ll be.

This might seem counterintuitive, especially if you’re the kind of project manager who obsesses over ticking off tasks. But, as Daniel Pink writes in Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us:

“Why reach for something you can never fully attain? But it’s also a source of allure. Why not reach for it? The joy is in the pursuit more than the realization. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.”

Mastery could be formal training. But more often it’s closer to what some people call play–trying new approaches, thinking differently, and seeing progress.

The key here is that you allow your team time and space to work on themselves and acknowledge when they hit a milestone.

The more your team is driven by a sense of growth, the more intrinsically motivated they’ll be.

For managers: Motivating your team is equal parts culture, environment, and appreciation

Purpose, autonomy, and mastery are the holy trinity of team motivation. But they aren’t the only things that influence how much your team is driven to do their best work.

Making sure you support those three qualities in your work environment is a start, but it’s not the whole picture.

You still have a job to actively help your team feel motivated. And that comes down to offering the right kind of feedback, praise, and appreciation at the right time. Because if you don’t, your team will move on.

In fact, a 10-year study of hundreds of thousands of employees found that 79% had quit a job due to a lack of appreciation.

11 team motivation strategies to help your team do their best work (and love doing it)

Now that we understand the elements of team motivation, it’s time to show you how to actually create this environment for yourself.

Each of the team motivation strategies below will help you promote purpose, autonomy, and mastery, as well as teach you how to show your team appreciation and praise the right way.

We’ve included tactical to-dos to help you. But the key here is to remain authentic in your motivational tactics. As Ron Carucci writes in What not to do when you’re trying to motivate your team:

“When leaders look like they are just applying some ‘motivational technique’ they read about, people see right through the superficial, obligatory effort.”

Especially now when more teams are remote, it’s important to focus on authenticity and connection. While these strategies take time and effort to implement, the reward is worth it in the end.

1. Connect your team’s daily tasks to the larger company goals

What creates “purpose” is a personal matter. But one of the easiest ways to create team purpose is to connect your daily work to the larger company goals.

Every project, task, and decision should come with context as to how and why it’s important for the company. This way, your team is motivated by the greater good of helping everyone move forward.

And while you might think this connection is obvious to your team, it really isn’t.

One survey found that only 47% of employees can make a connection between their daily duties and company performance!

We all want to feel connected to something bigger. But rather than bore your team with long and obvious explanations, you can bake context into how you set goals.

The best way to do this is with Objectives and Key Results (aka OKRs).

As we wrote in our Guide to setting OKRs, the “objective” part relates to your company’s main business strategy and goals. While the “key results” are measurable actions your team works towards each day. This means that it’s easier to feel motivated knowing that the work they do each day has a purpose and a larger goal.

Action: Make sure your team knows what their current OKRs are. At a minimum, revisit your OKRs on a quarterly basis to make sure your team stays motivated and feels that sense of purpose.

2. Make sure everyone knows their priorities and has clear goals in place

Speaking of goals, nothing kills team motivation faster than unclear priorities.

Spending your day either stressing about how “everything is important” or bouncing between a million little things is the ultimate anti-motivator. And as a project manager, it’s one of your core responsibilities to make sure everyone knows exactly what they should be working on.

But you don’t want to be tyrannical about it. Teams are motivated by autonomy and control. So rather than just telling them what to do, give them the tools to prioritize their work themselves.

There are tons of prioritization techniques you can use from the Eisenhower Matrix to GTD to the RICE Method (we cover a bunch of them in our Guide to Prioritizing Features).

Choose which ones make sense to you and empower your team to use them. And if they get stuck or stressed out? Make sure they know they can always come to you for clarification.

Action: Reach out to each team member to ask if they have questions about their priorities. If they do, offer guidance as well as education (and empowerment) to learn how to better prioritize their work.

3. Ask your team to show their work

Setting the right goals can create purpose in your team. But you can also build continued motivation after work has been done.

Nothing makes a team or individual team member feel better and more motivated to work hard than saying “that was amazing! Tell me how you did it.”

Authentic gratitude is one of the core principles of team motivation. And that means more than just empty praise.

By asking for an explanation (and listening intently to it), you show that you understand the challenge they went through and appreciate all their hard work. Plus, as leadership coach Ron Carucci explains, their answer will give you all sorts of insights into how to motivate them more in the future:

“You also get a view into the person’s mind: how they problem-solve, where they have doubts, what parts of the work they love, and what makes them feel proud. Those insights become invaluable later.”

Action: Set aside time at your next weekly review to ask “how did you do this?” to your team.

4. Master mindful appreciation and praise through active listening

All the praise and gratitude in the world don’t matter if your team doesn’t think you’re being authentic.

The bad news? Over 2/3 of employees say they’ve gotten praise that is either insincere or uninformed. While a survey done by Great Place to Work showed that 37% of employees say more personal recognition would help them be motivated to do better work.

Team Motivation

Authenticity in praise and recognition comes down to two main factors: Listening and candor.

“Active listening” is a skill that involves blocking out the millions of other things on your mind and focusing on the person who’s speaking. More than that, it’s actively showing that you are giving them your undivided attention.

To do this, try these tips from our Guide to Navigating Different Communication Styles:

Candor is harder to nail down. But as Vanessa Tanicien, leadership trainer at LifeLabs Learning explains, it comes down to inviting and displaying authenticity each day.

Here are a few of her more tactical tips on how to do this:

As Vanessa’s coworker, Massella Dukuly, explains:

“People are often just looking for signs of a caring culture–that we’ll be here for them and that if something’s wrong, we’ll create an avenue for them to share that.”

This might sound a bit wishy-washy, but the truth is that in the age of remote work, soft skills like empathy, trust, and human connection will be the difference between a team that’s motivated to hit their goals and one that couldn’t care less.

Action: Take a few minutes to think of recent accomplishments your team has made that you didn’t authentically praise them for. Set aside time to express how you feel and make sure to practice active listening and candor.

5. Respect your team’s time (aka no more pointless meetings or micromanaging)

Your team needs time and space to feel like they’re working with purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Unfortunately, most schedules are so jam-packed with meetings and busywork that there’s no time for anything else!

Instead, make a conscious effort to give them more autonomy and space for high-impact work (i.e. doing the thing they were hired to do!)

Look at your meeting schedule and ask what you can cut back on. For the meetings that you do need, make sure they have a clear agenda and time limit in place so people know they’re meaningful.

Lastly, try to limit the flow of communication you send throughout the day. Whenever you feel the urge to send a “quick message” asking for an update, stop yourself and ask what you’re interrupting by doing this. According to researchers, it can take up to 24 minutes for a team member to regain focus after an interruption.

Action: Audit your meeting calendar and make sure you remove unnecessary ones and update upcoming meetings with an agenda and time limit. Set a schedule for when you’ll reach out to your team asking for updates so everyone knows when to expect that and when they can be focused.

(You can even use our free communication plan template to help keep organized!)

6. Set aside extra time for experimentation

As we wrote above, autonomy and control over how we work are some of the biggest factors that drive team motivation. And one of the biggest mistakes you can make is focusing too much on getting tasks ticked off a list.

As the authors of Primed to Perform write:

“If you want your teams to be engaged in their work, you have to make their work engaging. The most powerful way to do this is to give people the opportunity to experiment and solve problems that really matter.”

You’ll always have moments where you need to get stuff done. But if that’s all you’re doing, your team’s going to get burnt out and lose motivation.

Instead, make sure to allow time to dig into big issues or experiment with a new skill, programming language, or tactic. There’s no downside to your team getting better at solving problems.

Action: Look at your team’s current obligations and see if they have space to experiment or if they’re struggling just to hit their goals. A great way to do this is through time tracking.

Timt Tracking switched on

In Planio, you can set time estimates for tasks and projects. Your team can then easily track how long it actually takes them to finish with just one click.

Estimated time and time spent list

Now, you’ll quickly be able to see where their time is going and what projects are taking longer than expected. This is a good indicator of where your scheduling should change as well as the types of projects that you should give extra time for experimentation on.

Keeping track of your projects

7. Ask your team if they’re being challenged enough

Intrinsic motivation is naturally more abundant when we’re working towards goals that challenge us. (Remember how “mastery” is a core element of team motivation?)

However, there’s a sweet spot when it comes to challenging work.

Too little challenge at work and we get bored. But too much and we get stressed.

The easiest way to understand how your team feels about their daily work is to just ask them:

Action: Set a reminder for your next 1-on-1 to talk to your team about their current workload and how challenged they feel. Make sure to explain that this is a safe space and that it’s fine to explain that they’re bored (or stressed!)

8. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones

In the rush to hit a deadline, it’s easy to blast past daily or weekly accomplishments without a second of appreciation. We all do this. But team motivation depends on seeing the forest for the trees.

Team Motivation

Celebrating daily progress or “small wins” can help keep your team on track. Researcher and Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile calls this the “progress principle”:

“Of all the things that boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

But there’s a key to the progress principle that too many leaders forget. It’s not just about celebrating any progress, it’s about focusing on progress towards meaningful work. This comes back to our strategies on goal-setting, priorities, and creating purpose.

The more your team knows that their work matters and the more you celebrate and recognize their progress, the more motivated they’ll be to continue towards bigger and better things.

Researchers call this our “goal gradient”. Essentially, it means that the closer we get towards achieving a bigger goal, the more motivated we are to work harder to make it happen. Stopping to celebrate a small win might seem like a waste of time, but it’s all part of building up the momentum towards hitting bigger goals.

Action: Update your weekly review or daily standup meeting agendas to include time to call out wins. Even better, use this opportunity to connect that work to the larger goal and get everyone on your team motivated to push forward.

9. Ask more questions. Give fewer solutions.

Part of the experimentation and control that boosts team motivation is letting them figure solutions out for themselves. Your company hired smart people. So why not give them the chance to flex that muscle, build purpose, and get motivated?

Unfortunately, the things that many project managers think “help” their teams actually do the opposite. As James Everingham, former Head of Engineering at Instagram writes:

“Often, a manager will take their team into a room and say, ‘Here’s what we need to do,’ as they start sketching on a whiteboard. They’re trying to add value, but if you’re in any position of authority and you do this, you’ve just limited the number of outcomes and your path to success pretty dramatically.”

Instead, you can get your team motivated by giving them questions, not answers. Outline the problem, explain your definition of done, and then open the floor to ideas.

Of course, you’ll need to keep people on track. That’s what James suggests setting aside time before every meeting to “think through which questions will be helpful and won’t interfere with your team’s ability to win.”

Action: Before your next meeting, take time to step back from the solution and think up questions you could ask that will promote deeper thinking in your team. The more connected they are to the solution, the more motivated they’ll be to work on it.

10. Use “job crafting” and regular reviews to keep roles connected to your team’s values

Your team won’t feel motivated if they feel like their work doesn’t align with their personal values and goals. But job descriptions rarely take into account our personalities. That’s where “job crafting” comes into play.

Job crafting is the process of revisiting and adjusting your job description to be more focused on the work that actually matters to you. It’s a chance to regularly check in with your team and make sure you’re both still on the same page.

There are three places you can “craft” your team’s jobs to help them become more motivated:

  1. Task crafting: What tasks directly relate to your team’s values, goals, and interests? Are there common day-to-day tasks that they should delegate and others they should take on?
  2. Relational crafting: Who does your team collaborate with? Are these positive interactions or sources of stress?
  3. Cognitive crafting: How do your individual team members think about their jobs? Could you reframe their focus or change their title to better suit their skills?

What all this crafting comes down to is understanding your team and helping them feel more connected (and purposeful!) in their day-to-day work.

As Zoomshift co-founder Jon Hainstock writes on the SnackNation blog:

“The best way to motivate your employees is to figure out what makes them tick and align their personal and professional goals with their role as best you can.”

Action: Talk to your team members during 1-on-1s to find out how they feel about their current position. Are there tasks, relationships, or even titles they’d like to change? What’s their ultimate goal and how can you help them feel like they’re on the way there right now? Even minor tweaks can help your team feel more purpose, meaning, and motivation.

11. Provide more opportunities for growth and self-development

It’s probably no surprise that your team is motivated by growth. So while you can look at all of these team motivation strategies as just one-off things to try, a better approach is to treat them like a system.

How can you work these into a motivation workflow that gives everyone on your team opportunities to grow and sculpt their work into something they get fired up about?

The simplest way is to bake these steps into the processes you already have in place. For example:

It takes time, but the more you can work these processes into your workday, the more motivated your team will be to do their best.

Purpose, autonomy, and mastery are the holy trinity of team motivation.

Team motivation doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. It takes a total shift in how you work and lead.

Team motivation isn’t about company swag, cocktail hours, or annual bonuses. The best team members want to do their best work. All you need to do is provide them with an environment that supports that and show them praise and appreciation when they deserve it.

With the strategies we’ve listed here, you should have a pretty big headstart on building the kind of workplace that promotes greatness and keeps everyone motivated, focused, and happy.