Team Motivation

Teams, as well as individuals, experience setbacks and obstacles.  Managers would like to see our teams successfully overcome them, rally together and creatively move on to the next step. 

And sometimes what we want is not what we get. As managers, we get sensitive to the mood, the temperature, of the team as a whole.  Are they running hot, excited?  Perhaps a good thing, perhaps too much of a good thing brings risk of burnout?  Are they cool and calm? This might not be a bad thing if there are long careful pieces of work in progress, or it might mean people feel disconnected.  The team temperature in this sense is not simply the sum of the individuals. One perky person plus one morose person doesn’t cancel out.  It’s more like mixing colors where each input affects the outcome of the whole.  

When I perceive that the mood has gotten grim, I make it a top priority to address it. There’s no morale button to push, as morale and motivation are emergent properties of the complex system of organizations, teams, individuals. That’s probably why some people seem to quite resent “mandatory fun” and other bribes. They sense that someone is trying to feed a free pizza into a vending machine slot and get back three months of team spirit.  Almost always, interventions need to come at a more systemic level.  

The basic recipe for team motivation is doing good work, that is coherent and that matters to the business, and that gets noticed and rewarded. 

The critical service a manager can perform for her team is to provide the linkage and transparency between the business and the team so that this formula can be in place. In one direction the manager communicates the linkage between business goals and the everyday deliverables of the team. This is sometimes hard to see for non-customer-facing teams but there should always be some way in which the team’s output is quantifiably related to larger outcomes. Once we know why the work is going on, addressing its frustrations or shortcomings can be more productively tackled.  

On the other side, what a team is actually doing may be opaque to higher levels of management. The day to day metrics of work may be too fine-grained to be useful or lacking in business context.  A manager must  be a storyteller, interpreting what is going on, clarifying the challenges, and placing the work in the context of value to the business. As the team’s manager it’s likely that I’m the one most committed to telling this story and in the best position to interpret for my team. How teams are recognized and rewarded varies a lot among organizations but it’s more likely to happen if the value of the work is well communicated.  

Providing that transparency and information flow is usually necessary  – except in some rare cases like skunk works – but not sufficient. There are times where, nevertheless, teams get stuck, adrift, or frustrated. Some of the proximate causes of this can be effects of seemingly arbitrary higher management decisions, overwhelming requests from stakeholders, “rain of anvils” of multiple incidents or other short term emergencies, and team resource shortfalls. Cutting corners and rushed work demotivates many, and causes a loss of pride in their work.                  

Go too far down the spiral of too many challenges without recovery time and we might see a collapse of the team’s ability to deliver through burn-out, attrition, or not enough of a critical resource.  To preserve the future productivity of the team, some recovery time is a must.  A manager of mine would say to individuals that needed time off, “I’d rather have your great work for the future than sacrifice that for you to be here this week.”  With the work of a team, it’s a manager’s job in this circumstance to create some protected space. This could take a number of forms: a space to vent frustrations without penalty, pushing back hard on intake of new work, “swarming” on a persistent problem to knock it down as quickly and permanently as possible, are some of the possibilities.  A common problem dragging down a team, particularly one with operational responsibilities, is a constant influx of support needs and small emergency requests. Rotating people in and out of the help desk role keeps everyone from trying to do it all the time, and gives people not in the role a time for some uninterrupted work.   

Too often, the systemic problem is a mismatch between what’s asked of the team and the resources they have. The backlog builds and we never catch up, which is demoralizing. What’s slowing the team down? Ask them and they’ll almost certainly tell you. If there are unclear or changing requirements, inefficient deployment processes, or a lack of training, they’ll let you know. Excessive WIP, or extensive coordination needs with other teams, can cause output to drop catastrophically even when people are visibly working hard. Seeing these issues addressed, even if in small bites, can lift the mood of hopelessness and create a snowball of further improvement. 

I’d like to recommend a team off-site meeting for these kinds of situations but in every distributed organization I’ve been in, the timeline for budgeting/approving/scheduling/planning was so long that if a team is struggling, it’s going to be too far away for practical help.  Perhaps, using that opportunity to create a celebration that we’ve worked our way out of the morass is a way to go.  

Nevertheless, coming up with a way to track and internally celebrate team accomplishments is always a good idea and particularly so when a team is under repair. Looking back and seeing how far we’ve come shows more powerfully than anything that we really can conquer the next challenges as well.