IT project managers (PMs) often have to fight morale problems when their teams’ spirits get low. For some, the solution is very simple. TechRepublic member Lloyd from Dallas said he simply reminds troubled team members how much money they make.

“If they aren’t motivated to earn their keep, we’ll find someone who is,” he said. “They are paid a lot of money to do a job, and I expect results.”

Other PMs find a gentler approach is more in order. We’ve gathered advice for building team morale sent in by TechRepublic members who work as PMs. Use their suggestions and anecdotes to help you get through your next big team morale problem.

Two key issues: Empowerment and support
Antony Smith, a project manager with Industrial Technology Systems Ltd. in the UK, said two key issues are involved in rallying your team’s morale: empowerment and support.

Empowerment means that the team is clear on how their scope of work fits into the larger picture, Smith said. “And then within that defined and communicated scope each team member needs to be empowered to affect the outcome….”

Smith suggests that major decisions, like design or construction issues, be addressed in a team meeting. He said that team members should be brought together early in the project life cycle and that decisions should be more consensual than a classic team structure may suggest.

Smith said team members have to feel that they have the right support to meet the demands of the empowerment they’ve been given. It’s critical that team members can foresee that their efforts will be supported in every phase of the project’s life cycle.

“Team morale rests on the appropriate and clear devolution of responsibility so that every team member knows what is expected, when it is needed, how it fits into the overall picture, and how they are supported in the achievement,” Smith said. “All of which requires detailed knowledge of and trust in the team member’s abilities.”

Project manager’s oath: I shall not tell a lie
TechRepublic member rkinsey said that morale problems often originate with dishonesty or keeping secrets from team members. Often, this behavior comes from young professionals who don’t have the experience or understanding of what information needs to be shared with their charges, rkinsey said.

“Add a dash of ‘continual mergers and acquisitions,’ and you have a climate of distrust and rumor,” rkinsey said. “I say share all your information. Treat your folks as you would like to be treated. Dare to think of them as just as capable of understanding the issues as you are.”

“People fill in the blanks when not given answers,” rkinsey said.

Never underestimate the power of food
Another solution to morale problems is the tried-and-true bribe method. Many members said the team that eats together is often a team with high spirits, or at least higher spirits.

Wendy John, who owns her own consultancy, Morestar Computing Ltd., in London, said she was once working on a short deadline project that required her team to put in 12- to 14-hour days. Lack of sleep was becoming a big problem, and the fact that many team members had little time for their families was causing stress and depression.

“As it was only a three-month timeframe, personalized motivation techniques weren’t necessary, we just had to cheer everyone up from day to day,” John said.

To keep up morale, John arranged for the team to have dinner together regularly. If the entire team was working late, she’d order in pizza, fried chicken, or Chinese food.

“We did the rounds of the local takeaways,” she said. “If we could all leave earlier, we did dinner at a local restaurant. The project picked up the tab, so we tried some pretty special restaurants.”

John said this worked particularly well as a reward for reaching a minor deadline. At the finale of the project, the team took a vote for the best restaurant and went there to celebrate.

The dinners gave the team time together to joke and laugh or to complain about how hard the day had been, with sympathetic listeners. As PM, it gave John a chance to pick up the general feelings about how things were going, and she often heard things at the dinners that she wouldn’t have heard on the job.

Positive peer pressure
Another member, Hanif Mohammed, said he’s used a similar technique but with a subtle twist. He used a form of peer pressure and reward to keep his team on track. If team members were late to a meeting or late to submit an assignment, they were charged for it.

“The charges were in the shape of dinners or sandwiches or lunches, not directly in monetary terms,” Mohammed said. “This brought all of us together as the communication increased and we got to know each other better. These lunches and dinners were always outside the office.”

As the method evolved, Mohammed brought in a piggy bank and team members voluntarily contributed to it so the team could go out and have dinners. Mohammed said he made sure that everyone’s birthday and cultural days were celebrated.

“We had the best results out of 18 projects that were running and the best-rated team,” he said.

Off-site is better than on
While he doesn’t use food to bribe his team, J.W. McCord has also found that time away from the office is a good thing. McCord, a systems engineer with a publishing company in Nashville, TN, has 18 years of experience in IT and spent many years as managing director of a consulting company. He said he’s made it a practice to get off-site for at least one day a month, especially if the project is going in the wrong direction.

“We would rent a meeting area in a hotel close by work and meet there for a day,” he said. “Prior to the meeting, I had each team member write what four or five tasks they think would need to be done in order to get our project back on track.”

McCord gathered the suggestions prior to the meeting and tried to compile a list in order of priority. The team then discussed the suggestions openly in the meeting.

“I have found that doing this type of discussion off-site can get better results than having it done in the office,” he said.

When staff changes weaken your team’s spirit…
Even when there’s a specific reason for a shift in morale, it’s not easy to orchestrate a rebound. Dave Van Amburg, an independent consultant working in the telecom industry, was once on an assignment as a PM with 13 subordinate PMs reporting to him. Midway through the project, one of the key PMs was called away by a family crisis and left his team in the hands of an “acting PM” with little management experience.

“Unfortunately, at least two of the other 16 people on his team considered themselves better qualified for the position,” Amburg said. “The bickering and backbiting that ensued rapidly destroyed this team’s cohesiveness and morale, with a correspondingly negative effect on the project schedule.”

When mentoring the acting PM failed to provide relief, Amburg called the entire team together for a joint review of their progress, problems, and potential solutions. He used the meeting to explain how critical their efforts were to the whole project.

“I pointed out that the project had high visibility not only to the client, but also to the client’s industry,” Amburg said. “Failure or even a poor performance on this project could effectively bar their company from future sales to this industry.”

After dismissing the general group, Amburg held a meeting of the team leaders and specialists. This subset included all the disgruntled individuals, Amburg said, and he explained that they were not only technicians, but also leaders of and mentors to the younger staff. He praised them for their efforts to set a good example and offered to act as their mentor if they had any concerns or issues with the nontechnical aspects of leadership.

In the days following the general meeting, Amburg met individually with each team leader and specialist to talk over their personal goals. He reminded them that if they wanted to eventually move into a management position, they’d have to develop their leadership abilities. He offered to mentor them in their efforts.

Three days after the general meeting, the team was no longer losing ground, Amburg said. He mentioned at a review meeting that it would mean a lot to him personally if the team were back on schedule by the following weekend.

“I offered to spring for a pizza and beer celebration if they made it,” Amburg said. “They missed the date by two days, but I still bought pizza and beer. The best part for me is that all of the team members still keep in touch, and several of the folks I offered to mentor still call or e-mail for advice or to share some lesson learned.”

Lessons learned
Amburg said he believes that providing information, judicious praise, and clearly stated goals were very effective means to raising the team’s morale. He said his appeal to the individuals’ pride and responsibility was much more effective than threats of dire consequences would have been.

“As someone once impressed upon me, people have an amazing capacity to meet your expectations—good or bad,” Amburg said.