Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

As a project manager, I find it easy to get excited about new projects and seem to be able to maintain my enthusiasm throughout the project. However, I also need to receive the commitment of the rest of the project team.

I think sometimes we are missing deadlines because the team is not motivated. Our company is not doing well, and morale seems to be poor in general. I can’t make the company profitable. What can I do?


While part of the job of a project manager is to manage resources, workplans, issues, risks, etc., a good project manager must also be able to manage and motivate people. Even if you do not have functional management responsibilities, you still need to be able to motivate the people on your project to get their work done.

Many project managers find themselves in your situation. You know that team members are missing deadlines, but you are not sure why. It may be morale related, but perhaps it is for other reasons. Go through the steps below to find out for sure.

How serious is the problem?
Assess the extent of the problem. Morale may be poor, but you may still be getting your work done on time.

Just as great motivation doesn’t guarantee a successful project, poor motivation does not always ensure project failure. However, you seem to be missing deadlines, so I will assume that you do have a problem that needs to be resolved.

Determine if poor morale is the issue
Let’s not assume blindly that the problems are caused by poor team motivation. There could be many reasons why people miss project dates: Estimated deadlines may be unrealistic; the team may be struggling in an area in which it needs additional training. There may be communication problems that leave people unsure of when assignments are due.

Ask team members why they’re missing deadlines. It’s unlikely that your team members will come right out and tell you that the problem is low morale, but their behavior may signal otherwise. They may give unreasonable excuses for missing end dates or perhaps no reasons at all. They may also talk about others on the team with a lack of motivation. They may sound tired, or they may not want to talk. They may sound negative or defeatist. All of these behaviors could point to poor morale.

Can you improve your team’s morale?
If you have determined that your team does suffer from poor morale, try to find out why. In many cases, the cause is outside of your control. For example, if your business is not doing well and people are being laid off, then morale is bound to be poor and your team may find it hard to perform at its peak.

If your stock price is falling, those team members with stock options may be less motivated. On the other hand, there may be causes within your control. For example, have team members been asked to work substantial overtime over a sustained period? Do team members feel that they are not getting the recognition they deserve? Does the project manager listen to their concerns?

Turn things around
Even if you cannot control the root cause of your team’s poor morale, there are still ways you can help. While you can’t likely make the stock price rise, you can encourage open communication on the team, be available to talk and to listen to concerns, and ensure training needs are met.

Keep your team’s working environment clean. Do all you can to make sure people can lead a balanced life, and don’t let them work overtime over extensive periods.

Industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg found that when the basics were missing, motivation was reduced. Taking care of basics will give people less reason to complain, and although this may not be enough to guarantee high morale, it is a start.

Be creative to provide the extras
Look for other opportunities to increase morale and motivation. Herzberg found that things like achievement, recognition, responsibility, and advancement provide positive benefits. Consider these ideas:

  • Explain the work’s business value. Ensure people see the value of their work and know that they are providing benefits to the business. Discuss the business drivers for the project, and have the business client explain the purpose of the project to the team. If your team members believe they are doing something important, they will feel better about their work.
  • Recognize people for their contribution. Providing recognition for a job well done can go a long way if workers are not highly paid or their stock options are worthless. Praise people in front of the team. Inform your managers about a team member’s good performance. Ask your business sponsor to praise the team for its accomplishments.
  • Build camaraderie. Get the team together often and build a sense of team loyalty. Instead of having people complain privately, get the team together to share experiences, conduct cross-training, have lunch, etc. If people really feel a part of a team, they are bound to pull together and not let their coworkers down.
  • Make people responsible. People respond better to work when they have responsibility. The project manager can also challenge people with new or increased levels of responsibility on a project.
  • Have fun. Organize pizza lunches (the team can chip in if your company won’t pay). Take turns bringing in donuts for breakfast. Give people certificates for offbeat accomplishments like being the tallest on the team. Get your most outgoing people to plan some quirky events for the team. Fun is contagious. If team members see others enjoying themselves, they will feel better too.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

How do you motivate your team?

Shaky businesses, worthless stock options, and economic uncertainty are three obstacles that organizations face. How do you overcome these hurdles within your project team? Post your comment or send us an e-mail.