Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Motivating a Team

One thing I usually get told to do when I get hired by a company is "motivate the team".  Often there's a bunch of negative comments thrown in about how their morale is poor, their products are terrible, how they don't care about what they are doing, or how lazy they are.  None of which is usually true, but a matter of a misconception (that's another article by itself).  But the overall message of "motivate the team" is almost universal in my experience, and that of other executives in the R&D space to whom I talk.

So does the team need motivating?  What actually motivates a team, anyway?  Money?  Sometimes.  Bonuses?  Sometimes.  Benefits (free pop and snacks)?  Sometimes.  But the main motivator for anyone, in any team, is knowing that what they do is important, plays a part in the success of the team, the group, and the company, and that their efforts are actually appreciated.  Which is why the main thing I bring to every job is the ability to communicate.  For decades I have made regular team meetings a goal, with quarterly All-Hands meetings, and Annual "state of the company" meetings on top of those.  The goal in every meeting is to explain what is going on with the group (development, R&D, whatever it is called), and what we are doing for the company.  Giving people the strategic goals for the company, as well as for the group, helps them understand how they fit into the big picture, and that they are a crucial part of the larger organization. 

Sure, it's hard to believe one developer in a team of a hundred or a thousand is key, but the simple fact is that every single person contributes to getting to the goal, no matter what the size of the team.  The amount of work is the same whether in a team of five or five hundred, it's just the total amount of work to be done that changes.  And while in a team of five each person contributes more percentage-wise than in a team of one hundred, it's important to have each person feel important in the overall group.  There's an easy way to do that: keep the teams small, keep the goals of the team clear and understood, and keep everyone in the loop as to what's going on in the team, group, and company.

You can motivate some people with flattery, money, gifts, promotions, and so on.  For a while.  But the best way to motivate anyone is to make them feel important, and show how their contributions add to the overall company goals.  That way each person can feel that they are working towards a clear goal and they contribute to that goal, and that helps them want to do more and feel, well, motivated!  Not too difficult to understand, huh?

So when I get told to motivate a team, I don't go in and cheerlead, flatter, promote, or any other silly thing (although that's all part of my job).  Instead I make sure that everyone in the team understands what the goal is, how it fits into the team, group and company strategy, and how their contributions go to that goal.  This is about communications, pure and simple.  Explain so they understand, and it's easier for an individual to feel part of the solution.  Keep them confused or not understanding the goal, and they get de-motivated.  Help each person understand that their contribution is important, and how it fits in the big picture, and their role becomes clear.

So that means explaining everything.  Not just where they are going but how to get there, changes in the company and the group, and overall targets.  Help the individual understand the company, and they feel a part of that company.  And they are usually motivated to contribute.  Not so hard to motivate a team, is it?