How Perspective Taking Propels Motivation In Project Teams
Last Update: Sep 28, 2020

The end of my presentation was approaching. For 60 minutes, I had showcased the merits of inspiring project leadership to an international community of project professionals. Before finally closing, I wanted everybody to get a feel for what their rational mind had just learned. I asked the audience to close the eyes, envision themselves as a magnetic project leader, and the impact it would have on their work. It did not take long until an outspoken project manager objected. “No. no, I can’t do this. I feel overwhelmed. I am struggling enough with my tasks and issues. I don’t want to become a go-to person for all the project team members.”

Torn between functional and leadership responsibilities

The response was undoubtedly not the answer for which I had been waiting. I wanted everybody to take a positive outlook and forget about the current struggles for a moment. But I was grateful for the candid confession nevertheless. It could not have expressed more accurately the project managers’ dilemma.

Overloaded with functional and administrative tasks, they don’t always believe in having the time to care for the people involved. They deep-dive into problem-solving and utilize uncountable applications to produce required control deliverables. Their analytical mind operates at full capacity, not aware that their social brain shuts mostly down, given that the different parts of the brain are mutually exclusive, as science has shown us.

Successful project management is leadership par excellence

If leadership is the art of getting things done through others, project management is leadership par excellence. IT’s diversity and complexity require the support of a mind-blowing number of experts and stakeholders across many silos and management levels. It’s their committed efforts that are make-or-break for every project.

Project managers are not vested with any formal authority. To get teams into high engagement, they rely entirely on the social and motivational competencies they have in their bag. Those managers who can motivate involved people effectively to accomplish the project goals will become successful project leaders.

Clients often ask me about the critical traits that give Project Managers the most significant leverage. There are quite a few. But after 30 years in management, consulting, and coaching – to me – project success starts with PMs bringing a high-quality motivation to connect, understand, and care for others. If they act towards their people out of obligation or just to comply with a stakeholder management process, they will fail.

True leaders cater to the psychological needs of their people

Motivational science teaches us that humans have three distinct basic needs whose satisfaction/frustration determines peoples’ motivation

  • Need for belonging
  • Need for autonomy
  • Need for competence and efficacy

Meeting those needs is challenging in project environments. The hosts of technical experts upon which the project manager depends are often globally dispersed. They come from all corners of the organization and report to different line managers. The huge organizational and geographical distance makes it incredibly difficult for the project leader to establish a strong connection and create a sense of belonging.  

The experts see themselves often at the receiving end of an intrusive task delegation process, confronted with tight time, budget, and requirement constraints. As a result, their basic need for autonomy gets significantly thwarted, impacting their motivation and engagement.

We all love to get engaged in jobs that make an impact, and that stretches our capabilities. It’s the innate need for competence. That holds particularly true for knowledge workers of complex projects. If we consume their resources with way too many mundane or tedious jobs, their competence needs get frustrated, and their motivation goes downhill. The ill-considerate request for daily spreadsheets, reports, and conference calls are just a few examples of how to contribute to their demotivation.

There is only one way to escape the pitfalls of all of the above or mitigate their implications. The project managers are strongly people-focused, know the concept of motivation as the satisfaction of basic needs, put themselves into the team members’ shoes, and try genuinely to understand where they come from. This empathic approach helps to establish a sense of belonging, and it ties also into peoples’sense of autonomy, because they realize they are heard and matter.  

Care amplifies the sense of belonging

At times, we also have to show genuine concern and the willingness to help on top. I once headed a global IT transformation program that affected a vast landscape of IT systems. I had noticed that Peter, the responsible Operations Manager, showed a restrained engagement. I invited him to a pub to talk things over. In the beginning, he was completely closed up. The more I listened, the more he opened. I learned things about himself, his love for the job, and all his achievements over the years.

Then he finally admitted that he was struggling with anxieties and fears about his future. To that date, nobody had told him to what extent his job got impacted. I genuinely felt what he must have gone through, understood his frustration, and promised to bring his case up with management. He so much appreciated to have been listened to and experienced care.

We tacitly rely on the organization in communicating caringly with the people affected through changes. But it just doesn’t work that way. Look at “Where Change Management Fails” by Robert Half. 65% of all organizational changes fail based on poor communication. We can only speculate on the price tag attached to it.

It is a calling for project leaders to care more. They have to become pro-active. They need to leave their desktop behind and show presence in the performing units, tune into those through which the projects are done, understand their perspectives, help and facilitate hope.

A people-centered approach will make the IT project world a more meaningful place

Reflecting on empathy, I recall managers who have been genuinely empathic to me over all the years. It puts me immediately into a surprisingly pleasant mood. But quite frankly, there could have been more of those leaders, and I figure I am not alone thinking about it wistfully. When I check in with my LinkedIn newsfeed, I am always amazed by the number of posts that remind us of the dos and don’ts of good leadership. What I hear between the lines is a deep-seating and unsatisfied longing for leaders that care.

Scientific and corporate research have proven over and over the strong correlation between the leaders’ attendant behavior and the performance of their direct reports. It comes down to that successful leaders create an environment that caters to the employees’ psychological needs. Its high time for us to adopt and adapt those findings to project management environments. Every year we hear about the billions of dollars wasted based on failed projects. The Project Management Institute states in their  global Survey 2019, “Yet despite all the talk, project performance isn’t getting any better.”

“We cannot change the wind but we can adjust the sails” – Aristotle

There is no single sure-fire technique to project success. But there are proven ways to increase the probability of achieving substantially. Combining solid technical project management skills, a high degree of motivational competencies and taking the perspective of the subject matter experts is – to me – the most promising one.

Rainer Bach

Consultant and mento