In his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, Dan Pink explains three attributes (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose) that people need to feel satisfied and motivated at work. It is a great book, but we can do more. Drive only gets us started. As project managers, we can do more to help the people on the projects we manage.
Remember, Nobody Wants to Be Managed
It’s important to remember that PMs manage projects, not the people working on the projects. Rarely can anyone effectively manage people, and rarer still are the people who want to be managed.
Instead, “We manage property and lead people; if we try to manage people\e, they will feel like property.” Over the long-term, people are more satisfied when they have control or input into how they undertake their work. Using our own skills, insights and decision-making process is more rewarding than blindly following instructions.
Yet there are a few instances when we want to be told what to do. These include emergency situations or a scenario that is totally foreign—such as a temporary volunteer role. However, they are not common, and satisfaction at work requires freedom of choice in how to work—and an opportunity to bring our skills to bear on a problem.
This freedom and skill opportunity make up the “autonomy” and “mastery” components of Dan Pink’s motivation triad (which also includes purpose). Pink explains what people want to feel satisfied and fulfilled. Here’s the recap…
What People Do Want Instead
When we can provide freedom of choice (autonomy) with an ability to apply and learn new skills (mastery) in an environment that pursues a worthwhile goal (purpose), the magic happens. Now people are motivated. Then our role as leaders and managers of projects is to channel and coordinate these driven contributors in their pursuit of that goal.
If that sounds unrealistically optimistic, maybe you have never felt or seen true motivation. Maybe YourGreedyCorp’s reason for being (max profits for owner and shareholders) lacks any sense of purpose for its employees?
Unfortunately, organizations with uniting and worthwhile missions are scarce. We cannot all work for companies like Patagonia, Tesla or Buurtzorg, so how can we support people working in more traditional organizations?
If we cannot influence the purpose of our organization, we can try to find the compelling purpose for our project and create as much autonomy and opportunities for mastery as possible. Then we can see what other motivational factors people desire.
Beyond “Drive” Enablers – Into “Overdrive”
A recent Entrepreneur article about seven basic human needs provides great insights into a holistic set of motivational/satisfaction ideas we can bring to teams. Let’s review them:
- Safety/security: - “Without it, we feel anxious.” Creating a psychologically safe environment is critical for experimentation and learning. People need to feel it is not only okay for them to extend themselves and try new things, but are positively encouraged to do so.
As leaders, we can help by modeling the desired behavior and talking about our own learnings and failures. For example, “I made a mistake on the status report I am sending it again” or “I heard my presentation to the steering committee was too technical; I would like your help explaining it in simpler terms.”
This second example also demonstrates vulnerability by asking for help. It turns out vulnerability in leaders is less a sign of weakness and more a bridge to building stronger relations with team members. Creating a safe environment and being human produces a better working environment.
People join companies because of the opportunities and leave them because of the managers they encounter there. Don’t be one of those managers.
- Variability/challenge: - “Without it, we are bored.” Our brains are wired to seek new experiences and solve problems. It releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure circuits in the brain. It is likely to reward exploration and learning, which is critical for our evolution.
We can take advantage of the motivation circuits everyone comes wired with by presenting work as problems, not tasks. Outline the problem, let the team tell you how it intends to solve it. This will usually be how you would have structured work tasks, but it might be a better plan. Then, providing it is legal and appropriate, let the team execute its plan. Now the team members have ownership of the approach and are much more invested in ensuring its success.
It’s not rocket science, it’s neuroscience—and very well worth the extra steps of framing new work as problems and vetting proposed solutions.
- Status/significance: - “Without it, we feel undervalued.” We need to recognize the role and significance people play on projects—and not just at the end of them. That is too little, too late. Instead, we need to find ways to acknowledge and explain the contributions people are making on a regular (say weekly) basis.
It does not have to be much, but it does have to be something. People working without recognition can slide into doing the minimum tolerated. Instead, people who know their work is recognized will be more likely to try and do it well.
Yes, making sure we talk to everyone about their work each week takes time and effort. However, it is much easier than explaining lackluster performance to executives or recruiting new team members because someone quit or was fired for underperforming.
People need momentum to push past the obstacles they will inevitably face on projects. Regular recognition of their work creates and builds that momentum.
- Love/connection: - “Without it, we are lonely.” We spend a large proportion of our waking hours at work. As social creatures, we crave some connection—but the depth varies from person to person. For some, it is enough to be recognized and have your name remembered. For others, they want to learn about their teammates and share their interests and dreams.
HR departments can get justifiably concerned about inappropriate friendliness, and so often tend to err on the transactional side of interactions—e.g., “Bill, here is the marketing report you asked for.” However, this misses the opportunity to connect. “Hey Bill, there you are…here’s that marketing report. How did Wendy do at her first basketball game?”
Having someone that cares enough to ask how you are—and also learn whatever aspects you want to share—is significant. We should try to learn what our team members like to do in their spare time, what causes and activities they enjoy.
People make terrible interchangeable cogs in a machine. They are inconsistent, unreliable and malleable, always changing shape. However, they make fantastic flowers in a garden. Some like shade, some like the sun; once we learn more about them, we can help them flourish.
- Self-expression: - “Without it, we can’t express our personality.” We need to let people show us who they are. Let them customize their work environment appropriately. If working the front desk of a fancy hotel, that might not be much visually; but in other environments, it could be considerable.
Dress, music, work time flexibility to go rock climbing or see the new Star Wars movie all show we recognize what is important to people. We hire people for who they are and their ability to contribute. Let’s not forget who they are, or they will forget to contribute.
- Growth/knowledge: - “Without it, we feel stuck.” This is the “mastery” component of Dan Pink’s three motivators. People want to improve their skills. They want to get better at the craft they chose as a career. Providing training, access to education and conferences improves job performance, employee satisfaction, and retention.
Education and training not only improve people’s sense of job worth, but it also improves their self-worth. People recognize and remember that.
- Contribution: - “Without it, we don’t have the satisfaction of helping someone.” This is the “purpose” component from Pink’s Drive book. People seek meaning, a purpose, an opportunity to help build a valuable legacy.
Connect work to a worthy goal. People do not want to spend a day pushing keyboard buttons. They want to know they helped people get access to healthcare or education, or book a fun night out with friends.
Putting the Seven Human Needs to Work
Great leaders and the best project managers do all of these things instinctively. They weave and blend the concepts into every interaction and conversation they have each day. The rest of us likely need some coaching until we feel natural—and then they become habits to us.
There is nothing wrong with creating a checklist of people to go talk with each day. We do not want to use the same questions, but instead develop interest, appreciation, and opportunities for growth.
Demonstrate the desired behavior, admit your failings and concerns. Ask questions, be upbeat, seek connections and knowledge. Everyone in a leadership role is being watched and judged, whether they like it or not. So, behave as if every action—seen or unseen—is being scored. Integrity and transparency remove the need for remembering the story for this situation, or what you told who.
When outlining work, start and end with the problem. Let people decide how best to solve it, and invite their ideas. Providing the solutions are legal and efficient, let them run with them. Check-in frequently to see how things are going. Investigate failures calmly. What can we learn? What can we do differently next time?
It takes time, but it gets easier. Then people start helping you when they see you are not a total jerk. Then things get much easier, and it is tempting to think you are hot stuff and become a jerk. Stay humble, stay thankful and always be learning.
Dan Pink’s Drive motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are critical in ensuring motivation at work. However, they are a subset of the seven universal human needs we all seek to feel satisfied.
As we manage our projects and lead our teams, we should check to see how many of them we can engage every day.
[An earlier version of this article first appeared on ProjectManagement.com here]
(See www.LeadingAnswers.com for the full list of articles from Mike Griffiths)