Optimism Or Delusion? How To Strike A Balance When Trying To Motivate Your Project Team

Read my mind

I came across a post by Ben Horsman that discussed the power and importance of being positive about project goals with the team. It got me thinking, does being positive actually help? I have found in life that some things can only be done through acting as if they will succeed. It’s allure is that it will be a self fulfilling prophesy. Also, planning for success allows us to capitalise on good luck. Daniel Kahneman suggests in Thinking Fast and Slow (p256) that optimistic leaders are more likely to succeed:

Their confidence in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees, and enhance their prospects of prevailing.

So there is this idea of acting “as if” something can be done to increase it’s chances of happening. On the other hand, this idea is prone to abuse. Projects with no chance of succeeding can see their outcomes made worse (and be made less tolerable for the team members) by blatant denial of reality by the leadership. James Boswell wrote in his book Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

It may be that optimism is the last refuge of the leader of a failing project. There is a great Dilbert on optimistic projects here. In addition to being an act of desperation, my experience is that unrealistic goals can have a strong demotivating effect on people. Martin Seligman has demonstrated something he calls Learned Helplessness, which arose in experiments when dogs were faced with insurmountable goals. I suspect something related to this dynamic is what I have seen in teams where we just don’t believe goals are rationally feasible. I wrote more about Seligman and the dog experiments in a previous post. There are so many costs associated with being knowingly unrealistic; colleagues will stop trusting you, some will try to adjust your estimates in their heads back to realistic numbers (with strange results), still others may avoid working with you because they don’t want to be lead by someone who oversells what they can do. All this is to say nothing of the ultimate price of losing personal integrity by knowingly misleading ourselves and others.

So, optimism about project goals can be either helpful or destructive. Is it a question of degree? Kahneman suggests moderation in optimism so as to

“accentuate the positive” without losing track of reality.

and this may be the balance to seek. As I understand it, Jean Paul Satre suggested that we recognise that no endeavour will change our lot in life in any way that matter. So, to lend life meaning, we should take on tasks and act as if they had meaning. He suggests this will work as long as we don’t forget that these undertakings are not intrinsicly meaningful. We may be able to lend sound project teams some motivation if we act as if they will perform better than we calculate they will, while never forgetting that their chances of success or failure must simultaneously be rigorously assessed, regularly checked and clearly communicated to all.

The way I attempt to pull off this balancing act is to aim for realism, communicate optimistic goals to the team and stakeholders, clearly label these goals to all as stretch targets and give feedback towards progress.

A very interesting approach to motivation has been put forward by E. Scott Geller. Ask your team three questions, he says.

  • Can you do what we are asking you to do in the project?
  • Can the project be done?
  • Is it worth doing?

Give people autonomy and regular feedback once work commences and confidence will arise in them. These questions of Geller’s would be at home in any sprint planning meeting. Geller’s assertion that confidence follows is supported by my own experience of agile teams in action.

Geller’s ideas chime with another leading voice of our time on motivation, Dan Pink. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,  Pink suggests we look to “autonomy, mastery and purpose” for motivation. This echoes my experience. I have found that agile naturally involves team members in decision making. Mentoring and supporting team members to learn on the job has also been a great way to motivate people (it is also one of the most personally rewarding aspects of my work). Finally, sharing a common goal has been a feature of all successful projects I have worked on. Not just acknowledging that senior management have a certain goal, but personally feeling that this is something that should be done. Both Pink and Geller stress the importance of team members thinking that something is worth doing. Taking time to discuss with the team what I think senior management objectives are based on and why they are globally important has always been time well spent. I have Drive by Dan Pink on my bookshelf at home and may come back to this topic, once I have read it properly. From what I understand so far, it is worth a read as much for understanding “what you thought was true about motivation but is not” as for understanding “what actually does motivate people”.

I mentioned “personally feeling” that something should be done. I once had a Japanese language teacher called Hasegawa Sensei. She made it so abundantly clear that she was personally invested in us talking quality Japanese that it was infectious. We actually cared more because we knew she cared so much. Paying attention to the work produced by the people in my team is something that I strive to do and I wonder if that ever has the effect of making them care more about the work they do.

Both Pink and Geller have great Ted talks, that lay out some of their ideas on motivation. In so far as their ideas relate to motivating project teams, I find them very persuasive and in some part, familiar from seeing agile teams at work. Horsman’s article makes a point restated in a much more nuanced way by Kahneman. If my reference to Satre is justified, positivity has it’s place but must always be clearly labelled as such and people must never lose touch of the reality of what the project’s prospects are. There is so much more to say about motivation. Pink addresses one obvious question I have not gone into. Some think that people are paid to work on projects and that should be motivation enough. The truth is more subtle than that, I find, and it is has been well worth taking time to consider what motivates people, something I am still far from getting to the bottom of.

Image is Read My Mind by Shirokazan licensed under CC by 2.0


5 thoughts on “Optimism Or Delusion? How To Strike A Balance When Trying To Motivate Your Project Team

  1. Leonor

    You can try to celebrate team successes to motivate and allow the team to set its goals. If you find them to be unrealistic make sure to communicate why you think they are not realistic. But ultimately it is on the team to make realistic goals and given the opportunity they can do this. I think the balance really is between what the team thinks it can do and stakeholders.

  2. insideprojects Post author

    Thanks Leonor. Yes, I think the team setting their own goals (as happens naturally in agile) makes a lot of difference. They are also very good at expressing to each other if they think estimates are wrong and why. Of course, team goal setting is not a panacea. I remember an organisation where SCRUM was firmly embedded and yet the stakeholders still tried to set high level goals like, “the project should be done by x date”. This really disturbed the “forecasting based on sprint actuals” dynamic. This also happened another time when the team was a 3rd party supplier and their sales people made high level commitments about dates to the client.

    Teams in both agile and waterfall projects seem prone to bias when forecasting (as discussed here http://makeandbuild.com/blog/post/psychology-of-agile-methodology ) but at least with agile you get feedback and a regular chance to correct.

    I have also experienced the strangest situation where the scrum master was urging the team to forecast slower velocity but the team were competing internally and this spread to competing over commitments in sprint planning. The result was, of course, unfinished sprint backlogs. One of the many examples of pressures against realism in business, I guess.

  3. Oshima mama

    You said it all when you quoted “Jean-Paul Sartre”. As you mentioned, Scott Adams deals with these weighty matters, too.
    The reality of motivation in the workplace, alas, is best represented by the American “project leaders” (“Yeah, that’s really GREAT!”), or the Brits (“BRILLIANT!”), which would be a bit inspiring if you didn’t see the blankness in their eyes, even as they are “motivating” you to give them all your bananas, so they can give you one back at the end of the week. Of course, the government is standing there on Friday, wanting part of that banana and then it wants other little pieces when you try to use what’s left of your banana. All that is as de-motivating as can be, and no team leader can erase these realities from the “team members” minds. When I worked in the Education field, teachers bashed their heads against the question, “How can I motivate these children to give me all their bananas on Monday, knowing I will give them back a picture of a banana on Friday?” The children, like their worker parents, weren’t stupid, and just didn’t buy into that unfair transaction. Some honest teachers went straight for the “stick” approach, and relied on various punishments as “motivators”. If a person isn’t satisfying his own internally experienced needs, then he isn’t “motivated”; he is only externally driven.
    Color me cynical, but I don’t think any of the “psychologies” will save us. But then, I don’t know that anything else will, either. Like I said, Sartre has it knocked!

    1. insideprojects Post author

      Thanks Oshima mama,
      It was really good to get your reply to my post. I wasn’t sure about referencing existentialism regarding motivation. Glad it seemed appropriate to you. Somehow, hearing about your experience in education and your talk of bananas made me think about the working lives of most people on our planet and what their wages are compared to mine. Not sure that was your intention but it made me realise what a small (and privileged) subset of humanity I have been targeting with my posts. I guess that is my experience/point of reference.

      I hope I am clear that no psychology will save us. I don’t regard yours as a pessimistic or cynical view. The different psychological theories are very interesting to me because I think they help describe and explain what is happening. I would say that is all they can usefully do.

  4. Pingback: Motivating Others in Agile | insideprojects

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