What causes disinterest and disengagement on project teams? That’s a key question for project managers to consider. It’s the qualitative factor that underpins many project failures. That email that isn’t getting answered? Those endless follow-up requests? Disengagement is a major factor that undermines project success.
The State of Disengagement
Despite economic uncertainty, many professionals struggle to engage effectively at work. The Gallup organization has reported that disengagement at work has been a problem for many years. For example, Gallup research found that disengaged workers in Germany tend to have a higher absenteeism rate and are less likely to recommend their company’s products and services to others.
Disengaged professionals may still show up at the office, but they tend not to bring their creativity and full ability. As Seth Godin explains, attitude and outlook matter much more in the knowledge economy:
“If you worked on the line, we cared about your productivity, not your smile or approach to the work. You could walk in downcast, walk out defeated and get a raise if your productivity was good. No longer. Your attitude is now what’s on offer, it’s what you sell…the emotional labor of engaging with the work and increasing the energy in the room is precisely what you sell. So sell it.”
Addressing disengagement and disinterest is a joint effort between the individual and their leaders. As project managers, we have a role to play in inspiring the project team to contribute. We may not be able to solve the disengagement problem alone, but we can make a difference. Use the following strategies to inspire your project team to greater heights of engagement and success.
1. Promote Lifelong Learning
I’ve been passionate about lifelong learning for many years—my first article for ProjectManagement.com (How to Develop Your PM Continuing Education Strategy) covered the topic. By adopting a learning perspective, you avoid the “same old, same old” malaise that promotes disengagement. As with recognition, customize your exact approach based on each individual team member’s needs and interests:
● Ask about their leading and development goals: Ask your project team members about their career development goals during a one-on-one meeting so that you can look for opportunities. Your technical expert may be interested in moving into management rather than going deeper in his technical discipline. You wouldn’t know that until you ask.
● Hand out stretch assignments: It’s time to take some risks with your team. Look for “stretch assignments” where you can give someone on your team an opportunity to do a new task or activity that they haven`t done before. “Getting your hands dirty” with a process is one of the best ways to learn. Provide support, outline your expectations and give the person an opportunity to grow.
● Host lunch-and-learn sessions: On longer projects, look into organizing lunch-and-learn sessions with the team. For example, if you attend an event like the PMI Global Congress, share your notes on the sessions you found most valuable. You may also invite project team members to present on other topics, such as how to use a new application. The opportunity to present and lead a discussion is a helpful skill to develop and grow, especially if you spend 95% of your day working on code or spreadsheets.
2. Formal Recognition Programs
If you’re an engineer, a word of praise from an engineer in your industry goes a long way. The same can be said for one project manager to another, and many other professions. Earning respect and recognition from peers who understand your challenges and opportunities is often more meaningful than a compliment from an uninformed “civilian.” There are several approaches you can take to put this motivational strategy into action:
● Organizational awards: Create a list of your organization’s recognition programs to see what options are available for your team (e.g., awards for top quarterly performance, best engineer of the year, etc.). For the best results, match recognition to the team member’s preferences—some people prefer to be recognized in a “low key” manner, while others love the limelight.
● Professional awards: Nominating a team member for a professional society award is an outstanding way to recognize excellence on your team. This approach is particularly promising for organizations with longstanding professional organizations (e.g., project management, engineering, accounting, law, nursing and medicine).
● Project recognition: As the project manager, you are empowered to create a recognition program at the project level. I know of project managers who hand out “team member of the month” awards on longer projects that come with candy, a letter and other symbols of appreciation. A small budget for such recognition efforts has great value. If the person is open to it, you may also offer to write a LinkedIn recommendation note for the person’s LinkedIn profile.
3. Offer Exposure to Senior Managers and Executives
In a large organization, it is difficult to stand out and be remembered. Fortunately, projects offer a rare opportunity to stand out and interact with executives. Depending on the project’s complexity, risk and budget, you may interact with a vice president or perhaps the CEO.
In any case, exposure to senior leaders is valuable because it gives you a broader perspective on the organization. If some on your project team are hungry to learn and advance, you can engage them with this type of opportunity:
● Presenting to executives: Standing in front of an executive to present is an excellent way for your project team members to win recognition. To give the person the best chance for success, suggest that they start with a short presentation in their area of expertise. If this avenue is not available, consider the techniques described below as alternatives.
● Preparation for executive meetings: Interacting with senior leaders effectively requires thoughtful work. Invite a project team member to assist you in preparing a presentation, gathering data or similar activities. An analytical team member may speak to data. In contrast, a different team member may serve as a sounding board to provide feedback on your presentation style
● Observe executives in action: If the above techniques are not suitable, observation is another avenue to consider. In this approach, you invite the team member to observe a meeting or conference call with senior leaders. If the person is a careful student, observation has the potential to provide transformative insight. For example, a technical specialist may be surprised by the P&L focus of leaders or the way they ask questions.
Two Parting Questions
To put this Topic into action, answer the following questions:
1. How have leaders inspired you to engage more fully at work in the past? (In my personal experience, recognition and funding for professional development have both been used to good effect.)
2. What methods have you used to successfully inspire others on your project teams?