Project Management – Focus on Motivating People More Than Managing Tasks

The tendency for project managers is to focus all their attention on managing tasks. Ever attend a project meeting only to listen to a project manager read off a list of tasks, asking for the status of each one? Talk about lifeless and demotivating! Projects are made up of people, and people are complex social beings. Each of us have our own characteristics, strengths, and intrinsic needs. We are all motivated in separate ways. This is why project managers should focus on motivating people more than managing tasks. Here are some ways project managers can motivate team members.

Get to Know Team Members and Discover Their Strengths

Whenever I start on a new project, as the project manager, I always find time to meet with each core team member. In these one on ones, I get to know who they are. This helps build a connection but also gives me insight into their character strengths. I ask them questions like, what do you enjoy the most, or the least, working on the project? What do you enjoy for fun outside of work? I’m trying to tap into knowing the whole person and what motivates them.

Sometimes it’s not easy to learn a person’s strengths until you observe them for a while. On one of my projects, I got constant complaints about a team member. Whenever this person was in a meeting, they were rude and abrasive with business stakeholders. What I learned though, after time, was that this person loved solving technical problems and they were good at it. This was an easy fix. Going forward I had them focused on what they did best and enjoyed, instead of sitting in meetings talking to stakeholders. It was a win win for everyone.

Knowing our own strengths and the strengths of our team members is important. There are good strength assessment resources available to help. Check out CliftonStrengths or VIACharacter for starters.

Focus on influence over authority

Often the project manager lacks formal authority. Usually, project team members report to different managers. This is why it is better for project managers to focus on influence over authority.

On one of my projects we were behind schedule and needed to put in overtime to catch up. I didn’t say to the team, “hey, everyone needs to work this weekend!”. No, instead I explained the situation to the team and I asked them if they would be willing to work over the weekend. My key message was that I would be right there with them, helping in any way I could. Whether it be bringing coffee, food, or running software tests, I would be by their side. Many team members reacted positively to this message. They saw that I was not asking them to do something that I myself was not willing to do.

Show appreciation

Showing appreciation for someone’s effort and their strengths is so important. Most people get intrinsic value when they feel appreciated. Appreciation is a huge motivator. When team members feel more engaged and seen, it leads to better project outcomes. Studies show that when we help people to see what is good about them, they are more likely to have creative ideas and they’re more likely to work collaboratively. They make better decisions, less mistakes, and they feel better about their work. That’s why building a culture of appreciation on the project is so important.  


As a project manager, managing tasks is important, but motivating team members is more important. To motivate people, get to know them on a more personal level. Find out what their strengths are, as well as your own. Try to have team members focus on doing what they do best and enjoy. Instead of using authority, focus on influence and lead by example. Last, always show appreciation and gratitude for your team members and their strengths.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is a principle Agile IT program management consultant for MacIsaac Consulting.