Why Team Member Motivation Is More Important Than Technical Skills

In my post How to Build Effective, Successful Management Teams a few weeks ago I mentioned that project teams are the most straight-forward teams in which to develop high-performance dynamics because they fit the classic laboratory definition of a team. Today, I want to talk more about why motivation is more important than technical skills in predicting team effectiveness.

My principle of the least-invested coworker states:

Any, and every, team will perform to the level of its least-invested member

As dire as that prediction sounds, it’s true and straight-forward — and that makes finding a remedy for getting a team back on track straight-forward. Only a leader in denial will ignore team member motivation when assessing his or her team’s potential to perform highly.

Why is this prediction true? It’s true because teammates who are less interested in the collective project (regardless of technical skill set) show their lack of motivation through their level of engagement and effort.

When other — more invested — team members observe this, they grow increasingly resentful. Why? Because the project responsibility is shared, which means individual efforts are interdependent and the rewards are shared. Everyone can recognize a free-loader in their team, and no one enjoys or looks forward to picking up the slack for them.

Instead, teammates subconsciously reduce their expectations — and thus their motivations — until they match the level of investment of the least-motivated coworker. You could think of it as a form of subconscious self-organized justice. For higher performers, this means they will shift their motivations to some other aspect of their work or life until they can get off of this project and move on to a project with more highly-invested partners.

So what’s the smart leader or teammate to do?

  1. Let go of the idea that people should be motivated by a paycheck or company or team loyalty. See things as they are instead of the illusion you would like them to be.
  2. Attend to issues of buy-in, commitment, interest, and motivation early and often. Learn to ask, “what is in it for you to work together with the rest of us on this project?” and pay attention to the responses. Play them back for understanding and clarification. Talk about interests as a team and acknowledge that “win/win” isn’t just a slogan, it actually means meeting everyone’s interests.
  3. Learn about and use the potency of intrinsic (i.e., internal) motivation to your advantage. External motivators like compensation, benefits, and rewards may get people to show up and occupy space, but they don’t drive personal investment. Also, since peer team leaders don’t have much say over extrinsic motivators (like salary and bonuses), they assume there is nothing they can do about managing peer motivation. Not true! Remember, high performance is voluntary. And that’s an issue of intrinsic motivation — motivation that is defined inside.
  4. Develop your proficiency at collaborative and participative communication practices. When team members have a legitimate say in what’s happening, their commitment tends to increase. When people are excluded, their commitment level goes down.

Technical skill sets are critically important for successful work, but team member motivation is the long lever of team dynamics. Empowering employees or team members will be rewarded with workers who are stepping up their performance.

Christopher Avery helps leaders worldwide to operate their business — and lives — far more productively and successfully. Find additional resources to master leadership and build responsible teams at ChristopherAvery.com and The Leadership Gift.

Posted in Coaching, Leadership, Responsibility, Teamwork on 12/07/2010 12:42 am
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