Project Leadership and Motivation

Project Leadership and Motivation

What does science know about motivating employees that businesses too often ignore?

That's the topic of an 18-minute talk by (nonpracticing) lawyer Dan Pink. He frames it as an argument to the jury of the audience.

In this 2009 talk, he describes the science of motivation, which is fairly well known. He reports that for professional or knowledge-work task, intrinsic motivators work better than extrinsic motivators. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose beat money as a motivator.

This result has been shown repeatedly, in numerous studies across multiple fields and far-flung cultures.

He's limited to 18 minutes by the format of the TED conference, so he can't go into some important qualifiers on that statement. (The most important qualifier is that a perceived inequality in extrinsic rewards can destroy motivation. If the worker next to you is getting paid twice as much for the same work and you don't believe that, if you prove you're better, the situation will change, bets are off.)

The legal world, at least within private law firms, straddles the motivation gap. So much is made of monetary rewards: bill-lots-of-hours-to-make partner, associate/partner inequalities, even the fixation in the legal press on bonuses. Money is often seen as a major (or even the only) measuring stick.

And most of my readers aren't in position to change that, even if they want to.

So let's bring this to a level where you can use these findings.

As a project leader, you're generally not directly responsible for compensation decisions, and your team knows that.1

The biggest tools you have for motivating your team are intrinsic motivators. Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

I've written about these before, and I talk about them in my classes, but here's a summary:

  • Autonomy allows team members to decide for themselves how they'll solve the problems they're facing. Provide the vision. Ensure they know the business goals, deadlines, and so on. Then get out of their way. Even the most junior members of a team will perform professional or knowledge-worker tasks better if they have autonomy, though of course less senior team members may have that autonomy over considerably smaller and shorter-termed pieces of the puzzle.
  • Mastery is the satisfaction and feelings of competence that come from completing tasks. An effective project leader finds the right-sized challenges for each team member. Challenges can come from both broadened scope - doing new stuff - and lengthened autonomous periods - more responsibility. Team members who feel they're building mastery are happier, and will contribute better, stronger, more creative work.
  • Purpose comes from contributing to solving problems of importance. Importance doesn't necessarily mean world hunger. A problem may be important to a business unit or to the firm's future, for example. It doesn't have to be the whole firm or the whole corporation; it just has to encompass a larger world than the pure writing of the brief or researching the facts2.

Intrinsic motivators, all other things being equal, beat extrinsic motivators for your team.

Dan Pink's talk isn't short if you think of it as three billable six-minute intervals gone! However, it may provide some valuable insight into managing and leading your teams, with a potentially larger payoff. (And he's a very effective speaker and a lawyer, so you could think of it as researching your own trial skills....)


1The managing partner might also lead a particular project, for example, but let's look at the more common cases rather than the exceptions.

2One of my annual tasks in Microsoft's legal department was to present and defend our (rather large) IT budget. I spent no time describing the systems themselves. I about half of my allotted time describing the very substantial savings we were reaping from this IT spend, but I spent the other half (subtly) painting a picture of how these systems allowed us to support Microsoft's products and how that work aligned with Microsoft's vision for changing the world. We always got the money we asked for. We didn't ask for the moon, of course, but when other cost center IT budgets were being cut, sometimes substantially, we held our own. A sense of purpose was at least at that time an intrinsic motivator that was an important part of the Microsoft culture.