Maintaining Team Morale When Your Projects Get Tough

‘I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits the bottom.’-General George Patton

Today I had a tough travel day – The Northeast US is snowed in by Winter Storm Janus (When did we start naming winter storms?) and flights and airline staff were crazy.  I had some time to think about rough times, team work and managing projects under severe conditions.

As a project or team leader, you are responsible for keeping your team on track, regardless of whether you hit a roadblock or not (That does include bad weather). In today’s environment of complex projects and management demands for faster/cheaper/better project implementation, you also must be responsible for keeping your team’s morale up—even when things go bad or we lose.  I manage a PMO team that gets constant challenges as it bids new work for clients and I have to deal with both the demands of winning as well as the morale and health of the team

Here are some things a good manager does to maintain team morale and positive energy—even in the face of a failure.

1. Know your team. Know each member’s personality style. Understand in advance how they will react to something negative.  Will they see it logically, and be able to learn from a mistake or a loss?  Or will they connect to it emotionally, beating themselves up, losing perspective, and seeing only ‘doom and gloom.’  Knowing your team members well enables you to communicate with them in the most effective way whether the news is good or bad, about a personal mistake they made, or a true ‘team loss.’ The manager’s communication style and effectiveness goes a long way in helping maintain team morale.

2. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Pay attention to your team’s morale and level of positivity every day.  People have good, bad and regular days – work every day on morale and motivation.  Don’t just wait to intervene and focus on morale when something negative happens. How can you do that?

  • Build morale daily, in small ways. Give a well-deserved ‘pat on the back.’ Bring in lunch for the team (and not just because you want them to work through lunch). Or bring in a box of goodies to share with morning coffee.  Appreciation can be a great confidence and morale booster.
  • Don’t overlook the opportunity to do something special as a team, just for fun. As you enjoy your time together, you get to know each other better and strengthen the “team bonds” that will come in handy when the going gets tough.
  • Give good, effective informal feedback to each member of the team as it is needed.  Don’t wait till the annual review to improve performance.  People deal better with constant feedback inorder to make course corrections or just to know that what they are doing is the right thing.

3.  Look for opportunities to celebrate project success. Especially if you have a small project team, it’s easy to move quickly from one big thing, to the next because you’ve under the schedule gun. Don’t do it! Met a milestone? Then bring your team (and boss) together to recognize the accomplishment. As the book Breaking Tape notes, “Give yourself some credit—celebrate incremental milestones toward completion of a goal, as well as the meeting of a major milestone.”

This also means that you should have a little fun recognizing the submission of a proposal, not just a proposal win. Recognize these ‘day in-day out’ accomplishments so that no one takes your team and what you do for granted. Find something that motivates you and your team—a celebratory luncheon, a happy hour, or games at Dave & Busters. For example at my company, Rodger, the CEO of ProSphere, had a captain’s bell mounted in the hall to use as we celebrate successes.  We ring the bell anytime we successfully submit a proposal or when we WIN one (I do admit we ring it a little louder on the wins!!).  The point is everyone loves to ring the bell – and the whole team stops when we do that and we celebrate the accomplishment.

4.  When something does go wrong—you miss a proposal deadline or a project milestone, a deliverable isn’t accepted, or you suffer a proposal loss—keep your perspective. The team will take their cues from you. If you are down and dejected by a recent turn of events, they will be, too. This doesn’t mean that you have to fake positivity in the face of a loss—just that you recognize that your response will be watched.
Bring them together and explore lessons learned. Find out what went wrong so that you can avoid it next time. Then stop looking back. Create some “forward focus” questions to get you out of the valley of despair, such as: “what went right,” “what can we do differently next time,” etc. This helps you and your team keep a clear focus on the future. Then, brainstorm the answers to these questions as a team. In doing so, you not only create a clear plan for success next time, but you have taught your team how to recover from a loss. This goes a long way to maintaining and strengthening morale. If you want to have a successful team you have to invest in maintaining a positive and healthy morale for your team.

My final thought is that you need to measure success by the characteristics of what the team does.  Observe your team, or have someone else do it for you, to see if they are exhibiting the characteristics of a successful team.

Do you have any good ideas on maintaining team morale?  Please post them in a comment!

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