Construction worker using a digital tablet

In the 1943 Abraham Maslow published his famous article titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”. He presented the concept that the most basic level of needs must be met around security and safety before people can pursue higher order needs such as commitment and self actualisation.

Frederick Herzberg further evolved this concept with his theory on Motivators and Hygiene Factors. Herzberg’s two factor theory suggested that there are factors within a workplace that cause motivation whilst others cause dissatisfaction. Motivators were things such as challenging work, recognition for one’s achievement, responsibility, opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision making and the sense of importance to an organisation whereas hygiene factors were things such as status, job security, salary, fringe benefits, work conditions and good pay.

When these two concepts are overlaid they have important implications for teams and projects. People cannot demonstrate self-actualised thinking such as commitment, passion, constructive challenge and a customer first approach if their basic security needs are not being met.

In a project team environment, one of the most basic security needs is to feel you can trust in your environment by having the basics in place around integrity, ethics, role clarity, structure and robust processes. In other words, if I am not clear on what is expected of me, I don’t know what the rules are. I can’t get on and do my job and I lose the ability to be a highly engaged and committed team member.

The issue here is that most leadership books, quotes and consultants focus on the aspirational aspects of leadership and then struggle to understand why their team find it difficult to move forward. They fail to adequately consider the security needs of their team and create an environment of distrust as staff aren’t able to fulfil their basic security needs.

This is particularly important in new project teams as they move through the forming, storming, norming and performing cycle. Each stage in this cycle is linked to the time it takes for teams to build trust. Teams will not shift beyond the forming/storming phase if their basic security needs have not been met. It is at this point the team starts to become dysfunctional as people lose the fundamental trust in each other. This is why the first 90 days in a major project are so important in ensuring the hygiene factors and security needs of the project team are addressed first before they can possibly shift into aspirational thinking.

The other key point is that leaders play a pivotal role in framing the environment within which we work. From my experience, the project leader’s role is not so much in inspiring the team to be more self-actualised, as staff need to take responsibility for their own intrinsic motivation. Rather the project leads role is to create the environment which promotes trust by ensuring the security needs of the team are being met. The key elements to achieve this include:

  • setting clear and realistic expectations, including roles and KPIs;
  • holding people to account;
  • establishing robust processes;
  • ensuring fair pay;
  • challenging poor performers;
  • treating everyone with respect;
  • ensuring open communication/transparency; and
  • acting with integrity to build an environment of trust.

Reflect on your own personal experience as a project leader or team member. In high performing teams where was the focus, particularly in the first 90 days? Was your team aligned and clear on the hygiene factors and on creating an environment that creates trust? What lessons learned can you take away for your next project?