Ask a Project Manager: How Do I Raise My Team’s Morale?

February 6, 2018 by Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin

“Dear Elizabeth: I’m managing a small team of technical professionals and, not to put too fine a point on it, but, none of us are appreciated for what we do. Our projects are completed well, our work is good quality, and we frequently delivered above and beyond what was required until recently.

We had a team meeting where someone pointed out how they were feeling under-appreciated for their contribution, and since then the team’s morale overall has taken a dive. I know some of this is on me as their project manager. What can I do to show my team some love and appreciation (in a totally office-appropriate way, of course)? I need some fast solutions before my brilliant colleagues start looking for other jobs!”

Oh dear, what a difficult position to be in. The good news (there is some!) is that you have identified the problem as a team. And as the team’s manager, you can do something about it now that the issue is known to you. Having that one person call out what all the team was feeling but none of them could articulate could be a huge positive. It drew attention to the problem before it got so bad that resumes were coming off the printer!

Here are some suggestions for quickly getting back that sense of being appreciated for a job well done.

Set an example: gratitude and appreciation starts with you. It costs nothing and takes hardly any time to say thanks to someone at the end of the week. Just thank them for showing up and for their contribution over the past five days. It shows that their efforts are recognized.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the end of the week before you say thank you to anyone. It’s more meaningful and timely if you say it when you notice the thing that you are thanking them for. For example, their contribution in a particularly difficult meeting or for deputizing for you while you had to attend to a crisis. Keep calling out positive contributions and making them feel like their day-to-day small wins are being noticed.

Hopefully this behavior will rub off onto other colleagues, and they’ll start taking more time to thank and appreciate each other too.

In project roles, there are lots of opportunities to celebrate as a team. You can do this without anyone else’s permission. While it’s great to have your project sponsor on your side, you don’t need them to go out for drinks after work.

If your sponsor is open to supporting your efforts, ask them to write a letter to each team member thanking them for their efforts on the project (it’s best to tie this with a specific milestone so it comes at a meaningful time). A letter is better than an email because it’s more personal. And yes, you can draft it for them, and just have them sign it at the bottom—just don’t tell anyone!

If you don’t think you can convince them to write a letter, having them turn up at one of your team meetings and tell people that they are doing a good job is another simple way to celebrate a job well done.

Here are 15 more ways to celebrate success that won’t break the bank (and, in many cases, are free).

I wanted to add a word on team building activities. They can be a fun way to boost morale and keep the team moving in the same direction, but, in my experience they tend to work best to cement relationships and encourage more of the same behaviors.

When you have a struggling team, or in your case, a team with low morale, sending them out for a day of campcraft or raft building isn’t necessarily going to give you the result you are looking for. They’ll probably have a great time, but then come back to the office environment the next day where they’ll be acutely reminded that nothing around them has changed.

If, as you say, the lack of appreciation from management isn’t a reflection of the job your team is doing, then a pleasant day out of the office isn’t going to change anything because the problem isn’t your team.

Knowing that the problem isn’t your team, you are going to have to have some challenging conversations with your management level to find out what’s behind the culture that’s causing this.

It could be several things:

Note that this last point might be compounded by being in a multi-generational team. The stereotype is that millennials will expect more gratitude in the workplace, and older generations will not think in the same way. While stereotypes are generally unhelpful, especially when it comes to individuals and teams, they normally form around a kernel of truth, so consider whether this could be affecting your team.

The common themes here are to know your organizational culture, call out the behavior, ask for more overt support and to manage expectations. As a project manager you’ll be excellent at all that so you really can make a difference!

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