Thought Leaders

Psychology For Project Managers


Anyone who carries out routine work in a traditional organisational structure can, in principle, work with the same colleagues from the first day until retirement.

During the process, you often get to know them well, both the good and the less desirable sides and characteristics. Over the years, an organization and structure is established in the department and you learn how to deal with other colleagues individually.

In projects, new tasks are constantly approached and executed. Since different tasks require different competencies, the project team is assembled for each project to meet the upcoming challenges.

This way of working together is becoming increasingly popular and can be observed in the form of e.g. matrix organisations or in project based organisations.

If the project team is constantly being reorganised, the probability increases that colleagues who do not know each other so well will have to work together. Dealing with such ‘superficial relationships’ within a project team is part of the everyday work of a project manager.

It is also true, of course, that the risk of misunderstandings and conflicts in such situations increases considerably. Those who understand the psychology of such situations can better assess the behaviour of their colleagues and, if necessary, steer them in the right direction.

It is about what happens when people see each other for the first time, how people react differently to unfamiliar situations, how behavioural norms in project teams establish themselves very quickly, how a project team develops from a project group, how corporate culture influences project work, and how different people approach new information that has to be learned.

A successful project manager is expected to be able to deal with all aspects of human behaviour, to adapt and steer his project management accordingly.

Hence, a project manager must not only be well versed in project management methods, economic issues, economic goals and project organisation, but also in psychological aspects of human cooperation within the project environment.

Herzberg’s Motivational Theory

According to this theory, there are two different factors that influence professional motivation. The so-called motivation factors can lead to increased job satisfaction. They range from ‘not satisfied’ to ‘satisfied’.

The motivation factors basically relate to the content of the job. On the other hand, the so-called hygiene factors refer to the context of the work. Good conditions here do not lead to satisfaction, but rather to a prevention of dissatisfaction.

The hygiene factors are therefore on the scale from ‘dissatisfied’ to ‘not dissatisfied’. According to Herzberg, both factors must be met in order for employees to feel satisfied and motivated at work.

However, it is important to remember that hygiene factors alone, no matter how well they are served and fulfilled, can never lead to job satisfaction. At most, they can prevent dissatisfaction. Once the hygiene factors have been met, the motivational factors can be utilised to achieve real job satisfaction.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

There are basically two types of motivation. It can either be intrinsic – that is, it comes from within, from an inner drive – or it comes from outside (extrinsic motivation) – when we do something because it is demanded by other people or circumstances.

In Herzberg’s motivational theory (also called the two-factor theory), we find extrinsic factors in the hygiene factors. These are, for example, salary or work safety. These are extrinsic factors.

We do something either to get a reward, in this case the salary, or to avoid punishment or a negative consequence, in this case losing the job. As Herzberg shows in his theory, extrinsic or external factors are rarely suitable for generating real motivation, but can at most help to avoid dissatisfaction.

Motivational factors, on the other hand, are internal factors, such as interesting work tasks or the importance of one’s own work. When it comes to interesting work tasks, we like to do the work because we personally find the work tasks interesting and exciting.

We want to tackle them out of our own interest and will. The importance of the work is also our own assessment of the work. We would like to approach the tasks because we think the tasks are important.

These factors are very well suited to create a strong motivation, which can be an important basis for a high and independent productivity.

Overall, intrinsic factors provide a better basis for generating real and strong motivation. It is therefore important for the project manager to know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation factors in order to be able to promote intrinsic factors in particular.

It is also important for the project manager to recognise the possible trap in the transformation of intrinsic factors into extrinsic ones. These areas will be discussed in more detail in the next sections.

External or extrinsic motivational factors are often called external influences to emphasise that we are acting on the basis of an external or external influence. For example, we do something to get a bonus at the end of the year.

Or we make an effort at school because we would otherwise get into trouble with our parents. Or we work late on our tax return in order to file it in time and avoid a late fee.

Even though intrinsic motivation is usually more highly valued and provides a better basis for higher productivity, extrinsic motivation factors can also play an important role in motivating people to do a job that they personally consider uninteresting or unimportant.

It is also possible that tasks that have been unwillingly tackled by extrinsic influences are nevertheless perceived as interesting. The original extrinsic motivation was thus transformed into an intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation may also be necessary for employees who do not like to acquire new skills or knowledge. Once they have acquired the knowledge, they can use it and there is again the possibility that an intrinsic motivation may arise.

There are also other cases where extrinsic influences would usually not negatively influence the inner motivation. Rewards that are distributed unexpectedly do not normally reduce intrinsic motivation.

However, there is a risk that the person who has received the reward will get used to it and expect the reward to be repeated in the future. Then the intrinsic motivation has been transformed into an external one. Praise that follows good performance, on the other hand, can even further increase the inner motivation.

Inner or intrinsic motivation arises in a person and is the need to do something to make us feel satisfied and comfortable. When a person feels intrinsic motivation, he or she does a task or activity for the sole reason that he or she wants to do it and because he or she feels comfortable doing it.

Implications for Project Managers

Although it can be useful for a project manager to understand Herzberg’s theory and implement it in everyday work to promote motivation, it does not necessarily mean that motivation will always lead to productivity.

While high motivation is a good basis for high productivity, there are many other factors that have an impact on productivity. These include expertise, experience, and situation-specific factors.

Project managers should ensure that they create an environment and atmosphere in the project team that promotes intrinsic motivation. There are a few aspects to consider, which should of course be adapted to the prevailing reality.

There are tasks in every company and in every project, which are less exciting and still need to be done. These do not necessarily promote intrinsic motivation but must be achieved for practical purposes.

To promote intrinsic motivation, it can be very helpful to explain the different tasks, what purpose they serve, and what effects they will have on others. This approach could possibly reduce the negative effects of the more boring tasks.

If possible, the goals should be set in a way that creates a certain challenge without overburdening the project team members. It also helps if the project staff are allowed to participate in the design and planning of the tasks and activities, especially if they are able to utilise their own expertise.

One final piece of advice, when discussing psychology for project managers. As always when dealing with human behaviour, all I can do is to provide you with general ideas. But people do not always behave as predicted by psychologists.

In the end, you can learn from these psychological models, but in the end, you need to be able to adapt those models and ideas in every encounter with your project team.

Leif Rogell is owner and founder of bad project e.K. in Mannheim, Germany

Author of ‘Psychological Project Management’ (Available at Amazon)

Leif Rogell
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