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No-nonsense Ways to Fight Project Apathy

Project managers and HR are the same in that we both look out for the mental and emotional health of our team. But unlike HR, we don′t have degrees in psychology or have access to clinical studies. So when an employee loses motivation and starts to drag his team down, we have to react pragmatically based on leadership experience, instinct, and our relationship with the affected employee–all with a ticking clock in the background.

We project managers have to focus on techniques that are direct, effective, and timely. For instance:

Don′t go Touchy-Feely

This isn′t a technique, but it′s an important enough warning to deserve mention.

I speak as both an employee and a manager when I say that touchy feely techniques like “sharing sessions” and “trust exercises” don′t work–not the places I′ve been, anyway. These eye-rolling experiences only affect the already-motivated (if at all). Trying this on someone who doesn′t care is a waste of time–theirs, yours, and the client′s.

Bull Session

No team can function without a little bit of internal griping, but too much can erode team morale. Bring their concerns out into the open at a team bull session, where they can be dealt with once and for all–even if it′s not to everyone′s satisfaction. It′ll be messy and painful, but it′s better than having ill will fester and grow over the course of a project.

It′s Motivation that Matters

Apathy can be a result of any number of factors. The key is to find something to motivate your employee that actually works. This may or may not be directly related to the source of his frustration. Your objective isn′t to solve your employee′s problems–it′s to find something that′ll get him back in the mood to work. If he′s fed up with company management, for example, you can′t do much about it. But if you switch his tasks to something he finds interesting, it may pull him out of that funk and get him productive again–at least until the issue with management can be resolved. You can even try toying around with incentives and fringe benefits.

Don′t Let Morale Slip in the First Place

Apathy doesn′t happen overnight. It′s a slow, gradual process, where an employee starts out caring, but repeated disappointments strip away his enthusiasm and leave him emotionally dried out.

Prevention is the best cure. Latch on to his concerns early on and let him know that he′s not crazy–that someone is listening to him. Even if there′s nothing you can do about it, knowing that someone out there shares your concerns and is willing to discuss them can do wonders for a person′s state of mind.

Project managers are leaders, mentors, and coaches–but above all, we′re managers. We have a responsibility to deliver a project, and we need to find the fastest, most efficient way of getting our team motivated and back on track.


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