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It’s a Question of Motivation

Office Space, ©1999 Twentieth Century Fox

By Craig Covello, PMP:

You may remember a little movie titled “Office Space” made back in 1999 starring Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston and David Herman.  Livingston plays Peter Gibbons, an employee of Initech who dreads his job.  Most of Peter’s time is spent avoiding work, which provides enough humor for the storyline all by itself.  But the comedy really kicks into high gear when Peter is accidentally hypnotized, causing him to candidly share his thoughts regarding his own personal work ethic.  Here’s what Peter had to say in a meeting with two consultants who have been brought in to downsize the company:

BOB SLYDELL: Aha! All right. We were just talking about you. You must be Peter Gibbons. Uh huh. Terrific. I’m Bob Slydell and this is my associate, Bob Porter.

PETER: Hi, Bob. Bob.

BOB PORTER: Why don’t you grab a seat and join us for a minute?

BOB SLYDELL: Y’see, what we’re trying to do here, we’re just trying to get a feel for how people spend their day. So, if you would, would you just walk us through a typical day for you?

PETER: Yeah.


PETER: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late. I use the side door, that way Lumbergh can’t see me. Uh, and after that, I just sorta space out for about an hour.

BOB PORTER: Space out?

PETER: Yeah. I just stare at my desk but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too. I’d probably, say, in a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work. The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s just that I just don’t care.

BOB PORTER: Don’t, don’t care?

PETER: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now, if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. So where’s the motivation? And here’s another thing, Bob. I have eight different bosses right now!

BOB SLYDELL: I beg your pardon?

PETER: Eight bosses.


PETER: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my real motivation – is not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job, but y’know, Bob, it will only make someone work hard enough not to get fired.

What does any of this have to do with project management?  In a word; motivation.  And that’s an important concept since project managers are dependent upon performance of the team.  Unfortunately, those same team members are usually on loan to the project manager and often directly report to another chain of command.  Arguably, this matrix management organizational structure may sometimes have an adverse effect on team member motivation and task prioritization.  Why?  Because team members know that the PM rarely makes decisions regarding employee performance reviews, career advancement or salary raises.  So it begs the question; what other factors will motivate the team?  Here’s a short list of possibilities:

  1. Work ethic
  2. Competitiveness
  3. Interest in the project assignment
  4. Belief in the project’s goals
  5. Avoidance of criticism or conflict
  6. Recognition

Items one through four may be ingrained in the person’s personality or habits, and therefore, become compelling factors in team member selection.  The project manager, however, has influence over factors 5 and 6 by setting the tone for the working environment.  And of the two, individual recognition may motivate the team member to excel instead of, to use Peter’s words, “only make someone work hard enough not to get fired”.

Now here is the hard part.  How can a project manager find something good to say about a team member who may not be performing on par with others?  How can the PM avoid sounding disingenuous?  Well, if you look hard enough, you should be able to find one or two attributes worthy of complement.  Expressing your appreciation for those attributes can go a long way in motivating someone to do better, particularly if kind words have not been spoken about the individual in a long time.  It’s also a good way to soften any frank discussions regarding performance improvement.  Of course, there will always be employees with bad attitudes regardless of what you say, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily should remain on your team.  Because the worst thing that you can do is give someone a pass while other team members take up the slack.

It is much better to recognize and build upon team member strengths than foster a cynical working environment that encourages some to “do about 15 minutes of real, actual work in any given week”. Just ask Peter.

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