Recently, I was invited to participate in a workshop to address the question “How might we motivate people to participate in complex interdisciplinary problem-solving initiatives?” The premise here was that this is not about the committee your boss directed you to join, but rather about complex problems where the solution is not clear, where many possible solutions may exist and where it is not clear who should participate or you don’t have the functional relationship to direct people to participate.
The workshop was designed as a “Deep Dive”, a facilitated process to help a group collaborate to design creative solutions that are focused on user needs. I won’t go into the details of the process here, but I will say that there was an emphasis on what is sometimes called empathetic, or active, listening, which is listening to really understand the needs of the other person.
To help us, as participants, get a better understanding of the issues around motivation, we were asked to interview people who have experience organizing and managing teams. Using active listening, we attempted to tap into their knowledge and experience. We wanted to understand what motivated people to collaborate in teams and what they learned about leading teams of people in a collaborative initiative. The interviewees were quite diverse in their level, type of work and years of experience, ranging from junior analysts up to an acting Deputy Minister. They were similar, however, in that they all had considerable experience organizing, managing and motivating teams to help them achieve goals. In many cases, this meant motivating people with whom they did not have a direct reporting relationship. Collectively, my fellow workshop participants and I interviewed over 20 people.
From these interviews, a wide variety of knowledge and experience was shared. Yet, there was a lot of similarity in what was said. Out of all this information, we were able to identify the five key needs below (in order of importance). Think of these as needs that must be met in order for someone to volunteer to participate in an initiative that you might be leading.
- Nobody volunteers to join a team because they want more work. Potential participants will always ask themselves, “What’s in it for me?” In particular, it must be clear to the potential participant how their involvement in the team will help them do whatever it is they are interested in doing more effectively or more quickly. Perhaps, their involvement will help them learn a new skill; perhaps it will help them network with other experts in their field; perhaps they can influence something that will have an impact on them. Whatever it is, they will have a need to do something more efficiently. In addition, potential participants in your team will want to know how they can add value. These two questions, “What can I contribute?” and “What can I take away?” must align with the objectives of the team in order for potential participants to consider becoming involved.
The people we interviewed made it clear that there are several items potential participants often need to be clear about before they will commit to join a team, including:
- Clarity on the goals of the team and the desired outcomes. The goals and outcomes need to align with their interests, available time, and what they can take away or they will get out of it.
- Clarity on the context for the team. Why is the team being constituted? Who has asked for the outcome?
- Clarity on their role. It’s your job as a team leader to help participants see how they can contribute and remind them of the value of their contribution. It’s also important to remember that success is a shared responsibility among all members of the team. It is not just the Chair’s responsibility.
- Clarity on the process. Participants need to feel that the process is logical and has a high chance of leading to a successful outcome. To this end, it is important that the leader or Chair be honest and transparent throughout the process.
- Clarity on how members expect to interact with one another. For example, sometimes, you have to overcome a culture of hierarchy where people defer to the highest ranking member at the table.
- Clarity on credit. Being acknowledged for one’s work is important. As the leader or Chair, it’s you must ensure that credit is given where it is due, and not taken when it is not due. Celebrate the small achievements.
- Purpose does not refer to the aim or goal of the team, but rather to need of participants to know that their involvement will contribute to something greater. Participants want to know that they will have an influence on a larger issue that is of interest to them. Nothing is more demoralizing for a team member than the realization that they are involved in a consultation disguised as a team - where a Chair is only interested in checking a box to say that they had broad involvement but is not really interested in the contributions of team members.
- Team members need to have some control over how they contribute. This does not mean that it is a total free-for-all in terms of everyone doing their own thing. As the Chair or leader, it is your job to ensure a shared understanding of the desired outcomes and the tasks required to reach the goal. You need to highlight what needs to be done and then set the conditions to allow members to commit to the work. Start by talking to your participants to understand their interests and let them help develop the process and associated tasks. Help members understand how they can contribute or find ways for two or three members to share responsibility for a task. Emphasize that success is a shared responsibility, not just the Chair’s. Don’t position tasks as something interesting that someone might want to take on, rather, position tasks as essential to the success of the team that someone must take on. Not all tasks are glamorous and some are just a sheer grind, but your best chance of success is getting someone to volunteer. Whatever you do as the team leader, do not micromanage the tasks. The people I interviewed all agreed that it was better to define the task result and then let the responsible team member have ownership on how to deliver on the task.
- The people we interviewed shared a view that it is essential to create a safe environment for the members to participate fully. This means both an intellectual and emotional safe space -a place where differences of opinion are respected, even if they are not agreed with. Constructive criticism is OK, but personal attacks are not. Remember, people like to stick to their disciplines. There is a fear of being criticized. There is also a strong culture of hierarchy in some organizations (e.g whatever the highest ranking member of the team says is true). There is also sometimes a culture of protectionism (it’s my knowledge, I did the research, I own it). Set ground rules everyone can agree on early on in the process or develop a team charter that defines how members will interact.
The needs identified above are not exhaustive. They are the top 5 needs that we identified from the information we collected from our interviews. Participants may have other needs that must be met depending on the circumstances. Nor does meeting these needs guarantee involvement in an initiative. These are basic, minimum needs that interviewees told us must be met in order for a potential participant to consider becoming involved in a collaborative initiative. Without having met these basic needs it is unlikely that someone will become involved in an initiative. They are a necessary pre-condition for involvement, but do not guarantee involvement.
As a leader, or someone trying to encourage participation in a team it is important that you think about the needs of the participants. Put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving your request. What is their context? Why would they want to participate? You must align what you want as leader with the participants’ interests, time and needs.
In addition, our interviewees spoke about the importance of developing relationships with team members. Team building is the key to a successful team. Fostering strong relationships is crucial to ensuring strong commitment to actions. Our interviewees suggested spending time one-on-one with team members, even if it’s only a few minutes. Get to know little things about the members and remember those things for the next conversation. A little personal interest goes a long way.
Finally, stay focused on action. Remember, action is the end goal, not just talking.
Speaking of action, I invite you to share your experience leading or participating in a team. Do the needs identified here resonate with you?