Making the case for Motivation

In an industry that depends on a seamless journey of trades from project beginning to project end, having workers with a drive to accomplish tasks and hit goals is critical. Many believe that motivation is something someone has or doesn’t.

This is partly true.

When a person is genuinely interested in the work, motivation shows up with the person. If a person is not genuinely interested in the work, finding motivation can be challenging, but not impossible.

A leader’s job is not to instill motivation where it doesn’t exist, rather it is to shape a culture that sustains those already motivated and engages those who appear not to be.


Lack of motivation in individuals, or whole teams, leads to difficulties in collaboration, communication and general overall climate on the job site. Unproductive behaviors begin spreading like a cancer. Workloads are spread unevenly as those that are deemed “unmotivated” are assigned busy work to keep them out of trouble. Silos emerge in which everyone is focused only on their part rather than the success of the project as a whole. Quality, efficiency and productivity suffer.

“A project is only as strong as its weakest link. This is a chemistry-oriented business and that chemistry determines morale,” states Mark Rood, Project Superintendent with Adolfson & Peterson.

Individuals and teams displaying high motivation paint a different picture. Workers land responsibilities that align with their skills and interests. Crew members are invested in the overall success of the project. Teams show up not only on time, but with the physical and mental attitude ready to work. The team perseveres through the bad and good.

Crew members take initiative and proactively stay ahead of potential obstacles. Many are willing to take on new tasks and challenges, solving problems effectively as they arise. Quality of work goes up as workers master skills and increase their capacity. A friendly rivalry emerges where morale is high and deadlines are met. As workers have opportunity to reach their full potential, the project leadership pipeline is fueled with competent leaders ready to fill vacancies. All of this feeds into the bottom line.


Before outlining a course of action, it’s important to distinguish the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic motivators involve external factors pushing one to do something in hopes of earning a reward—or avoiding a less-than- positive outcome. Paychecks, bonuses, awards, public recognition and keeping a job all serve to keep the wheels turning.

Intrinsic motivators come from internal desires to do something for its own sake. For instance, working with one’s hands, pride in craftsmanship, and learning a new skill all serve to push individuals forward.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, discovered that each has its own impact. When seeking long term results, intrinsic motivation is most effective. When going after short term goals, extrinsic motivators are more effective. Effective leaders and companies employ both to have the greatest benefit.

Using Extrinsic Motivators

Many companies offer various incentives for safety, meeting deadlines, recognition of skills, etc. Leaders need to make themselves aware of what’s available, communicate details to their team and then utilize them authentically.

Be aware of how individuals and teams prefer to be recognized for their accomplishments and make sure you match their preference. Some people who are introverted may prefer to be recognized privately, while those who are extroverted may respond to public recognition. When all else fails, ask them.

Another strategy involves creating specific goals within your own crew. Chris McChesney, Jim Huling and Sean Covey suggest establishing one specific measurable WIG (Wildly Important Goal) in their #1 Wall Street Journal Business Bestseller, The 4 Disciplines of Execution.

Find ways to visually represent the crew’s progress to these goals to create buy in. Using “now/that” rewards, those that come unexpectedly after hitting a milestone, keeps the momentum going.

“Now/That” rewards also keep motivation high with mostly routine tasks or tight deadlines. Daniel Pink’s research shows that using rewards such as; impromptu lunches (food is ALWAYS good), company “shag”, clothing, tools, etc. helps teams persevere when stress is high or tasks are less than exciting.

One example of such a reward comes from high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, with the Pioneer Crossing project. The 20,000 sq ft restaurant sat at 12,665 ft, making it North America’s highest elevation restaurant. The finished project was all timber construction with high end finishes. Mark Rood, Project Supervisor with Hyder Construction at the time, had quite the challenge. Restrictions around elk calving and the resort’s goal of opening at Christmas, gave the project a 5 ½ month timeline.

The project involved 9000 linear feet of sewer brought up from the bottom of the mountain, drilling a 65-foot-deep well, and building a water treatment plant with a 50,000-gallon storage tank. As November approached, Mark saw the amount of work that still needed to be completed. It would require crews working 7 days a week, with Thanksgiving being no exception.

He put out the incentive to the crew: full Thanksgiving dinner for all 48 employees and their families. All workers and families showed up Thanksgiving Day, and were greeted with a full banquet including steak, steamers and live Maine lobsters flown in for the occasion.

That $10,000 dinner, when put up against $20,000 a day in liquidated damage costs were the project not done on time, was minimal.

The project was completed on Christmas Eve.

Using Intrinsic Motivators

Intrinsic motivators are personal and connected to values. Leaders discover these by being curious about team members’ ambitions, goals, interests (both at and away from work), family situations, and backgrounds. Daniel Pink’s research revealed three areas to focus on when intrinsically motivating individuals: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy refers to having some freedom to govern oneself or control his/her own work. When workers have autonomy over task (what they do), time (when they do it), team (who they do it with) and technique (how they do it), research shows a boost in performance. It’s crucial that clear goals are understood and high expectations are established. If leaders can be honest about where they are over controlling things and make minor shifts, they will see opportunity.

For instance, rather than dictating scheduling, enlist subcontractors in the critical path with, “Tell me what this is going to take.” Already, investment with the project is created. Posing the question activates autonomy in individuals.

Mastery involves simply becoming better at something that matters. When a leader shifts his/her mindset to seeing themselves as a developer of talent rather than a manager of talent, they are creating a win-win situation.

“My goal is to prepare my workers to take my job,” Michael McNabb, Project Supervisor at Colarelli Construction shares, “The best thing I can do as a leader is teach.”

He recalls an eager apprentice from several years ago. “I had a small 900 sq ft school project that I handed over to him. We went over the initial plans and created a preliminary schedule and then I let him go.”

Michael saw the value in letting him learn from his mistakes.

He checked in frequently and when there was a mistake, Michael showed him how to fix it. He kept his expectations high and as he put it, “rode his ass”.

One day he arrived to find a whole brick wall, which happened to be a firewall, gone. Michael’s response was a condescending laugh and the question, “What the hell were you thinking?” followed by grabbing the plans and walking him through it, teaching him that you never give an answer off the back of your head, go to the drawings and support the answer. Michael recalls how the guy really hated him for a while.

Today, the young man is a project superintendent himself and is grateful for the experience. Michael has the satisfaction of knowing he is building people as well as buildings.

Purpose refers to our natural need to make a contribution and to be part of a cause greater and more enduring than ourselves. Many companies are recognizing the value of incorporating this “purpose motive”.

At Adolfson & Peterson, a part of bonuses is tied to employees’ community services. Employees are encouraged to set 3 nonwork related goals. One group in Colorado was interested in backcountry skiing. The company organized an avalanche safety course, which is vital to ensuring safety in this activity.

When leaders know what is important to employees at and outside of work, they can steer conversations and provide information to support those values. Many times, this is as simple as asking a question and taking a few minutes to genuinely listen to the answer.

For example, if a leader is aware a worker supports a local nonprofit and participated in a fund-raising event, simply asking how it went and how much money was raised makes a difference.

Going one step further, leaders can agree to support a fund-raising event and allow the worker passionate about the cause to organize what that might look like.

When looking at a project, leaders can look beyond the material tasks for a deeper impact the final project will have.

  • Is a hospital being built?

  • What services will it provide?

  • How many lives will be impacted?

  • Is it a housing project?

  • Who will live there?

  • What innovative technologies are being used in the project to benefit the environment?

All these details can be communicated to teams for the bigger WHY of the project.

As leaders, we cannot control the amount of motivation an individual has when he/she shows up on the job. We do however have influence by tapping into proven motivational techniques.

Utilizing extrinsic motivators for short term wins and perseverance through routine tasks results in hitting deadlines. Intrinsic motivators that focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose create long lasting results: employee retention, quality performance, consistent results, high performers advancing and positive workplace culture.

Knowing your employees provides the foundation for tailoring motivation to best suit that person. As with all leadership growth, start with small behavior changes and watch for the results in your team and within yourself.

I'm Karen Palmer and I am a Talent Development Consultant focused on human dynamics in the workplace.  I specialize in developing leaders and optimizing team dynamics. With research proven assessments and reports, I create opportunities for improvement through self-awareness, understanding of others and intentional interaction. 

With over 30 years in learning and development, I am dedicated to helping individuals and teams tap into their potential, fostering cultures of fulfillment and purpose. My style is interactive and hands on.  I provide tools and a framework that invite self-reflection and critical thinking in a positive, non-judgmental space. If you are interested in improving your employees’ performance through strong leadership and cohesive teams, please contact me and let’s talk.

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