Posts Tagged psychology

From a group of individuals to a performing team: navigating the Tuckman’s model

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

 Henry Ford, US industrialist and pioneer of the assembly-line production method (1863-1947)


Tuckman’s generic model of group development (proposed in 1965) suggests that, for a team to grow from a group of individuals to a performing team, 4 stages are necessary and inevitable: forming, storming, norming and performing. An ultimate phase (added in 1977), adjourning, closes the team development cycle. Being able to identify the current maturity stage of your teams will help you to deploy the relevant approach and strategies to develop them to the next stage till they reach a maximal performance level.


Based on his research into the theory of group dynamics, Bruce Tuckman has proposed a model of group development that asserts that, for a team to grow, to handle and solve issues and to perform optimally, it will go through 4 stages called Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing. Following this last stage of high team maturity, it is very probable that the surrounding environment will bring new challenges requiring to transform the structure in place. The team development cycle will then be closed by an ultimate stage called Adjourning and a new cycle can start in order to build the new team that can tackle those changes.

Obviously, as a leader, it is your responsibility:

  • to understand in which stage your team operates,
  • to design the relevant strategies to develop your team till the Performing stage,
  • to follow-up on the execution of those strategies (including working on the necessary adjustments when and where required).

In the following paragraphs, you will find a description for each stage of the Tuckman’s model and, more importantly, a list of recommendations to help you manage your team within each stage. It is also strongly suggested to couple those recommendations with the use of the PDCA method in order to prevent from getting stuck at a given development stage, thanks to continuous incremental improvement efforts.

  1. Forming stage
    • Description:
      • In this first stage, the team is brought together. At that stage the team is more to be seen as a group of individuals than a real team.
      • Each individual will look at understanding his new environment (role, mission, challenges…) and will spend time getting to know his colleagues, avoiding conflict and building new relationships.
      • Because the relationship between each team members is usually not yet established at this stage (unless some employees were already working together previously), everybody will strive doing his best to achieve the tasks at hands in an independent manner.
    • Recommendations:
      • As a pre-requisite to the team constitution, the manager in charge of building the team must of course be clear on the goals for his team, the role it will play in the overall department mission and/or company strategy. In other words why is the team being built in a first place and what is it expected to achieve?
      • Then, the manager will have to be able to assess the progress of his newly-created team and identify how it performs against the objectives: this requires the definition of relevant metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) that will serve as a dashboard. The manager must keep in mind that KPIs are only a tool to measure the progress; it cannot replace himself as the “pilot” in charge of the team and KPIs cannot be considered as objectives as such but are only a measure of the success in accomplishing the mission.
      • In parallel to a clear mission statement and metrics, the manager must reflect on the values and attitudes that he wants to promote within the team (encompassing but not limited to the corporate values, if existing). Which behaviours will be supported in the team and what are the ones to be banned?
      • On top of the above points, developing a common culture within the team will also require the manager to think about the “language” to use (vocabulary specific to the team / job /product), as well as the supporting practices and structure required to achieve the goals.
      • Ideally, the recruitment of talents for the team should not start before the manager has a precise idea of the above points. Moreover, once the team is formed, establishing a Team Charter summarizing the above points and sharing it with the team members is a possible means to set initial expectations. Running frequent team meetings is also key to set the right direction from the beginning.
      • The Forming stage is also the phase when the manager should spend quality time with each team member to understand who they are, to identify what makes them ticking, to see how they react to various situations and how they start interacting with their colleagues, peers, customers, providers… Getting to know personally each team member will help design appropriate individual objectives and team goals. It will also be of a great support during the Storming phase to adjust the leadership styles depending on the employee.
      • A “leader control” leadership style is usually more appropriate for this discovery stage. It is though important to give space to employees to know each other and to voice their first concerns if any.
  2. Storming stage
    • Description:
      • In a second phase, once the team members have got accustomed to their new manager, colleagues and work, the popping challenges or issues faced by the team will bring competing ideas or views on how to tackle them. In other words, every team member will try to position himself in the team, sometimes creating conflicts or raising divergences on how to handle the various situations at stake (from interaction and team rules definition, to management style expectation or also methods and practices to use by the team).
      • Team members will confront their ideas and opinions, using the relationships they have built in the Forming phase. This confrontation can be painful, especially for conflict-averse people, and even destructive for the team if not handled carefully by the manager in charge.
      • In the same way, this phase may come as a large source of stress for the manager in charge.
      • If not properly handled by the manager, the team may never leave this stage…
    • Recommendations:
      • Although a “Leader control” leadership style is more appropriate in this phase in order to keep things under control, the manager should also encourage the exchange of ideas in a constructive manner, arbitrating objectively each situation and focusing on what is required to be achieved by the team. Prohibited behaviours as defined in the Forming phase must be quickly reprimanded if surging.
      • Respect of the diversity in opinions and tolerance between team members is what will help the manager to get the best suggestions on the way to move forward while supporting the creation of the necessary bound within the team. For that purpose, the manager should focus on creating relevant team objectives that will foster collaboration (goals that require the unique knowledge and expertise of each single team members to be achieved), identifying possible quick wins.
      • In the same way, progress on the individuals objectives should be closely followed up through one-on-one meetings and goals should be adjusted to support both the employee’s personal development and the team’s one.
      • As an example, having the individual team members working as a team on the revision of the Team Charter to improve it based on the first observations is an activity that can help fostering a greater team spirit when well-controlled by the manager. A consultative decision-making style works the best for this type of team member synchronization exercise.
  3. Norming stage
    • Description:
      • If well handled, the result of a constructive Storming phase should naturally bring the team to a state where each team member is clear on their accountabilities, working methods, and way of interacting with each other.
      • The culture of the team has normally been embodied and the team members as well as their managers are fully synchronized, working in the same direction and focusing on delivering on the team objectives.
    • Recommendations:
      • At that stage, the manager of the team should put some more efforts on developing further every single employee through personalized plan.
      • Because the team is more mature, the manager can adopt an “employee control” leadership style, giving more space for the employees to improve the team further by themselves. For that purpose, the decision-making process within the team can progressively move toward a majority vote or consensus approach for organization-related matters.
      • Nonetheless, because the team is perfectly synchronized, the risk is to see the development of an over-consensus attitude aiming at keeping harmony at any price. Therefore, in this phase, the manager must still stimulate healthy debates and exchange of opinions (even if divergent) so that action plans to develop the team further can be created. Without that, the Performing stage may never be reached. Similarly too much uncertainty or poorly controlled conflicts during the Norming phase (for example due to high pressure conditions) may bring the team back in Storming…
  4. Performing stage
    • Description:
      • The team has reached the ultimate stage of maturity (actually very few teams will reach that stage); it can run independently with minimum supervision or input from the manager. Team members are fully competent and know perfectly how to handle routine; they can also tackle unexpected situations falling in the scope of the team responsibility.
      • As an image of a performing team, let’s get a refresh of what is a professional team handling a pit stop in Formula 1.
    • Recommendations:
      • The last duty for the manager in charge of the team will be to prepare for the future… If he is promoted thanks to his success in developing the team up to its highest maturity stage, it is then his responsibility to find the best successor and help the transition. If he stays as the head of the team, he needs to anticipate what may come and disrupt the current equilibrium (new technology, new mission, new product, new business landscape, new management…)
      • In both cases (a new manager or a disruptive context), the team will go through its last stage, adjourning, because the new conditions or environment will call for a revised structure starting again a new team development cycle at the Forming stage…


  • exercise 1: Look at the various teams and departments within your company; in which stage of the Tuckman’s model are they now?
  • exercise 2: When you had started in your current role, in which development stage of the Tuckman’s model was your team operating? In which phase is it now? Which actions have you taken to navigate the team from one stage to the other?
  • exercise 3: Considering your current team, which further actions can you take to lead them to the Performing stage? In case your team has already reached the Performing stage, how are you preparing the future?

So What?

By considering the Tuckman’s model that divides the team development cycle in 5 stages: Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing – Adjourning and by identifying in which stage his team operates, the manager in charge can better define the type of strategy that is required to develop his team up to the highest level of maturity, synonym of high performance. While being clear on the objectives, values and KPIs during the norming stage, the manager needs to set the foundation to handle the difficult storming phase. Adapting to each individuals, promoting tolerance and open, constructive exchange of opinions while showing the direction as a leader should then allow the manager to move his team from the storming stage to the norming one. Having then all team members working aligned with the team mission should not prevent the manager to set higher expectations and identify areas of improvement to reach the performing stage. All team members have obviously an active role to play in moving the team to this high maturity stage. Finally, because most businesses and organizations are by nature volatile, subject to external moving conditions as well as internal change factors, the team will very probably need adjustment; it will be adjourned letting place to the creation of a new structure that will start a new cycle at the forming stage…

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From dusk till dawn: why managers need a stress management survival kit.

“Mens sana in corpore sano”; often translated as “a sound mind in a sound body”

 Latin quotation derived from Satire X of the Roman poet Juvenal (late 1st and early 2nd century AD)


Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization. But how can we define stress? What are the differences from one person to the other and what are the possible impacts and consequences? In a management position, responsibilities increase, so does stress; what are the main stress factors for the managers and their teams in our today’s society and how can they cope? This post aims at providing some answers to the above questions, using results of various psychology studies as well as direct observations and lessons learned from the field.

Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Handling Stress in the Workplace



A simple, practical definition of stress

Among the many researches on stress, a usual reference is the work of Professor Lazarus in 1966 and beyond. In a nutshell, his study reveals that the stress generated by a given situation is simply equivalent to the evaluation of the situation by the individual himself. This evaluation, which is totally subjective, can be summarized by answering the two following questions:

  • Is this situation /event a problem or a threat?
  • Do I have enough resources to face it?

The higher the ratio between the answers to those two questions is, the more important the level of stress experienced by the individual is.

It has also been demonstrated that this double evaluation is influenced by three types of factors proper to each individual:

  1. psychological factors: certain personality types are more sensible to stress factors than others (for example, a person with an overall positive mindset may be less tempted to see a given situation as a problem)
  2. sociological factors: social conditions have been proven to be a factor influencing our reaction to stress (for instance, a single parent in charge of kids working part-time will very probably react differently to the same stress factors in her work environment compared to a just-graduated male colleague working full-time in the same company)
  3. biological factors: gender, age, health conditions (eg our evaluation of an event can be considerably affected by a lack of sleep)

For a practical illustration of this definition, go to the exercise 1 of  the “practice”  section of this post.

The impact and  consequence of stress in the workplace

Even if the stress can be seen as a stimulant boosting the individual performance in certain cases or can increase some of our cognitive capacities like memory when, among other conditions, it is timely synchronized with an emotionally charged event (Marian Joëls, 2006), all clinical surveys converge to say that, on the long-run, a lasting exposure to stress has damaging consequences on an employee. Those consequences can be classified in 4 categories (Poirot, 2004):

  1. psychological consequences: increased number of depressions, anxiety disorders and psychological distress cases
  2. behavioral consequences: increased aggressiveness, higher drug and alcohol consumption, higher tendency to social withdrawal, tendency to become disorganized and a decrease in decision-making, concentration and learning capacities
  3. physical consequences: increased back pain, higher risk of cardiovascular trouble, perturbation of the immune system and/or of the digestive system, tensed muscles, difficulties to sleep, appetite disorders, skin problems…
  4. organizational consequence in the workplace: lower commitment toward the company, decreased creativity in work activities, lower collaboration and solidarity toward co-workers, inferior vigilance when executing tasks, increase in the intention to leave the company and higher number of unexpected short-term leaves or sick leaves.

No need to comment further on the potential impacts to yourself and to your business when affected by one or several of the above consequences!

Stress factors in the workplace: how are the managers and their teams exposed?

Regardless of the work environment, it is to recognize that our modern society contributes to generate stress through the following factors (Lefebvre and Poirot, 2011):

  • disappearance of the large institutions that played a structuring role for the individual (like Church): everyone is free to invent its own life and has to invent its own life
  • obligation of performance pushed by the modern media (beauty, professional success…)
  • frequent mobility disrupting the family
  • time compression (real-time flow, zero-latency expectation…)
  • lower engagement toward sustainable long-term sharing relations (accelerated by the development of virtual reality and social media)

Derived from the above list (and in addition to it), it can be observed that managers and their teams often have to cope with the following stress factors within their companies:

  • a constant increase of the expectation in terms of business performance: “always do more with less”, which can translate in an exhausting over-investment of the manager, potentially leading to burn out (long hours and excessive overtime preventing to step back and appreciate new perspectives, frequent business trips and near-24/7 availability through smartphone leading to mental and physical fatigue, daily priority switching and impossibility to take vacations in order to reach objectives generating a decrease in terms of creativity and a loss of motivation…)
  • a management paradox: field managers are requested to manage better (by taking the necessary time to coach and grow their teams through relevant meetings and one-on-one sessions, conduct and document the annual -and intermediate- performance reviews, support talent management programs, follow performance improvement plan for weaker employees through regular checkpoints, define SMARTER objectives and ensure the feedback sessions…) while facing an increasing pressure in getting operational results being delivered at lower cost and in always shorter delays. In other words, managers are under a constant pressure to arbitrate between a short-term result and a long-term human investment, between growing their teams or doing themselves in order to answer faster changing priorities or new urgencies…
  • a pressure of being the reference: as a natural part of their role, managers are expected to represent the company values and model the related positive behaviors. Under constant scrutiny from their own boss, peers and teams, this can turn into an important stress factor for new managers who fear to fail or who lack self-confidence and who often only receive little support or guidance in their new role to help them becoming this expected reference.
  • a loneliness paradox: at the same time that, by definition, managers have to interact with many counterparts other than their direct teams (other teams and their leaders, other departments through transversal exercises, shared services…), they are often left on their own to learn how to do so in an efficient manner. Moreover, in certain companies, field managers can also feel a strong disconnect from an upper senior management that takes strategic decisions (new services offer, product decommission, organization revamp, integration activities following m&a…) but that provides almost no support for the operational execution of these decisions. It is then completely up to those first line managers to identify the best way to transform the new company missions into a tangible result… and to convince their teams!
  • an autonomy paradox: more and more, managers are required by their own managers to demonstrate real intrapreneurship abilities and are often expected to run autonomously the show while, at the same time, the control of their actions, performance and outcomes are getting tighter… (“You are autonomous but I control you”)

Obviously list is not exhaustive and many other stress factors generated by both our modern way of living and by the corporations we work for could for sure be added…

How to detect you are running off-limits? How to cope?

When suddenly placed under stressful conditions, our body will react to regulate the stress and come back to its natural balance following a principle called homeostasis. If we refer to our ancestors back to prehistorical times, when facing an immediate danger like a wild animal or other predators, the only way to react in order to reduce the stress was either to escape or to fight. In either cases, muscles needed to be ready by getting the necessary glucose and oxygen transported by the blood; this still explains for example why, when put under stress, one feels his heart accelerating, blood pressure increases, muscles get tensed… Although the stress factors have obviously changed through the ages (I tend to believe that there are no more wild animals in our modern cities or at our workplace; this is though arguable!), our reactions have inherited from those two ancient behaviors and stress specialists now classifies coping behaviors under the two following categories:

  1. the adaptive avoidance coping behavior: one faces stress by trying to reduce the emotions generated by a stressful situation. (In its extreme form, especially in case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome, this can lead to social withdrawn or denial as maladaptive coping technique)
  2. the constructive problem-solving behavior: one tries to eradicate stress factors to avoid facing stress

Unless the situation is totally uncontrollable (9.11 in the US, 3.11 for Japan…), stress specialists agree to say that constructive problem-solving techniques will give the best results because the individual acts directly to take control over the stress factors which logically brings a feeling of control, key to a good psychological balance.

In more practical terms, let’s have a look to some proven coping techniques. Those techniques can easily be distributed in one of the above two categories.

  • know yourself:
    • listen to your body and read the warning signals that it may be sending: have you recently experienced difficulties to sleep, started to smoke (again), put on weight, had compulsive needs for junk food or alcohol, experienced headaches or shoulder/back pain? Analyze the conditions under which those symptoms have occurred and identify whether these are linked to specific situations or stress factors,
    • work out your Emotional Intelligence (EI) muscle! The emotional intelligence is frequently defined as the ability to identify, understand, control and use the emotions of oneself or others. The psychologist Goleman (1998) classifies the emotional intelligence under 4 categories: the self-awareness (ability to identify and understand one’s own emotions), the self-management (ability to control and adjust one’s own emotions in an appropriate manner), the social awareness (ability to feel, understand and react to other’s emotions, to be empathic, to achieve social integration) and the relationship management (ability to inspire, influence, grow the others as well as the ability to create links, manage conflicts and foster collaboration). In your personal case, use your self-awareness to identify when and why you get angry, upset, aggressive, depressive, sad… Can you figure out what has triggered those negative emotions? How can you use those constructively or turn them positively?
    • once you know how to read the symptoms telling you that you get over-stressed, it becomes easier to prevent running off-limits and risk a burn-out. Common techniques to use when those symptoms occur include relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, mental visualization of positive images or any other well-being methods that you find appropriate. Taking a regular guilt-free rest to explore new hobbies, to spend time with your friends and families, to play, to sleep and to do regular physical exercise is also a very efficient way of releasing stress.
    • socialize: under difficult, stressful conditions, it is key to avoid isolation and look for social support from friends, family, colleagues or even specialists if required.
  • know your limits:
    •  obviously, you can only know your limits once you’ve reached or exceeded those… The self-observation methods mentioned above will hopefully help you to know when you’ve reached the breaking point without going too far. You can also try to answer to questions about things you cannot do any more or that you do not want to do any more and why.
    • distance yourself from your success and failures and analyze them to avoid falling into hubris. Many companies have seen modern Icarus burnt by success… (In Greek mythology, Icarus attempts to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned.  – source Wikipedia -)
    • once you know your limits, learn how to say “no”! When you know that you are requested to perform activities that will put you (and consequently your teams and organization) at risk, first learn to say “no” to yourself then learn to say “no” to the others, explaining the reason and always proposing alternative solutions. A good manager should always appreciate your honesty and ability to share about your own limits… Obviously, model the same behavior with your teams! Saying “no” and pointing your limits while proposing alternative solutions will also be a precious help for yourself and for your manager to identify the necessary resources and means to support your future growth.
  • manage the boss in your head:
    • in a performance-driven society, managers are requested to set their targets to reach excellence. If this is indeed an healthy direction for an organization (nobody can disapprove setting excellence as a target), this can translate though at a personal level, especially for junior managers, into setting one’s own internal expectations to a too high level.
    • therefore, it is important to regularly revisit your own beliefs and reset your internal expectations to the right level. Each time you tell to yourself “I have to…”, “I must…”, “I’m for sure expected to…”, take a few minutes to assess the reality and rational behind those internal thoughts. Learn how to manage the boss in your head that tells you to be perfect; nobody is perfect and a manager is neither a robot nor a super-hero!
    • Think positive: when put on a new assignment or a difficult task, take it as an opportunity to learn. Identify the risks and areas where you may need support; provide your best effort and once over run the lessons learned (be it a success or  a failure). Recognize and celebrate your own success to support your self-esteem. In case of failure, be fair about the causes and figure out what you could have done differently for next time.
  • plan and prepare:
    • recent psychology studies (eg studies from Psychology Professor Epstein) have revealed that planning and preparing your day, week, months… and anticipating the potential stress factors remains the most efficient means to fight stress.
    • plan your day (you can use modern time management tools to support this practice) blocking slots for your free-time and slots allowing you to step back, plan your holidays (holidays are to be considered as an healthy organization sustainability check exercise by managers: can the team run without their manager during 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 quarter? The answer to this question will give you an indication of the maturity and sustainability level of your organization) and make long-term projects for your life! Planning will also help you to ensure that you keep a fair work-life balance.
    • spend time to prepare thoroughly any specific high-stress event (a difficult client meeting, a job interview, a public presentation); this will increase the level of control and self-confidence and will consequently reduce the level of stress and anxiety.
    • make sure to reduce distraction and attention catchers (mail, smartphone…) when focusing on important activities in order to make the best use of your time and to achieve higher quality outputs. As a simple recommendation, you should plan some attention-catcher-free times in your day to reduce the unhealthy real-time dependency over-consuming cognitive resources. Doing so is another exercise to confirm that your organization or team can run without you being available, an indicator of sustainability. If this is not the case, think of what you would need to put in place to decrease the dependency of your organization on yourself.

Any lessons learned from the field?

Looking up, down , left and right, the best managers I’ve known in terms of stress management are the ones who:

  • cope with their own stress factors, making sure that they keep enough resources to step back regularly in order to define the long-term action plan for their teams, taking time to share transparently the company vision and strategy despite business urgencies or other pressure from upper management,
  • use their EI social awareness to understand each of their team members and their potential stress factors in order to use them for better output; “Know when one staff is stretched and motivated for it” versus “know when one staff is stressed to his limit”. This includes the ability to filter the upper management pressure and pass only the necessary pressure to own staff,
  • spot the stress-generator toxic behaviors such as excessive focused criticism, discrimination, information retaining, physical or mental harassment, on-purpose staff isolation… towards and within their teams and act on them,
  • know when to be tough and when to reward outputs of their team members (be it through specific celebration, personal management recognition acts or financial compensation)
  • openly discuss about stress with their staffs, recognize that humans are humans after all, ie prone to errors, mistakes, fatigue… and not robots or super-heroes (including themselves), work on identifying stress factors at work with their teams and share around possible coping techniques,
  • engage with senior management and partner actively with the Human Resources teams to define and deploy strategies such as tele-commuting, flex work… that will help creating a positive work environment and reducing unnecessary stress.


  • exercise 1 – Stress; a subjective perception: imagine that your morning train is running late… Consequently, you expect to be in the office 35 minutes late; this will make you 5 minutes late for your first meeting of the day. This meeting is a project review with one of your key customer.
    •  Case 1: You are a young successful engineer with PMI certificates who has been handling this type of projects for the past 3 years within the company. Your managers completely relies on you and so far you have always been able to deliver on your promises; you appreciate that you have been largely rewarded by your management for your past performances. Your success even brought some of famous recruiters to propose you some other opportunities at customers and competitors. The day prior to the meeting, you had a complete review with the full project team and had a specific briefing with your senior staff member backing you up on that project. You have checked and confirmed that all materials are accurate and ready to share. You also know that your back-up is already at the office.
  1. Is this situation a problem or a threat? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being a situation not seen as a problem, 5 being a high-level threat
  2. Do I have enough resources to face it? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being  a perceived completely uncontrolled situation, 5 being a case where your experience, the context will allow you to control the situation peacefully
    • Case 2: You are a single parent with  a kid. You have just moved from a Service Desk role to a Project Management role in this new company and are still in probation period. You are running your first project with this key customer. Your manager made it clear that the success of this project was one of the criterion to pass the probation period. You had to leave the company earlier on the day before the meeting because your kid went sick and therefore you could not run the project review with the project members. Unfortunately, you had to wake up at several occasions during the night to calm down your kid running high fever.
  1. Is this situation a problem or a threat? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being a situation not seen as a problem, 5 being a high-level threat
  2. Do I have enough resources to face it? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being  a perceived completely uncontrolled situation, 5 being a case where your experience, the context will allow you to control the situation peacefully
    • Conclusion: for both case 1 and case 2, divide the result of the answer to question 1 by the result of the answer to question 2. What is the ratio? Link the result to the stress definition presented at the beginning of this post, what can you conclude? Obviously those 2 cases are extreme, feel free to explore mixed situations based on the above parameters… Also run the same exercise for some of your personal cases
  • exercise 2 – know yourself: in a first step, answer the below self-assessment questions without prior thinking or specific reflexion. Then come back on each of the answers and analyze them. What can you learn about yourself?
    • In my work today, what gives me the most pleasure is …
    • In the past 12 months, the best and the worst periods of my work life have been …
    • What are the things that I do but that I don’t like in my job today?
    • What would trigger me changing my job?
    • What am I ready to sacrifice for my job? What am I ready not to sacrifice to my job?
    • In the past 12 months, I already had the feeling that I could no longer cope with my role and responsibilities; true or false?
    • I have the feeling of under-performing where in fact my manager is satisfied with my performance; true or false?
    • I have already said “no” when what I was requested to do was exceeding my physical/mental capacities; true or false?
    • In the past quarter, I have seen myself very aggressive with colleagues or family in several occasions; true or false?
    • I have had some unusual headaches and back pain in the past quarter; true or false?
    • recently I have increased my consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, drugs; true or false?
    • The things that upset me the most at work are …
    • I’m the least comfortable at work when …
  • exercise 3 – the manager as a reliable stress management advisor for their teams: The below questions aim at helping you identifying the type of support you provide to your teams in eradicating the unnecessary stress factors. Answer them. What can you conclude? Are there any actions that you could take to make the situation even better?
    • I know each one of my team members and what causes stress and anxiety for them; true or false?
    • I spend time to share regularly the company and teams missions, the progress and the lessons learned from the recent experiences with my teams; true or false?
    • All my direct reports have clear objectives that I reevaluate regularly with them; true or false?
    • I support my team members when they request for holidays and even encourage everybody in my team to take vacations on a regular basis?
    • I know when and how to challenge my team to get a greater outcome but I also know when to reduce the pressure?
    • I celebrate the success of the teams and support my teams in running lessons learned for both success and failures; true or false?
    • I know all the possible work facilities proposed by my company (flex time, tele-commuting, part-time…) and advertise them regularly to my teams?
    • I have a forum in place where my teams can exchange about their difficulties and find constructive ways to overcome them
    • I recognize when I have done a mistake in front of my teams?
    • I have frequent discussions with my team members in order to figure out what they like or not in my way of managing; true or false?
    • If I identify that the objectives provided by the upper management are too much of a stretch for my department, I raise the point and propose various approaches to answer the problem?

So What?

Looking around us, it is common sense to admit that an overdose of stress and pressure always end up in negative results for the person affected, be it at a physical level or at a mental one. Unfortunately, sources of stress have increased in our modern societies (pressure of the performance and perfection, real-time environment, loss of references…). If the sensibility to those stress factors varies from one individual to the other, there are nevertheless common practices to cope with it: a good work-life balance and a healthy life style associated to regular free-time spent on social activities with family, friends or colleagues usually helps to reduce the sensation and consequences of stress. Besides, being able to identify one’s own sensibility to various stress factors and recognizing one’s own limits through self-observation appears as a key exercise in order to take control over the sources of stress. This is even truer when one anticipates the stress and prepare for it; taking control over the source of stress and reducing them through proper planning and preparation remains the best way to avoid stress! As a manager, it is obviously your responsibility to be aware of your conditions and to make sure that you do not run off-limits, while, at the same time, you also have a role to play in educating and supporting your teams in coping with their negative stress factors as well.

Last Revision: 2015 March 28

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What keeps you running? About motivation at work.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.”

 Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist and theologian (1623-1662)


Every manager knows it: nothing extraordinary will happen in their teams without their members being clearly motivated. Reviewing the results of the recent researches in psychology and peeping at some of the classical theories that aim at defining what motivation is about will potentially help you clarify your own drivers as well as identify the inner motivations of each one of your team members. It will then be up to you, as a manager, to design your team objectives and to model behaviors that will keep everyone’s motivation as high as possible, setting the team for a long-lasting success through increased performance and commitment.


Why talking about “motivation”?

Individual and collective performance is commonly described as a function of the 4 following variables:

  1. competencies, skills and knowledge of the team members
  2. organization’s quality (including among others: a common vision, inspiring leaders, a corporate culture, clear objectives…)
  3. ability for the staff to work as a team
  4.  employee’s motivation

It is therefore key to understand what “motivation” is about in order to define strategies aimed at increasing the overall performance of your teams.

What is “motivation”?

In the past decades, abundant psychology researches on “motivation” and more specifically on “motivation at work” have led to a large number of theories. Below is a short presentation of 4 interesting theories.

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954):

Maslow’s model classifies human needs in 5 categories hierarchized from the most fundamental levels of needs to the most complex ones as follow: physiological needs (food, sleep…), safety needs (security of body, resources, health…), love and belonging (be accepted, loved, listened by the others, friendship, family…), esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect by others…) and self-actualization (desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming).

According to Maslow, once one has satisfied one level of needs, starting from the most fundamental ones (bottom of the below pyramid), one may look at satisfying the following level.

Maslow acknowledges though that different level of motivation aimed at satisfying different level of needs may be going at once for a given individual, with the domination of a certain need; this has obviously contributed to open the theory to criticism around the idea of hierarchizing the human needs in a defined classification.

  • The Two-Factor Theory of job satisfaction from Herzberg (1959):

The two-factor theory from Herzberg (also known as Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory or Dual-Factor theory) simply states that, in the workplace, there are two sets of elements, one being responsible for the job satisfaction whereas the other one causes job dissatisfaction.

According to Herzberg, the hygiene factors (also known as extrinsic factors) such as salary/wages, work conditions, company policy, relationship with peers and boss can lead to dissatisfaction if absent or insufficient but are not a condition to create motivation. On the other hand, the motivators also called intrinsic factors, that include among others recognition, growth, responsibilities, achievement, lead to positive job satisfaction and motivation.

  • Vroom’s expectancy theory (1964):

In simple terms, Vroom suggests in his expectancy theory that the motivation to act on something is based on the analysis of the 3 following parameters:

  1. the estimation of the probability of success (or performance level) for a given effort
  2. the probability of being rewarded for the provided effort
  3. the perceived value of realizing the objective for the individual.
  • The Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) from Deci (1975):

The result of a large number of psychology researches in various countries has clearly shown that motivation cannot be reduced to extrinsic reinforcement, ie to the act of reinforcing behaviors by rewards / punishment (the famous carrots and sticks). More importantly, it has also revealed that what is called intrinsic motivation leads to a superior job satisfaction and performance.

The Cognitive Evaluation Theory from Deci highlights that intrinsic motivation results from two fundamental human needs: the need to define one’s activities autonomously, ie the self-determination of activities, and the need to feel competent and to increase one’s competencies while executing those activities (note here that Deci refers to a subjectively perceived competency).

As mentioned, the intrinsic motivation generates a much higher job satisfaction but it can be hindered by material rewards, by punishment threat or also when people feel exaggeratedly monitored, controlled or evaluated. Under the influence of those external factors, the activities are no longer performed for the pleasure that they deliver but for the advantages that are expected in return (or to avoid punishment). As a matter of fact, Deci and Ryan (2000) explain that those hindering factors contribute to a feeling of imposed behavior, reducing thus the feeling of self-determination.

As a conclusion to the psychology of motivation, the journalist Daniel Pink summarizes in his 2009 book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” what motivation is about by the following sentence: “Carrots & Sticks are so last Century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

More concretely, how to work on staff “motivation” on the field?

Through empiric observations of your staff, no doubt that you will easily reach the conclusion that inner driving forces differ from one individual to the other. Everybody is unique: different staff, different motivations. Besides, one’s own motivation may also vary based on the environment, experiences, personal growth and other modification of the context. What one needs today may not be what one’s need tomorrow; what one is motivated for today may not be what creates excitement and pleasure tomorrow…

Obviously, your best staff will be the self-motivated ones where there is a perfect alignment between their personal motivations and your company’s objectives. In other words, in this ideal case, the individual purpose and related motivation of your employee matches and serves spontaneously the company’s objectives and in return the self-determined work activities naturally deliver entire satisfaction to the staff, allowing them to increase their competencies and fulfilling their personal objectives. As a manager, you then have the important duty to cherish this precious aligned self-motivated staff and to find ways not to get them demotivated… In reality though, rare are the teams composed exclusively by aligned self-motivated staff; you then have the difficult responsibility to bring everyone at the highest level of motivation possible in order to ensure superior performance.

It becomes then clear that your first step, as a manager, is to spend time with each one of your direct reports, individually, in order to understand what motivates them and equally important what frustrates them in their current assignment. By starting with simple questions and smoothly deepening the answers, try to capture what makes your staff excited, passionate about their jobs, identify which activities generate the biggest pleasure for them. Also be cautious enough to differentiate the components at the origin of an absolute motivation (what makes that your staff will look for another job tomorrow or not) from the ones related to a relative, punctual motivation (what makes a given task or a certain activity attracting and motivating or not in an overall context). You may re-assess those motivation parameters on a regular basis to help you to sort out the absolute ones from the punctual context-specific ones.

As a second step (and more especially in case you could not get a clear understanding of your staff inner driving forces following your discussion), simply observe the behavior of your team: how does a given employee react on his various assignments? Which topics seem to be generating the most excitement for him? Under which circumstances does he take spontaneously the lead or the responsibility? What type of discussions within the team trigger conflicts or even aggressive reactions? Which comments do you get when running the objective assessment interview? What are the questions from your staff when you communicate a policy change (introduction of flexible work, contract adjustment…) or when you share the details of bonuses or salary increase?

Thanks to those 2 steps, you should soon be able to figure out the combination of parameters (and their respective weight) composing the motivation of your staff. It becomes then easier, in a third step, to define the best approaches to decrease a growing job dissatisfaction or to increase your staff motivation. For example, depending on what you have identified as key motivation parameters, you can think of offering new growth opportunities, extended responsibilities, specific financial rewards, coaching session, training… It is equally important to detect factors being a source of frustration or disengagement at work such as difficult interaction with colleagues, excessive pressure, unchallenging tasks, and to act on those hurdles, removing them from the way of your staff commitment and success.

Be creative! Motivating each one of your single staff and/or keeping them motivated is definitely worth your time investment and effort. It will contribute to generate a positive dynamic work environment that will ultimately translate into a greater team outcome and performance.


  • exercise – motivation self-assessment: Answer spontaneously the following questions. Once finished, review your answers; what does it tell you about your values and interests? What can you deduct regarding your motivation?
  1. Which assignment in my current job gives me the most satisfaction?
  2. In the past 6 months, which initiatives have I spontaneously taken at work, without being solicited by my hierarchy?
  3. When interacting with peers or when discussing about my job, which topics do I really get excited about / on what type of topics do I really become defensive or look personally attacked?
  4. What type of work / activities should I avoid?
  5. If I had one factor that would trigger me changing my job from one day to the other, which one would that be?
  • exercise – motivation questionnaire: Rank from 1 to 5 the below elements based on the importance you attribute them (1 = not important at all, 5 = very important)
  1. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – salary, wages and other benefits
  2. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – work/life balance
  3. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]recognition
  4. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – autonomy
  5. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]status and title
  6. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]opportunities for growth and learning, challenges
  7. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]power, responsibilities and decision-making
  8. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]competence and expertise
  9. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – culture, affiliation and relationship with colleagues
  10. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]work environment
  • exercise – assessing your staff motivation: When initiating a discussion with your staff to identify its motivation, try to get answers to the below questions.
  1. What makes you tick and what makes you frustrated in your current role and work environment?
  2. What gives you the most pleasure in your today’s job?
  3. Which personal short-term and long-term work objectives would you set (or have you set) for yourself?
  4. What type of support would you need to improve your performance further?
  5. Which activities or tasks that you are not involved with today would you like to be part of?

So What?

Because motivation appears as a key parameter to performance, many psychology researches have tried to capture what defines employee’s motivation in the workplace. The most recent studies shows that an employee commitment and performance is much more solid when the motivation is based on intrinsic parameters such as the ability to autonomously define its own activities and the perception of competency; this is especially true when those factors are coupled with an alignment of the company’s missions with the individual objectives, bringing thus a clear overall purpose for the employee. In parallel, it has also been demonstrated that extrinsic motivation answering to a logic of reward/punishment delivers much lower result and commitment. It even impacts negatively the intrinsically motivated staff under certain conditions. External rewards though can help answering a growing job dissatisfaction, which is to be clearly differentiated from generating motivation (decreasing a growing job dissatisfaction is not similar to increasing motivation).

Assessing what keeps your staff coming at work every day and what will make them driving the extra-mile for the company and themselves should consequently be one of the focus of every manager. Before defining any motivation strategy for your team members, it is strongly recommended to engage in individual discovery discussions and to simply observe behaviors and reactions of your staff under various situations and contexts; this will help you in identifying what generates motivation or dissatisfaction for them. It becomes then easier to act on those factors and create a high-motivation environment leading to long-term commitment and performance.

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