Communication How To... Teams

What motivates team members and how should teams deal with a problematic team member?

Image copyright Troy B Thompson

When teams are struggling with team cohesion we are often asked these two questions.   The two questions are intrinsically linked and if you fix one, you may very likely fix the other.

First up let’s deal with the first question.

What motivates team members?

When we asked some of our own team at Adaptovate about this, the answers were, not surprisingly, similar.   It comes down to one simple idea.


1. Happy teams and team cohesion.

Shivani Santhakumar is one of our senior consultants, and is currently working in our Melbourne office of Adaptovate.   She believes that it’s essential to spend more time trying to understand the teams and what motivates them.   Finding out “what their needs are and expectations are of the workplace.  Shivani believes “Often people’s problems occur because we don’t take the time to understand one another” .

2.  Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

When asked about motivation, Mark Barber, our lead consultant in Melbourne,  says “I have a heavy bias toward Dan Pink’s work in “Drive”, in which he breaks down the three common things that intrinsically motivate people – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Mark says as a coach he often observes teams and leadership through these three lenses:

  1. Are people empowered to figure out how to solve problems themselves, or are solutions given to them to simply implement?
  2. Are people given time and space to learn, to get better at their craft, or is this seen as a cost to be avoided?
  3. Can people connect to the WHY their work exists and the purpose and vision of the organisation, or are they just doing work in a vacuum?

“There has been a lot of research that shows that motivated and engaged people perform better but I think management in general is still catching up with what truly motivates.

Carrot-and-stick approaches such as short term incentives, ping pong tables and free snacks have, somewhat surprisingly for some, very little impact on motivation and engagement.” Mark says.  In other words:  Teams want meaning

At the working level, motivation can be very simple. Team members want to work on something that has meaning, and to be engaged.


  • Meaning could be how the product or service contributes to a greater goal (generate revenue or helping others).
  • Engagement could be the level of fun working with other team members, or how often the team engages in activity outside of work.

We need to dig deeper and connect with what truly drives us.

Now unpacking the second question becomes more obvious.

How should teams deal with a problematic team member?

The consistent response from our own team when we asked them this was simple :


“Dealing with a problematic team member is a very complex topic” Mark points out. “problematic to whom? Problematic in which way?”

In general though, the question that should be asked  “is this person getting their needs met? And if not, why?”

People rarely go out of their way to be problematic but those who have unmet needs often come across as “not a team player.”

For example, some folks have a need for more certainty than we can provide, or have a need for more positive reinforcement than the team is used to.   Mark suggests two ways approach this:

  1. Explore these needs in a safe environment (this may require intervention if safety does not exist)
  2. determine how willing and able the team is to meet these needs.

Andy Koh, a consultant in Singapore agrees “A problematic team member is usually problematic for a reason.

Starting from “why” is a good way of showing empathy towards the team member.

It could be that he or she has a personal matter affecting work, or he or she is feeling lost about career progression. Once the “real” reason is found, possible actions can be discussed.”

Team Maturity

Finally, how teams deal with a problematic team member will indicate to management the measure of team maturity.

Slawek Koziol, a senior consultant from our Polish office says  “A mature and confident team will recognize, acknowledge and address the problem. They will refer back to their shared values and goals and have an open and honest discussion with the problematic team member, allowing different perspectives and points of view.

If no solution is found that will not involve compromising the team values and goals the team will know how to escalate.

Ability to deal with problems is one of the key characteristics of a healthy team” Slawek says.

So, remember this the next time you are working in an environment with a client.  Where the teams appear to lack motivation.  Ensure they all understand and are happy with the MEANING of why they are there.   The team needs to spend time with each other to explore that simple question and ensure they are all on the same page.

If there is one team member out of step,  be careful to understand why, before jumping to conclusions.   Once the team has the ‘why’,  the solution won’t be far behind.

Editor’s List of recommendations from this blog:

  • Here’s a link to purchase Mark Barber’s recommendation Drive by Dan Pink

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