Building High-Performing, Motivated Teams by Pinterest Product Leader

In this blog post, Pinterest Product Leader Varun Bansal, talks about why PMs should care about building high-performing and motivated teams. He also breaks down “motivation” and covers three concrete tactics that can be implemented to boost motivation on teams. 

Meet Varun 

Varun Bansal is a Product Manager at Pinterest. Prior to his current role, he was a Product Manager at Grovo. In addition, Varun was a Business Analyst at McKinsey & Company. He graduated from Harvard University with an AB in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science.  

Why PMs Should Care

1. A motivated team is a better team. 

It should be pretty obvious that a motivated team is a better team, but it’s worth saying it nonetheless. When I say better, I mean better in every sense of the word., A motivated team has higher performance, higher retention, better product quality, just everything they do is better. And a way to think about it is to compare three teams. 

So let’s imagine a scenario where there’s a low motivation team, a medium motivation team, and a high motivation team and all three are sprinting towards a huge product launch. One day, the PM on the low motivation team goes to their team and says “Hey, we forgot to build this thing for the launch. Can we get it in?” On the low motivation team, the team will come back and say “No, sorry. It wasn’t in the specs.” And if you look at this team in the long run, you’re going to see a lot of churn. No one wants to work on a low motivation, low morale team, and people are going to quit. 

On a medium motivation team. Imagine the same scenario. “We forgot to build something for the launch. Can we get it in?” The team will say “Yeah, of course, sure thing, we’ll get it done. Don’t worry.” And in this team, if you look at them in the long run, you’re likely to see more retention. You’re likely to see people sticking around and continuing to produce good work on this team. 

This seems great until you see a high motivation team and you realize what you’ve been missing out on and what great looks like. On a high motivation team, the team itself feels such ownership over the project and over the product that they’re the ones that say “Hey, I think there’s an even better way to do this.” And if you look at this team in the long run, of course, the people retain, but what’s more important is that other people look at that team and they ask “How can I join that team? “And if you’re wondering how you can build a team of high caliber engineers and designers and researchers and all of that, this is how you do it. You build a team that others want to be on and look at and try, figure out how to get there. 

Highly excited and motivated individual on a team

2. As a leader on the team, it’s your job. 

The second reason is as a PM, you’re a leader on the team. And as a leader on the team, it’s your job to care about motivation. It’s your job to build a team that cares about what they do, and then enjoys coming to work every day. For some people, it’s a means to an end. Like if motivation is something that is working, the quality of the product will be better. It’s a means to an end. For some people, motivation is an end goal itself. For them, motivation and a high motivation team are worth having in and of themselves. Either way, it’s a part of your job. And as a PM, it’s worth spending some time thinking about your team’s motivation. 

3. It’ll make your job more fulfilling. 

As a PM, you’re on the team too. You’re also a member of the team and it’s no fun to work on a low motivation team. So thinking about how you can motivate your team will make your job more fulfilling as well. It’ll make you more enthusiastic about going to work each day, make you more enthusiastic about every Monday. It’ll just make your job a lot better as well. 

Read Next: Product Leadership Skills: Building a Strong Product Team

Breaking Down Motivation 

Let’s break down what motivation means. A lot of this content in this section is pulled from three sources that I highly recommend. The first two are books including Primed To Perform and Five Dysfunctions of a Team. They’re both fantastic. And the last one is a project called Google Rework.  This was something that Google did a couple of years ago, where they basically explored what made a good manager, what made a good team, and what produced high results. And they distilled all their findings down into a project called a rework, which they’ve published online, available to anyone.

The Nine Drivers of Motivation 

So when we think about a team and the individuals on the team, we can break the world into four domains. The first is the team. The second is the work that the team is doing. The third is the actual individual and the fourth domain is the external forces acting on that individual. And we can take nine drivers of motivation and just map them across these domains. 

So the first three drivers of motivation are around the team and the work that the team is doing, and these are psychological safety, dependability, and structuring clarity. The next three are about the individual and the work that the individual is doing, and these are play, impact and purpose, and potential. So these first six drivers of motivation are all good. If there’s more psychological safety, play, and potential, your team will be more motivated. And the people on your team will be more motivated. 

The last three drivers that we’ll talk about are actually negative. These are things that reduce motivation on our team, and they’re all related to external forces that act on the individual. These are emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. So these are the nine drivers of motivation and together they form a complete picture of what drives motivation on a team. So what we’ll do next is we’ll go through these nine. I will spend a lot of time on the first three, especially psychological safety. 

Defining Psychological Safety

Let’s define psychological safety to be sure we’re all on the same page. So in a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their other team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea. 

So I’m going to say this over and over again, but psychological safety is the basis for a high-performing team. Of the nine drivers of motivation, it’s the most important and nothing else can function about it. So if you’re not sure where to start, if you’re not sure where to look, look at psychological safety and ask yourself really critically, does my team have psychological safety? Because if they do not, it’s not worth looking at any of the other drivers until you have this in place. 

You might be interested in: Building a Culture of Safety as a PM with HubSpot’s Director of Product

Team of collaborative people to represent psychological safety
The Foundational “Dysfunctions” 

So we talked a bit about what psychological safety is. It’s also helpful to talk about what it is not because often it’s easier to see when things are going wrong as an indicator that you’re missing something. And that’s why this book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is so helpful because it goes through five different things that often go wrong on a low-performing team. And three of those five dysfunctions are actually related to psychological safety, which says a lot about the importance of this driver of motivation. 

  • Absence of trust: Not comfortable being vulnerable with a team, a fear of being wrong or judged. 
  • Fear of conflict: Faking agreement instead of open, constructive debate and an unwillingness to share contrarian ideas and opinions. Often you’ll see this manifest as the first opinion to be shared as the one that you do. There’s no discussion over it. There’s no pushing back and there’s no constructive dialogue that gets the team as a whole to a better endpoint from where they started. 
  • Lack of commitment: going along with the decision without voicing disagreement or an unwillingness to disagree and commit. A kind of the classic thing you’ll see here for a team that doesn’t have commitment is someone saying after the fact when something doesn’t work “I told you so”. That is a classic sign that there was a lack of commitment. And what it means is that the person and that team have a fear of conflict born from an absence of trust. And what this means is that when you’re making decisions or when you’re going down a path, your team is not utilizing the full abilities of everyone on it. 

Read Next: Product Leadership Skills: Conflict Resolution

Psychological Safety Scoreboard 

This here is a scorecard that I found really helpful. It was developed by Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School. And she’s actually the one who first came up with the concept of psychological safety on teams. You could imagine literally taking the scorecard, putting it in some sort of survey or a Google form or something, and sending it out to your team. Based on whether people agree or disagree with different statements here, it gives you an indicator of where your team is, what psychological safety is. So for example, that very first statement. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. The more people on our team that agree with that, the lower your team’s psychological safety.

Psychological Safety Scoreboard by Amy Edmondson
Rework by Google

One more tool and then we’ll move on from psychological safety. Google rework spent a lot of time on psychological safety because they did all this research and they just kept coming back to it. And so they just ended up focusing on this in a lot of their work.  They produced this one-pager called ‘How to foster psychological safety on your teams’. And it is literally a list of concrete actions that you can take to foster psychological safety on your teams. I really recommend it, even if you think you have good psychological safety on the team, there’s going to be stuff here that you don’t do, and it will be helpful to start doing it. 

A Recap of Psychological Safety 

Psychological safety is the foundation of a high-performing motivated team. On a team with high psychological safety, people feel safe, taking risks and making mistakes. Three ways to spot a lack of psychological safety, which are the three dysfunctions, are the absence of trust, fear of conflict, and lack of commitment. Once again, if you do nothing else, focus on psychological safety, because a lot of good stuff flows from this. And as I said, more resources are available online. This is a very well-researched area which is rare when it comes to teams and team culture and people. So, there’s a lot of resources you can find online to help build psychological safety on your own teams. 

Defining Dependability 

The second driver of motivation is dependability. On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time versus the opposite- shirking responsibilities. I think this one’s a bit more concrete, a little easier to grasp.

The last two dysfunctions are actually related to dependability: 

  • Inattention to team results: focusing on personal success, status, and ego before team success. 
  • Avoidance of accountability: not doing the hard and calling out peers and superiors on counterproductive behavior. Not owning up to personal failures and misses. 

Just note how dependent these are on psychological safety. If you don’t feel safe with your team, you’re not going to call someone out for not doing what they said they would do. If you don’t feel safe with your team, you’re not going to care how your team does. You’re going to have an inattention to team results. You’re only going to care about how you’re doing. So these build on psychological safety, but these are two classic dysfunctions that can point to a lack of dependability on your own team. 

Signs That Your Team Needs To Improve Dependability 
  • The team has poor visibility into project priorities or progress
  • Diffusion of responsibility and no clear ownership for tasks or priorities 

These are signs you need to improve dependability. And it’s worth asking yourself these questions: When team members say they’ll get something done, do they? Do team members proactively communicate with each other about delays and assume responsibility. 

If the answer to those is no, think about building processes to support visibility into personal and team expectations. This is a very simple way to build dependability on our team. But once again, I really want to note that a process is not enough. If you haven’t taken the time to foster psychological safety. To build the process, but don’t expect it to be kind of the magic bullet that solves everything. 

So these processes should ensure everyone knows who’s responsible for what and they should set expectations and deadlines. Ideally, the team should be doing this for themselves rather than someone else doing it for them. There should be an appropriate level of plans, documentation, etc that are public across the team. And it’s important that they’re public because you want ideally people on the team holding each other accountable. There shouldn’t be some taskmaster who’s responsible for all this. There should be a joint effort with joint ownership and joint accountability. 

Check this out: Step Up and Lead by Google Product Lead

bird's eye view of peoople working around a table and looking at charts on papers and various devices (laptop, desktop, tablet)

Defining Structure & Clarity 

The third driver is structure and clarity. So if dependability was trusting that others will do what they say, structure and clarity are having a clear understanding of what success actually means, both for the individual and for the team and in the near term and in the long term. 

Signs That Your Team Lacks Structure & Clarity
  • Lack of clarity about the team and individual goals 
  • Unclear decision making, process owners, or rationale. 

Pretty simple. If people don’t know where you’re headed, you’re missing structure and clarity. So a couple of ways to improve this on your team is first when making decisions always communicate the why for a PM. This should be kind of like a habitual reflexive thing. We always want to be asking the why behind something, just be sure you’re also communicating it back to your team. So they also know the why behind a decision, behind the direction, and behind what they’re doing. 

Remind the team of the goals, metrics, and milestones constantly. You’re going to feel like a broken record and that’s all right. It’s better to over-communicate. It’s better to have every single team meeting start with a recap of the goals. These are our metrics. These are our milestones. This is where we’re headed. And this is why. 

Ensure that each open item has a clear owner. This one’s a little different from the other two. This one’s pretty tactical. And I’ve noticed in meetings and in teams, there’s kind of a hesitancy to be the person who asks “Hey, this thing seems important, but no one has volunteered to do it. Who wants to do it?” So just be the person that does that. Fill in the gaps as the PM and be the one to ask. 

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Defining Play 

So those were the first three drivers of motivation. The next three drivers of motivation are around the person and their work. And these are play, impact and purpose, and potential. 

Play occurs when you’re engaging in an activity simply because you enjoy doing it. Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of play. People intrinsically enjoy learning and adapting. We instinctively seek out opportunities to play. So if this is a little abstract, we’ll make it more concrete in a moment. But I want to note that play doesn’t mean taking the team and playing ping pong all the time. These non-work activities are important because they help the team build trust in each other. They help each other get to know each other as real human beings, which builds psychological safety, but that’s not the same thing as play. 

So take the example of cooking dinner. For someone who is motivated to cook dinner through play, they might say  “I cooked dinner because I love experimenting with ingredients and techniques.” This is something that’s intrinsic to the act of cooking dinner, where the act of cooking dinner is directly fulfilling. 

Signs of Low Play on Your Team: 
  • Lack of self initiative where people don’t come forward with their own suggestions for improvements. They only do work if they’re told or asked to do 
  • Lack of ideation. So if your team is presented with a problem, are they coming up with exciting ideas where some are risky, some are not, some are complex and are creative. If they’re not, they might be missing that spark of play as well.
  • Burnout. This is pretty clear. It’s healthy to go on vacation and everyone should be taking time off work. And should be looking forward to that time off of work. But if people are bummed and just not happy to be back at work after a weekend or after vacation, or if they just literally talk about burnout, then they might be missing play.  
man leaning on arm, looking at laptop screen

And once again, play depends on psychological safety because it requires trust in the team members. To foster play on the team, ideally, each person on the team is doing what they’re good at and what they enjoy, but they also have the space to experiment and fulfill their curiosity. It’s the difference between saying here’s what you’re solving and here’s exactly how you’re going to solve it versus here’s the problem to be solved. I trust that you can go figure it out. So it requires trust. It requires psychological safety. 

Assuming you have that, the way to create play in the team is just to make space for people to bring their best solutions to the table. So another classic PM thing is to define a problem space, not the solution space. Tell people what needs to be solved, not how exactly to solve it. Paint a picture of what success looks like. Paint the vision for the team. Where do we want to be five years from now? Where do we want to be six months from now? Where do you want me to be one month from now? Help the team understand what’s important and why? And there’s that keyword again. The why? And finally create time, space, processes, and acceptance for experimentation. Acceptance is key. It’s not an experiment if it’s a guaranteed success. So if things don’t work, create tolerance and actually celebrate those moments. 

Read next: Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution by Spotify Product Manager

Defining Impact & Purpose

Driver number five is impact and purpose. The purpose motive occurs when you do an activity because you value the outcome of the activity versus the activity itself. You may or may not enjoy the work you do, but you value its impact. So back to that cooking example, someone who’s doing it for a purpose might say “I cook dinner because I care about my health.” So notice how this is one level removed. It’s not something intrinsic to the act of cooking dinner. It’s the first order of direct outcomes. Home-cooked food is healthier than restaurant food. I cooked dinner because I care about my health. 

Signs of Low Impact and Purpose on Your Team: 
  • Team members are not able to articulate how their work connects to the team’s work, how the teams work connects to the company’s work. 
  • Team members are not able to identify the user problems being solves. 
  • Team members don’t have interest in or empathy for the goals and user problems. 

And so the solution here is simply to fix these. Connect the individual’s work to the team. Connect the team’s work to the organization. Show how you fit in and why your work matters. Build empathy with your users.  You want your team to care about the people whose problems they’re solving. So show them those people, show them the problems. Help them build empathy with these users so that they can go above and beyond and actually solving the problems that your users are having. Celebrate when things are working and understand how each team member perceives impact. So for each person, what impact means is slightly different. If you can figure out what impact means to them, celebrate it, make them feel good about having actually done something that they care about. And don’t let the moment pass without acknowledgment. 

Defining Potential 

The last positive driver of motivation is potential. The potential motive occurs when you find a second-order outcome of the work that aligns with their values or beliefs. You do the work because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important, such as your personal goals. So the cooking example. Potential would be “I cook because it allows me to beat my friend at tennis.” So notice how this is yet one more level removed from that core act of cooking. You don’t cook because you love something about it. You cook because cooked food leads to good health. And good health allows you to beat your friend at tennis. It is a downstream second-order outcome. 

Signs of Low Potential on Your Team: 

Low potential on the team often manifests in the form of people complaining about stunted career growth. And what that essentially means is that the concerns they have are often better handled by their manager versus the PM. So if it’s an engineer, for example, you’re better off working with the engineering managers on our team than trying to do it yourself. However, it is still worth keeping an eye out for this because it does affect the people on your team. And therefore it does affect your team and their work. Generally,  this is the one part of motivation that people are more comfortable sharing. So, you’ll probably know if it’s missing on your team.

  • Individuals concerned about lack of personal and career growth 
  • Work assignments based solely on ability, expertise, workload; little consideration for individual development needs and interests

To solve this, working with your cross-functional peers is the best path. And I highly recommend that, but I do want to note that as a PM, you can still help people grow. So for example, if someone on your team wants to work on their written communication skills, PMs tend to be pretty good communicators. So work with them, give them opportunities to write emails, give them opportunities to write documents. Work with them. Partner with them and mentor them as a PM. You have a lot of skills that are often non-overlapped with people on your team, but that they value and you can offer a helping hand for them, nonetheless. 

smooth rocks stacked on top of each other in a zen tower

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Defining Emotional Pressure, Economic Pressure & Inertia 

So those were the six positive drivers of motivation. Let’s talk now about the three negative drivers of motivation. These are the things that reduce motivation on our team. 

Emotional pressure occurs when emotions such as disappointment, guilt, or shame compel you to perform an activity. These emotions are related to your beliefs and external forces. Number two, economic pressure is when you do an activity solely to win a reward or avoid punishment. People at any income level can feel economic pressure at work. Put more simply economic pressure is when the only reason someone does their job is for the paycheck.

Finally, inertia. In my perspective, the most indirect mode of a fall is inertia. With inertia, your motive for working is so distant from the work itself that you can no longer say where it comes from. You do what you do simply because you did it yesterday. This leads to the worst performance of all. As destructive and insidious as it is, inertia is surprisingly common in the workplace. 

So the bad news here is that it’s actually really hard for me to use the impact of the three negative motivators. So my recommendation is if you see some of these negative motivators acting on individuals on your team focus on the positives. If someone has given a reason to be motivated, the negative motivators cease to be as important. So for example, if the reason someone on our team is working is because of inertia, give them potentially. Give them play. Once they feel the potential, purpose or impact, that becomes their motivation, not the inertia. So focus on the positives, focus on building the positive drivers of motivation on your team, and you won’t have to worry about the negative motivators. 

Three Concrete Tactics 

  1. Schedule and lean on 1:1’s  

Just schedule one-on-ones. There’s this misconception that one-on-ones are only for manager report relationships, and that’s just not true. It’s just not true. There were really undervalued tools for PMs. So lean on them, schedule them. They don’t have to be frequent. One-on-one just gives you an ear on the ground with the team. And it gives your team members a direct channel to you and indicates to them that you’re open to talking about them and talking about the team.

  1. If in doubt, focus on psychological safety and model it yourself. 

PMs are often leaders on the team and what you do, people will notice. So model it yourself. Thank people for disagreeing. Don’t tolerate negative. Talk about others. Ask people for their opinions, include people in discussions, et cetera. 

  1. You can always start small, and create space for those moments. 

So if you’re on a team that really lacks psychological safety, think about really small ways. You can start to incorporate it into your day-to-day. So for example, you might have an icebreaker at the beginning of a team meeting for “share a household disaster from this past year”. This is something where the household disaster has nothing to do with work, but it does get people to share something vulnerable, something that didn’t go right in their life with the rest of the team. Start small, create space, and it’ll start building on itself. 

Last Thoughts 

It isn’t easy. Building motivation doesn’t mean going out for lunch with your team every day. It requires time, energy, and honest conversations. In a way, modeling the right behavior on an unhealthy team takes courage and it takes confidence. But as a leader on your team, that’s your duty.  That’s your job as a leader on the team. So let’s summarize. Team motivation can be broken down into nine factors of which psychological safety is the most important. If you’re stuck, start small. I’ll repeat this one more time: motivation is a longer-term exponential returns investment. So be patient, be confident, be courageous, and have the conviction that a motivated team will always outperform an unmotivated team.

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