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Derek is a drinker of copious amounts of coffee. He is a thinker of what makes sense. He is a user of Agile and Kanban. He is a writer of an upcoming book. He is a talker of all topics. As an author and motivated project leader, he inspires and empowers project teams. Don't ask him the time because he'll tell you how to build the clock. To pay the bills, Derek is currently an adviser to a Federal Agency Project Management Office. Derek has posted 9 posts at DZone. View Full User Profile

Zombie (Team Member) Motivation Techniques

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ZombiesWhat skills do you need to lead your zombie army?  Sorry, what I meant to ask was, what skills do you need to lead your team?  Motivation techniques can be as unique as the individual.

There are a lot of people out there who identify themselves as project managers, those tasked with managing inanimate resources (time, scope, budget…zombies). Though those skills are necessary, there is a need for skills to lead teams and manage stakeholders.  I’m talking (soft) skills to lead, manage, and inspire human resources.

Provide Feedback

You can’t expect your team to operate in a vacuum.  As a team member, imagine if your manager provided an annual review and then didn’t provide feedback to you until the next annual review.  That would be a clear failure on the part of the manager or leader.  I believe managers and leaders are obligated to provide continual feedback to the team.  Now, if managing a zombie team member, no feedback is needed.  They’ll keep searching for brains until someone either shoots them in the head or decapitates them.  Either way, providing feedback will probably only result in you being chased by a horde of flesh eating zombies.

Recognize Performance

Let’s look at this from both a positive and a negative perspective.  If your team is not doing a good job, you need to recognize their performance (both as a group and individually) and give constructive feedback so they can meet your expectations.  If they are meeting your expectations, you need to reinforce what you like so they can continue to meet those expectations or exceed them.  Recognizing zombie team performance is like watching someone win a pie eating contest.  They eat (brains).  Put another brain in front of them and they’ll eat it.  Repeat ad nauseum.  How well they perform is limited by nothing but time.


Don’t be an unreasonable person.  Recognize that some team members will not feel comfortable with some goals set for them.  Win-win negotiations should help you arrive at the desired outcome.  With constant feedback and motivation, believe any team member can reach any goal you set for them.  Note, don’t set the bar too low and give them a false win.  Do not believe in “stretch” goals.  Negotiate realistic outcomes.  Most importantly, don’t negotiate with zombies!  Zombies are like terrorist, except they have a green skin tone and look at you like an opened can of Spam sitting in the hot sun for a week.

Motivate and Persuade

Have you heard the idiom you can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar?  Get to know each of your team members personally and find out what motivates them.  What’s important to them; coffee, family time, or recognition?  You may buy one team member a coffee gift card, tell another to go home early, or thank another publicly in a meeting.  Everyone has something that motivates them.  If you ever order lunch for the team, make sure you consider everyone (individually).  When you set schedules, try to consider individual family obligations.


Respect is fundamental in any relationship.  You will get the very best from people if you have mutual respect.  I once had a superior ask me if I wanted my team to respect me or to like me.  My response was OR?  Why can’t they do both?  Teams will respect you if they know you would never throw them under the bus to protect yourself.  Take the hits from management if you don’t reach a goal.  Protect the team at all costs.  As a result, the team should do everything they can to prevent that situation from happening.  Zombies are not team players.  They want your brains and they will throw you under a bus at the first opportunity.  Don’t judge them. They know not what they do.


If you’re going to be a project manager who is managing people, you need to have good soft skills.  That is, you need the ability to engage and interact effectively with your team, obtain acceptance, build consensus, and provide assistance, direction and leadership.

I’m a strong believer that if you treat people with honesty and respect and your motives are good, it will come back to you.  That means be genuinely concerned about the well-being and happiness of your team.  Listen to them and guide them.  Whatever the business side expects of you will get taken care of.  Your team will rise to the challenge.  I’ve known project managers who lacked some of these skills.  Either they didn’t provide feedback to their team or they were unreasonable or demanding.  The team was miserable, productivity went down, and that manager blamed the team.  It was a vicious cycle.

Sometimes, you just have to do what you know is right and face the consequences.

Sometimes, you have to fight the urge to eat brains.

Photo: flickr user frogmuseum2


Published at DZone with permission of its author, Derek Huether.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Thomas Escolan replied on Sat, 2010/10/16 - 1:38am

The analogy with terrorism might be clumsy, as a terrorist does have a motivation, in fact. The US (?) habit to ignore this point is not, to my point of view, a viable way out.

Derek Huether replied on Mon, 2010/10/18 - 6:55am

The analogy of terrorism is as tongue-and-cheek as my analogy of zombies.  With any zombie movie, there aways seems to be that one person who wants to negotiate with the zombies.  The result?  They have their brains eaten and they become a zombie.  The other movie cliché I used was about terrorists.  We've all heard the line, "we don't negotiate with terrorists". 

If you would prefer to use "kidnappers" in substitution of "terrorists", I'm good with that.  Then again, that may incite someone else to comment about kidnapping.  So, let's let piece stand as is.  My "clumsy" word usage was not meant to spark political commentary.

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