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Zombie (Team Member) Motivation Techniques

What 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

About Derek Huether

I'm a Transformation Consultant at LeadingAgile. I have a goal to take the hand waving out of Agile, Kanban, & Scrum. I’m a strange combination of a little OCD, a little ADHD, a lot of grit, and a lot of drive. I come from a traditional PM background but I don't give points for stuff done behind the scenes. The only thing that counts is what you get done and delivered. Author of Zombie Project Management (available on Amazon)

4 Responses to “Zombie (Team Member) Motivation Techniques”

  1. Laura Gideon
    September 29, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    What bothers me is that it is possible to be titled a project manager and actually not use any kind of project management methods at all. Hmm. Your post addresses one of the major problems that can arise from this scenario. Also, a lot of project managers might not focus so much (at first) on soft skills because project management can be really daunting! It is detailed and involved. Of all the soft skills, motivation is one of the most important. We at Steelray would follow our leader anywhere. He is an excellent motivator – but NOT through fear, which is a common tool used that can work exceptionally well, until your staff gets sick of it and finds other jobs! Motivation involves inspiration. That can be hard to muster, but when you pull it off you will be amazed at the results. Just my thoughts. Good post, Derek. Always like to hear what you think!

    • Anonymous
      October 1, 2010 at 12:58 pm

      Laura, I wish we could introduce new titles that would be accepted by the industry and used by hiring managers. Line Manager, Functional Manager, Schedule Manager… I believe a project has only one Project Manager. Just the same, there is only one key sponsor or one key stakeholder. Each one of these roles must have soft skills and decision making power. If not, you have management by committee, which I don’t agree with. To your other point, trying to manage via fear as a tool is a sign of a poor manager. You can’t motivate with fear. That’s called coercion. I’ve had to deal with superiors who would never take responsibility and managed via fear. It was left to Managers and Team Leads to inspire. Everyone knew the cause of the stress. Though a lot of talented people were lost (quit), the fearmongers were finally fired.

  2. September 30, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Great post Derek.

    This is such an awesome topic.

    At some point in our PM career, we all have to face a zombie. That’s when our soft skills and self-mastery get tested.

    Sometimes we may not be able to motivate a zombie, no matter how hard we try. This does not mean we failed. It just means that the organization will get the results it deserves for hiring and retaining zombies.

    The toughest skill for us PMs to develop is the capacity to know when to stop trying to motivate a Zombie and actually have the will to stop.

    Zombies only thrive in their natural habitat where they are allowed to roam the land freely and wreak havoc (on projects). They are only able to survive in environments that tolerate them. They seem to thrive in heavily matrixed organizations, where accountability is so diluted that nobody is responsible for anything. This is typically the case when the zombie does not report directly to the PM but rather to a line manager who has not accountability for the project.

    I think zombies are the reason why god created Line Managers. And thank god for line managers. These poor souls have to deal with their zombies forever (or until one of them quits or gets fired). At least we PMs only have to deal with them until the project is over.

    The trick is instead of holding the zombie responsible, you find a way that the zombie’s bad behavior is reflected directly on their direct manager. So if the schedule will slip because the zombie keeps failing to deliver, then let the schedule slip or costs go over budget. Let a crisis develop so there is high level escalation and the zombie’s line manager is called to explain his direct report’s performance.

    You don’t need to throw anyone under the bus. You just need to present the facts and let the facts speak for themselves.

    We tend to avoid crises because we find them to be unpredictable. But sometimes we need to orchestrate mini-crises and interventions to bring about change. As long as we don’t let a crisis go to waste off course.

    Samad Aidane

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