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Motivation of Young Project Professionals: Their Needs for Autonomy, Competence, Relatedness, and Purpose

May 14, 2024 412

Young professionals, Generation Y, also called Millennials, born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s—now constitute a majority of the project management workforce. Having grown up connected, collaborative, and mobile, they have specific motivations and needs, which are explored in this study. The research will prove informative for organizations and project leaders seeking to attract, retain, and develop the talents of young project professionals.

This post is a PMJ Practitioner Insight, a series of short and actionable articles that accompany academic articles appearing in the Project Management Journal, a publication of the Project Management Institute.

Method Summary

Informed by a literature review, the authors conducted four information-rich case studies of projects in German-speaking countries, Austria and Switzerland, selected through purposeful sampling for the research aims. The sectors were high-tech, engineering, internal business organization, and management consulting.

Data collection was based on three types of data sources: (1) in-depth interviews with multiple informants, (2) analyzed project-related documents, and (3) performed focus group workshops. First, 58 structured qualitative interviews were conducted. Second, documents such as job descriptions, project-relevant process descriptions, work instructions, and project meeting guidelines to ensure a deep understanding of the organizational and project context were collected. Third, two focus group workshops were conducted with representatives of the case study organizations to reflect on and validate the results.

Key Findings: A Model of Motivation to Work in Projects

  • Our results also show how projects meet the specific career expectations of young project professionals. We outline a model of young project professional motivation, which is comprised of autonomy, competence, relatedness, and purpose as outlined in the figure below.
Circular graphic gives appearance of a target.
The conceptual model of young project professional motivation (Lechler & Huemann, 2023).
  • The need for competence is characterized by:
    o Development of skills and expertise, continuous upgrading of technical and
    interpersonal skills;
    o Competence in project management basics, managing change and problem-solving and communication; and
    o Opportunities for career development.
  • The need for relatedness is characterized by:
    o A sense of connection and belonging and empathetic, open communication with honest feedback;
    o Sharing knowledge and overcoming obstacles together, toward a shared, meaningful goal; and
    o Valuing one another’s work and celebrating joint accomplishments.
  • The need for purpose is characterized by:
    o Use of one’s own skills to deliver solutions and understanding how personal contributions lead to project outcomes;
    o The excitement of working on something new, seeing the final product and that it works; and
    o Creating value for the business and/or society and creating solutions with real, far-reaching consequences that bring tangible, positive change.
  • Need for autonomy is characterized by:
    o Empowerment to make independent decisions and managing one’s own tasks in one’s own way;
    o Freedom to use expertise and judgment with the responsibility for achieving the desired result; and
    o Building on experience and finding your own style.

Practical Implications

  • Young Project Professionals
    o Reflect their position within the four dimensions.
    o Align professional goals with motivations and make informed career decisions.
    o Ensure alignment with personal passions and strengths.
  • Project Team and Project Leaders
    o Utilize the model from project initiation, assign tasks according to individual
    motivations, and gain insight into the team’s collective motivation.
    o Enhance performance appraisals.
    o Resolve conflicts by understanding motivators.
  • Organizations
    o Improve project-related recruitment by aligning with motivators.
    o Tailor training and development for competency and connectedness.
    o Foster a culture that celebrates motivators.

Future Research Agenda

  • Call for a quantitative study to validate findings further empirically.
  • Consider how to support the need for autonomy, and how to provide and fulfill the four needs in relation to leadership and provide incentives and career development.

Overall Takeaway

  • Four case studies of companies in German-speaking countries identified and contextualized the motivations of young project professionals to work on projects and pursue a project career.
  • The industries studied were high-tech, engineering, internal organization, and management consultancy.
  • The young professionals’ motivation to work on projects can be summarized as the need to work autonomously (Autonomy), learn and develop (Competence), relate and connect (Relatedness), and create and deliver (Purpose)

Developments and Additional Resources

  • Webinar: “Why I like to work on projects—Motivation of Generation Y” | https://www.
  • White paper: PMI Sponsored Research Grant: “The future of project work: What
    motivates young professionals to pursue a project career and what motivates them to
    persist?” |
  • Blog entry:
  • Continuation of research: Online survey on Project Career Development PROCEED.
    This global survey represents a significant extension of the PMI-supported research
    project, “The Future of Project Work.” This survey will be distributed globally, and the
    findings will be presented in an online conference in early 2024.

Further Information

For further information on this and similar projects, please contact:
Martin Heumann at
Ruth Lechler at
For the full article go to

Martina Huemann (pictured) is a professor at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business and professor for major infrastructure delivery at BSSC, UCL, London, England. She has published widely in the fields of human resource management and project management. She led the research project “The Future of Project Work,” which was partly funded by Project Management Institute. Martina is a board member of Projekt Management Austria, editor-in-chief of International Journal of Project Management, and founding editor-in-chief of Project Leadership and Society. Ruth Christine Lechler is a research associate at Zurich University of Applied Sciences and doctoral candidate at WU Vienna in the Project Management Group. She researches and lectures on motivation in projects, project management, and organizational design. She has professional experience as a project manager in strategy consulting and transformation and digitalization projects in the industrial sector.

View all posts by Ruth Christine Lechler and Martina Huemann

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