The Progress Principle

The Progress Principle

When Teresa Amabile, professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School, and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer conducted research to learn what makes people not only come to work but also drives them to stay and perform at their best, they found the answer surprising. Employees weren’t engaged and happy with their jobs because of high salaries or on-site perks like state-of-the-art athletic facilities or even free food. Instead, they found that motivated and downright joyful workers had satisfying inner work lives.

What does this mean specifically? In their book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press), Amabile and Kramer explain that great inner work life is about the work, not the accouterments. “It starts with giving people something meaningful to accomplish… It requires giving clear goals, autonomy, help and resources – what people need to make real progress in their daily work,” they write. “And it depends on showing respect for ideas and the people who create them.”

Understanding the Inner Work Life of Employees

To gather their data, Amabile and Kramer conducted a unique study to track the day-by-day events that moved the inner work lives of employees, as reported in privacy-protected diary-type emails submitted to the authors over the course of several months.

In all, the research team rigorously analyzed approximately 12,000 confidential, personal diary entries provided by 238 employees in seven companies in a variety of industries. Workers participating in the research answered open-ended questions including, “Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind.”

The results showed that incentives like salaries, raises and bonuses were hardly mentioned in the diaries. However, there was a glaring commonality emphasized among workers. Of all the events that characterized the best inner work life days, by far the most important was whether the survey participants felt their work was making progress. On the other hand, the events that characterized the worst days that left workers feeling negative about their jobs involved losing ground on a project.

One example from the book follows the real-life demise of a former consumer products company once named among the ten most innovative, successful companies in America. A new executive team as brought in to reorganize all divisions into cross-functional business teams. The once enthusiastic employees reported via their diary entries how their momentum was squashed by seemingly arbitrary shifts in goals.

Months of a team’s product development work was no longer discussed or used. “Not only did it provoke unhappiness and frustration,” the authors note, “It soured people’s views of management and drained motivation for work.”

The new managers seemed to have no understanding of how their own actions had such a serious impact on the inner work life of employees and didn’t grasp how much workers’ performance could suffer as a result. Bottom line: the once incredibly successful company went out of business.

What Managers Need to Know

On the other hand, diary entries for other organizations that reported work progress often showed an inner work life surge and that resulted in an increase of productivity.

So how do managers consciously work on igniting the employees’ creativity, joy and trust that spurs productivity? According to Amabile and Kramer, the single most important factor is instilling a sense of making progress on meaningful work.

They explain how the best leaders build a cadre of employees with satisfying inner work lives by activating two main forces that enable progress:
  • Catalysts: Events that directly facilitate project work, such as clear goals and autonomy.
  • Nourishers: Interpersonal events that uplift workers and foster encouragement and demonstrations of respect and collegiality.
They also analyze the negative events that damage inner work lives:
  • Inhibitors: Events that induce setbacks to goals and progress.
  • Toxins: Interpersonal interactions that undermine employees’ spirits. No matter how constrained resources might be in an organization, Amabile and Kramer insist there’s no reason why managers can’t help employees see and appreciate the meaning in their work. However, their research revealed that the negative effect of setbacks was more powerful than the positive effect of progress on employees’ psyches and managers need to be aware that setbacks tend to have a stronger impact on people’s feelings.

The good news is that even minor victories, which the authors call “small wins”, can also be powerful. Amabile and Kramer found that 28% of small events of all kinds had a major impact on inner work life and, if small wins are experienced regularly by workers, passion and creativity can be ignited.

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