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Executives can motivate their team by paying more attention to the psyche of their employees.Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Progress Principle

By Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

(Harvard Business Review Press, 260 pages, $25)

Five days after 30 of HotelData's Infosuite team project managers were laid off, at a time when everyone in the unit feared for their own heads, Helen was called back to work from her vacation in a major scramble to prepare for an impending lawsuit against the company. She should have been upset, and she did feel sour about being yanked back from her time off. But she was also ecstatic by the great work performed under pressure and the collaboration of her team. And many of her teammates were equally juiced.

The name of the company and of Helen are pseudonyms, but the story is true, drawn from diary entries made every day by 238 people in 26 project teams in seven companies for a research study. In the end, the researchers were privy to scenes from 12,000 individual workdays. And with it has come a powerful finding that brushes aside much of what we have held dear about work engagement and organizational success.

It's known as the progress principle: Making headway on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term progress.

It's not rewards, or recognition, or enchanting words from leaders that gets people going. It's a sense that they are accomplishing something meaningful, bit by bit, day by day.

"Real progress triggers positive emotions like satisfaction, gladness, even joy. It leads to a sense of accomplishment and self worth as well as positive views of the work and sometimes the organization. Such thoughts and perceptions (along with those positive emotions) feed the motivation, the deep engagement, that is crucial for ongoing blockbuster performance," Teresa Amabile, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and her husband, developmental psychologist Steven Kramer, report in The Progress Principle.

Senior executives of the Infosuite team, who weren't held in much esteem by subordinates, changed their pattern of behaviour during this rushed period, paying more attention to the psyche of their employees. They cleared the team members of other responsibilities, offered words of support, and brought them bottled water and pizza. And the team appreciated those gestures.

But those incentives weren't all that critical. The team was largely self-motivated by the important, challenging work. Management simply had to remove the barriers to their motivation – distractions from irrelevant tasks, or even hunger pangs – and make it easier for them to make progress.

One employee, who in a diary entry six weeks earlier reported that she felt like an abused spouse at the company and wondered why she stayed, now revelled at the end of a long day at how wonderful it was to be working as a team again: "I have been here about 15 hours, but it has been one of the best days I've had in months!"

The authors focus on what they call "inner work life," the conditions that foster positive emotions, internal motivation, and favourable perceptions of colleagues and work itself. They actually started out looking at creativity, but as they delved deeper, they realized that they needed to better understand the thoughts, feelings and drives of people as they grappled with complex problems. "As inner work life goes, so goes the company," the authors warn.

And the most effective ways that managers can influence the inner work life of their associates is by facilitating progress, even if in small increments. "A person's sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one," they write. "Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one."

In addition to progress, two other factors emerged as potent forces supporting inner work life. The first factor is catalysts – events that directly help project work. For example, the authors found that if a programmer is told she will be receiving the new computer she ordered, she will be happy and feel better about her employer and how she is valued – even before she gets the computer.

The second is nourishers, interpersonal events that give a boost to employees doing the work. People are lifted up by four major nourishers: respect, encouragement, emotional support from others and affiliation – bonds to other people.

Conversely, inner work life can be undermined by setbacks in the work; inhibitors, the events that directly hinder progress work; and toxins, the interpersonal events that can plague a workplace. "Negative events are more powerful than positive events, all else being equal," the researchers advise.

As the book reaches into those other areas such as respect and affiliation, it is treading on well-travelled terrain. But the authors insist those are secondary factors. The big factor is progress, something rarely recognized in the past by researchers or managers.

That makes this a pioneering work about employee engagement. Fortunately, it is clearly written with lots of superb, human examples from those daily diary entries.



Filling out a daily diary may help you to better understand your work life, and take note of the progress you might have otherwise missed – or the lack of progress. In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer suggest taking a few minutes at the end of your day to answer questions such as:

• What event stands out in my mind from the workday, and how did it affect my inner work life?

• What progress did I make today, and how did it affect my inner work life?

• What nourishers and catalysts supported me and my work today? How can I sustain them tomorrow?

• What one thing can I do to make progress on important work tomorrow?

• What setbacks did I have today, and how did they affect my inner work life? What can I learn from them?

• What toxins and inhibitors affected me and my work today? How can I weaken or avoid them tomorrow?

• Did I affect my colleagues' work lives positively today? How might I do so tomorrow?

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