November 14, 2018

The best way to motivate employees, day-after-day and long-term, is by “facilitating progress – even small wins.”

That’s the surprise finding gleaned from research detailed in the new book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. Co-authors are Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School. Kramer is an independent researcher, writer and consultant in Wayland, Mass.

In their research, Amabile and Kramer collected nearly 12,000 individual, daily diary reports from 238 people, in 26 project teams, in seven companies in three industries. In their daily diary entries, the employee participants responded to questions about their inner work lives, and “their perceptions, emotions, and motivations during that day.”

The most important question gave the employee participants free rein: “Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind.”

It was this question that yielded the surprise! Amabile explains:

“What I tell managers is the single most important motivator [for employees] is making progress in meaningful work, and that comes from years of research that we did. This was a surprise to us. We didn’t think this would show up as the most important motivator. We thought it would be incentives, possibly having interesting things to do. But progress, it dwarfs everything else. We found that on those days we studied almost 12,000 individual diary entries, we found the participants were most intrinsically motivated and happiest, and had the most positive perceptions, on days they made progress in their work.”

Most events recorded by the employees – nearly two-thirds of them – were small. Likewise, most of the recorded reactions – again, nearly two-thirds of them – were small. Yet more than 28 percent of the small events triggered big reactions. In other words, events at work that people thought were unimportant often had powerful effects on employees’ inner work life.

Thus, the importance of even the little positives at work. Even little wins in a work day mean progress to many employees.

Says Amabile: “A small win is a small amount of progress. We found people often felt enormously motivated and even joyful if they made even a small, incremental step forward in meaningful work. And that small step forward is what we mean by a small win. This is great news, because small wins are much more likely than huge breakthroughs.”

An example of such a small win Amabile cites is the factory engineer fixing a bug in company software. “The day he fixed that bug he was incredibly joyful and motivated,” she says. “It was just a bug. A tiny thing. But his happiness and motivation was close to the top of the scale in numerical ratings. He described in his diary, ‘I smashed that bug that’s been frustrating me for almost a calendar week. That may not be an event to you, but I live a very drab life, so I’m all hyped. No one really knows about it; three of the team [members who] would be involved are out today – so I have to sit here rejoicing in my solitary smugness.'”

Progress in “meaningful work.” The Amabile-Kramer research concludes that of all the positive events that influence an employee’s inner work life, “the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work.”

Two questions: What is “inner work life?” And what is “meaningful life?”

Good inner work life, according to Amabile and Kramer, is about the work. It starts with giving employees something meaningful to accomplish. The authors cite as an example Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Inner work life requires giving clear goals, autonomy, help, and resources – “what people need to make real progress in their daily work.” It also depends on “showing respect for ideas and the people who create them.”

Meaningful work, Amabile says, “is work where the person doing it feels that he or she is contributing to something that they value. Meaningful work is basically work where the person has a sense of purpose.”

Noting Google’s mission, Amabile continues: “A company doesn’t have to have such a lofty mission. In order for people to find meaning in their work, people in our study felt a sense of purpose in their work as long as they thought they were doing something valuable, as long as they thought they were making a great product, or helping people save money, or providing a good service to people.”

What about employees in boring, mundane jobs? There are so many mundane, drudgery-type jobs in many workplaces. Examples of such jobs are fast food jobs, custodian jobs, piece work in factories. How does an employee experience progress – experience little wins daily – in jobs like those?

Amabile acknowledges that 85 percent of the research participants had at least a bachelor’s degree, working in what would be classified as professional positions, not support positions. “I can’t say from this study that the [Progress Principle] finding applies to everybody, but I think it does,” she explains. “Just from talking to a variety of people in a variety of settings, I think it does.

“It’s clearly more challenging for people in mundane jobs to find a sense of progress,” Amabile says. “But if employers structure their jobs appropriately, so they can have real goals to achieve, they can have small wins.”

What managers and supervisors can do. Amabile and Kramer consider the progress principle “a fundamental management principle.” They explain it this way: Facilitating progress “is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, 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.”

Following are ways managers and supervisors can help increase progress moments, especially small wins, for employees in their daily work experience.

  1. Introduce variety. Structure jobs to make them “as varying and interesting as possible,” Amabile says. Some examples: Have people working on self-managing teams. Or, rotate jobs.
  2. Set clear goals. “Savvy managers, even in those mundane jobs, will structure the jobs so people can have meaning and purpose in the work,” Amabile continues. “Structure the jobs so that people can have and set goals that are challenging and achievable on a daily basis so they can have that sense of progress.”
  3. Allow autonomy. “Setting clear goals can backfire if it amounts to nothing more than telling people what to do and how to do it… A key aspect of autonomy is feeling that one’s decisions will hold.”
  4. Provide resources. “Lavish resources aren’t required, but access to necessary equipment, funding, data, materials, and personnel is.”
  5. Help with the work. “Employees left entirely to their own devices, without any assistance or support from someone else, accomplish very little – they need help.” Says Amabile, “Just simply provide people the help they need when they run into complexities in the work.”

© 2018