The Progress Principle
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
Harvard Business Review Press, 260 pages, $25.00
If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the slogan for General Electric from the 1960s: “Progress is our most important product.” It was one of the most successful advertising slogans of that era. And it should be used, in a somewhat altered fashion, by government executives: progress is our most important engagement tool.
That’s the focal point of a new book by the husband-and-wife research team of Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer. They were interested in unravelling the mystery of workplace creativity, and recruited 238 people in 26 project teams who each day were emailed a diary form with several questions on that day’s activity. Most of those questions asked for a numerical rating about their inner work lives: their perceptions, emotions and motivations during the day.
The most important question allowed their respondents free rein, as they were asked to briefly describe one event for the day that stood out in their mind. The event had to be relevant to work in some way, but could range in the diary narrative from the actions of managers and coworkers to the individual’s own behaviours. In some cases they were positive events, in some negative, and in some neutral. “These daily journals turned out to be a researcher’s gold mine, giving us something that no researcher had enjoyed before – real time access to the workday experiences of many people in many contexts over a long period of time. Several performance measures indicated that some of these people, and some of their teams, ended up doing very well; some did very poorly,” they write.
In the end, the researchers were privy to scenes from 12,000 individual workdays. The study was of business, but there’s no reason not to believe their key finding doesn’t apply to government as well. It’s a breakthrough idea, which brushes aside much of what we have held dear about work engagement and organizational success.
They call it 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,” they observe.
Progress is our most important engagement tool.
And for the most part, we have failed to realize that. The researchers talked to managers about what motivates employees. Those executives tended to favour the things that most management books tout for motivating employees: recognition, tangible incentives and clear work goals. Rarely did anyone mention progress in work being a factor.
The researchers thought perhaps their progress finding was too obvious and went without saying. So they said it, surveying 669 managers from around the world, asking them to rank five factors that could influence motivation: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, clear goals, and support for making progress in the work. Progress ranked dead last as a motivator, and third out of five as an influence on emotion.
Work is personal. Professionals who have invested years in their education and careers identify with the work they produce. “Work progress and setbacks matter so much because work matters so much. It’s simply part of being human,” they write.
On a great day, we make progress. On a bad day, we don’t. Companies where people made a lot of progress had motivated employees and pushed ahead. Companies where people routinely faced setbacks in their work had dispirited employees and lower economic returns. As inner work life goes, so goes the organization.
“We discovered that people are more creative and productive when they are deeply engaged in the work, when they feel happy, and when they think highly of their projects, coworkers, managers, and organizations. But there’s more. When people enjoy consistently positive inner work lives, they are also more committed to their work and more likely to work well with colleagues. In other words, work-related psychological benefits for employees translate into performance benefits for the company,” they observe.
So help your employees 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 observe. “Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.”
Indeed, you need to strive to prevent setbacks, since the effect of setbacks on emotions is stronger than the effect of progress. Although progress increases happiness and decreases frustration, the effect of setbacks is not only the opposite but also greater on those two emotions. The power of setbacks to diminish happiness is more than twice as strong as the power of progress to boost happiness. The power of setbacks to increase frustration is more than three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration.
Individuals wrote longer diary narratives about negative events of all kinds, not just setbacks, compared with neutral or positive events. That suggests we may expend more cognitive and emotional energy on bad events than good ones.
In addition to progress, two other factors emerged as significant forces supporting inner work life. The first are catalysts, events that directly help project work. For example, they found if a programmer is told that 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 are nourishers, interpersonal events that uplift employees doing the work. People are lifted up by four major nourishers: respect, encouragement, emotional support from others, and affiliation – bonds to other people.
On the other hand, inner work life can be undermined not only by setbacks but also by inhibitors, the events that directly hinder progress, and toxins, the interpersonal events that can plague a workplace.
Beyond trying in a general sense to facilitate progress in your workplace, the researchers suggest you emulate their diary technique and start recording how you are faring. This notion borrows from The Checklist Manifesto by Harvard surgeon and author Atul Gawande, who found that performance of surgery teams were dramatically safer when before the operation they went through a basic checklist of procedures. The surgeons, naturally, thought the checklist was beneath them, but to their surprise it worked, and the researchers urge you not to believe that stopping at the end of each day to evaluate how it went is beneath you.
They offer a daily progress checklist in the book for you to go through each day. Or they suggest you buy a journal, and at the end of the day summarize the main events. Ask yourself: 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 inne