The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work
by Teresa Amabile, Ph.D. and Steven Kramer, Ph.D.
This book uncovers the real ingredients of productivity that lead to high-performance teams and organizations. It’s principally based on research involving 238 employees in seven companies who provided daily diary entries (nearly 12,000 of them) that revealed the ups and downs of their “inner work lives” and the impact on their performance.
Inner work life is “the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday.”
Inner work life influences four key performance factors: creativity, productivity, work commitment, and collegiality. What the authors call the “inner work life effect.” And research in the business sector has found a direct impact on critical business measures such as financial performance, customer loyalty, and employee retention.
Among the factors that shape inner work life, the study found that “making progress in meaningful work” is the most potent influence. The authors called it “the progress principle” and the most important finding of their study.
The book provides extensive examples detailing these ideas in action in the lives of the people and teams involved in the study. It also outlines what managers and executives can do to foster positive inner work lives for their employees and the beneficial impact it can have on productivity and organizational performance.
In the authors’ words: This book reveals the reality of inner work life and the effect it can have on the performance of your organization. You will see that managers at every level affect the inner work lives and, consequently, the creativity and productivity of people throughout the organization. Most importantly, you will learn how to support inner work life in a way that maintains both high performance and human dignity.
About the authors: Dr. Teresa Amabile is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. She has an extensive list of publications, primarily on her research on creativity. Coauthor (and Amabile’s husband) Steven Kramer, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer. His research interests include adult development, the meaning of work, and the subjective experience of everyday events inside organizations.
Whether you’re an aspiring or experienced leader, these ideas can make you a hero to your team, increase their productivity (naturally and without manipulation or “incentives”) and improve the quality of your inner work life — all simultaneously and at no cost. Let’s look at how.
This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy of the book from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: Ebook | Audiobook | Print
Inner work life is the blend of perceptions, emotions, and motivations we experience as we react to and interpret workplace events.
Perceptions are thoughts ranging from fleeting impressions to full-blown theories about work events. They can be straightforward observations of workday incidents or assessments of the organization, its employees, the managers, the work, and oneself.
When something happens at work that catches our attention, we try to make sense of it. Our minds pose a series of questions. The more ambiguous or unexpected the incident, the more questions it elicits. Frequently we aren’t consciously aware of this process as it unfolds.
Emotions are positive or negative feelings about events as well as overall moods. They significantly impact various work behaviors, including creativity, decision-making, and negotiation.
Motivation is a person’s understanding of what needs to be done and their drive to do it. It involves their decision to perform a task, willingness to exert effort, and the drive to continue that effort.
Of the many potential sources of motivation, three are most applicable to the workplace:
- Extrinsic motivation refers to the drive to take action to obtain something else.
- Intrinsic motivation is deep engagement in and satisfaction from the work itself.
- Altruistic or relational motivation stems from the desire to connect with others and help them.
The same person can have multiple motivations for the same task simultaneously.
Motivation keeps going until something gets in the way. As long as the work is meaningful, managers don’t have to spend time motivating people to do it. By removing barriers to progress, managers can help people experience accomplishment, which brings them intrinsic satisfaction.
Inner work life is a system
Inner work life is a fluid, dynamic interaction of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that create an overall subjective experience. These cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes are immediately triggered when something happens at work. Everyone’s inner work life is a continuous stream of this sort of sensemaking.
Even though inner work life is likely expressed through emotions, it is more than emotions. And while emotional intelligence is a critical skill, emotions are only part of the picture. It’s crucial to consider perceptions and motivations alongside emotions. All three are essential.
Changes in one aspect of the inner work-life system impact the others because perceptions, emotions, and motivations are intertwined. The areas of the brain responsible for perception and cognition are closely connected to areas responsible for emotions. These neural connections are responsible for the complex interaction between people’s thoughts, feelings, and drives, which determines how they approach their work and behave toward coworkers.
Because the inner work-life system is intimately related to the brain’s structure, it is part of what it is to be human.
At the same time that people form perceptions, they also react emotionally to what is happening. That can range from an immediate emotional response to a fleeting event to a general shift in their mood in response to a string of events, e.g., having a good or bad day where everything seems to be going well or going wrong.
How you see the event affects how you feel about it, and how you feel about it affects how you see it. Because the parts are closely linked, the whole inner work-life system affects performance. But motivation is the most important source of influence.
Every moment that they are performing their jobs, employees are “working under the influence” of their inner work lives.
Don’t write it off as personality
People’s inner work lives are shaped more by workplace events than by personality. The authors acknowledge that everyone has a backstory: our “accumulated experience in a particular [environment] over a particular period.” And we interpret events against our backstory. “Real people have real backstories at work, and they form perceptions against those backstories.”
What shapes inner work life?
Three types of events have the most influence on inner work life:
- Progress — Signs that one is making progress in work that is meaningful to them, such as forward movement, small wins, breakthroughs, or goal completion. (The authors call it “The Progress Principle,” which they say is the most important finding of their study.)
- Catalysts — Actions that support or enable the work or the project, such as clear goals, autonomy, resources, sufficient time, help with the work, the opportunity to learn from problems and successes, and the free flow of ideas
- Nourishers/Nourishment — Actions that support or energize the people doing the work, such as respect, encouragement, emotional support, and affiliation.
Progress in meaningful work is the most potent influence on inner work life, followed by catalysts and nourishers. In the authors’ study, 85 percent of participants’ best-mood days had one or more of these types of positive events.
Inner work life thrives on progress. When you make progress on work you consider important, you experience positive emotions such as satisfaction, delight, and joy. The result is a sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and positive views of the work and the organization, and a self-reinforcing “work progress loop” is formed.
Work doesn’t need to be profoundly important to society to be meaningful. What counts is whether you perceive your work as contributing value to somebody or something important to you. That might be providing a high-quality and valuable product to your customers, service to the community, or supporting a colleague. It doesn’t matter how lofty or modest the work is so long as it is meaningful to you.
Progress motivates people to take on tough challenges and stick with them. Humans have a fundamental motivation toward self-efficacy: the belief that they can plan and perform the tasks required to attain their goals. Consequently, people feel good when they achieve or make progress toward a meaningful goal since their expectations and reality line up. It builds their sense of self-efficacy, which motivates them to tackle the next task.
While work progress is the most potent positive, setbacks in the work are the most powerful adverse events. Setbacks can make a person feel generally apathetic toward the tasks.
The progress loop: work progress and inner life feed each other. It’s a type of interaction that’s been called “cumulative causation.” Inner work life is enhanced by progress (the progress principle), and positive inner work life leads to further progress (the inner work life effect).
It’s a virtuous cycle, but the opposite is also true. The loop can function as a vicious cycle. Inner work life and progress move in tandem, whether improving or going downhill.
Daily progress fuels employees’ inner work lives, contributing to the organization’s success. The key is ensuring that your team is progressing on meaningful work daily, regardless of the inevitable setbacks in all substantive work. The progress loop is a win-win-win for the employees, the managers, and the organization.
Catalysts are the second most significant influence on inner work life, behind the progress principle. A catalyst can be “anything that directly facilitates the timely, creative, high-quality completion of the work.” Inhibitors are the mirror opposite of a catalyst.
When people become aware of the presence of a catalyst, their reactions are instantaneous. They get an instant boost to their perceptions, emotions, and motivations as soon as they recognize the presence of a catalyst. The opposite is true – reaction to an inhibitor is equally instantaneous but in a negative direction.
The seven most essential catalysts:
- Clear goals. Unambiguous short and long-term goals provide the milestones necessary to tell if you’re making progress.
- Allowing for autonomy. This increases self-efficacy and creativity.
- Providing resources such as equipment, funding, data, materials, and personnel. In addition to enabling success, this signifies that the organization values the team’s work.
- Allowing enough time – but not too much. Extreme time pressure, when necessary, is okay for the short term. And no time pressure can lead to boredom which the study found also leads to the deterioration of inner work life. The best conditions for creativity are low or moderate time pressure punctuated by occasional spurts of focused urgency.
- Providing assistance with the work. The right kind of help, from the right people, at the right time, can significantly enhance inner work life.
- Taking lessons from failures and successes. Facing problems squarely and learning from success and failure in a psychologically-safe environment where it’s okay to point out mistakes.
- Encouraging the flow of ideas. Study participants reported some of their best days when ideas about their projects were shared freely within the team and the organization. And especially when vigorous debate and constructive criticism were encouraged by managers. Conversely, people withdrew when managers shut down debate or criticized new ideas.
The “nourishment factor” points to what everyone wants at work: to connect with others. Some people may care more about nourishers than others, but none of us can thrive without them. As people, we want to be respected, known, cared for, and enjoyed by others. We feel happiness, pride, and sometimes even love when they do.
The four significant nourishers of progress:
- Demonstrate respect. People’s feelings of respect or disrespect are influenced by how people around them act, especially managers. Recognition may be the most important; people feel respected when their efforts are acknowledged. Managers can also show respect by taking employees’ ideas seriously. Even if a manager tries to spare a person’s feelings, when they realize that the manager is misleading them, they conclude the manager doesn’t trust their professionalism.
- Provide encouragement. You can nurture people’s inner work lives through encouragement in two ways. As a manager, you can inspire employees with your enthusiasm, particularly when the encouragement emphasizes the significance of the work. A manager expressing confidence in the team’s abilities will boost their sense of self-efficacy – their belief that they are effective.
- Offer emotional support. Emotions are one of three essential components of inner work life. And people feel more connected to others at work when their emotions are validated. When managers, without prying, acknowledge people’s frustrations and joys can do a lot to mitigate the negatives and emphasize the positives, thus elevating inner work life.
- Foster affiliation. Affiliation refers to bonds of mutual trust, appreciation, and loyalty among coworkers. It’s the human connection and sense of belonging at work. A more closely bonded team will, across the board, have better inner work lives and will be more productive. Constructive actions that explicitly benefit the team (not done for the sake of the work or the project) can foster affiliation.
Negative events outweigh the positives
The negative forms of the three key influences can seriously undermine inner work life:
- The opposite of progress is setbacks, such as dead ends or reversals.
- As opposed to catalysts, inhibitors hinder the work.
- Toxins are interpersonal events that undermine people instead of nourishing them.
Negative events are more potent than positive events, all other things being equal. Consider:
- Compared to progress, setbacks have twice the power to diminish happiness and three times the power to increase frustration.
- Adverse events at work affect mood five times more than positive ones.
- The negative behaviors of team leaders have a more significant impact on employees than positive behaviors, and employees remember negative behaviors more vividly than positive actions.
Small events – positive or negative – can have outsized influence. Even seemingly insignificant events can profoundly affect people’s inner work life. In the authors’ study, over 28 percent of the small events triggered disproportionately larger reactions. And a single incident can continue to impact people and their work long after the event has passed.
Progress and setbacks are the most prominent positive and negative events of all the events that happen at work — by a wide margin. They were the most frequently mentioned events in the 12,000 journal entries.
How inner work life affects performance
The four dimensions of high performance are creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality, especially when people must work together to solve challenges. Positive inner work life positively affects all four. (Since creativity is a crucial performance factor — and positive inner work life has a similar impact across all four factors — the book focuses on the impact on creativity.)
Positive emotions foster creativity. Participants in the authors’ study reported a 50% increase in creative ideas on days when they also reported positive moods versus days when they reported negative moods.
Emotions have a carry-over effect. Positive moods lead to more creative thinking the following day and somewhat the day after. This holds even when considering the person’s mood in those later days.
Perceptions also affect creativity. People are more creative when they see their organization and its leaders positively – when leaders are seen as collaborative, cooperative, open to new ideas, capable of evaluating new ideas reasonably, focused on an innovative vision, and willing to reward creativity.
Performance is improved through increased attention to tasks, elevated engagement in the work, and a stronger intention to work hard resulting from the inner work life effect. Positive inner work life helps people perform better and positively impacts physical health.
Employee perceptions of work impact employee retention, customer loyalty, and financial performance, according to another extensive study cited in the book. These researchers at Gallup and the University of Iowa went on to say, “[s]pecific workplace conditions such as role clarity, feeling appreciated, coworker relationships, and opportunities to learn [lead to] various organizational performance outcomes.” And they concluded, “Improving employee work perceptions can improve business competitiveness while positively impacting the well-being of the employees.”
Advice for leaders and managers
You are in a great position to support positive inner work life for your people – to clear the barriers to progress and provide infusions of catalysts and nourishers. Moreover, managers’ actions have an outsized impact on their teams’ inner work lives.
Make sure your organization’s culture supports good inner work life. Leaders are responsible for stewarding their organization’s culture — and changing it if necessary. Here are three organizational culture characteristics that shape catalyst and inhibitor events, which in turn, influence inner work life:
- Consideration for people and their ideas. Managers at all levels respect employee dignity and the value of their ideas. In addition to serving as examples and facilitators of civil discourse, managers welcome the contributions of all members.
- Coordination. Collaboration between individuals and groups is facilitated through systems and procedures. Organizational structure aligns with strategic goals and employees’ skill sets.
- Communication. Clear, honest, respectful, and free-flowing communication is essential for sustaining progress, coordinating work, establishing trust, and conveying the value of people and their ideas.
It’s more than getting “the right people on the bus.” As important as that is, it’s a flawed assumption that an employee’s inherent characteristics solely determine performance. Environment matters.
An opportunity for managers. When you support your people’s inner work lives, you can simultaneously help them succeed, foster the long-term success of your organization, and nurture your own inner work life through these actions, which add meaning to your work.
Advice for team leaders
Team leaders have unique leverage when it comes to the inner work life of their teams. Because of their proximity, they can play a more direct catalyst role than top managers. They feed their team members’ inner work lives when they reward or acknowledge their people’s good work, encourage them, or give them emotional support.
Remove the negatives first. Start by eliminating the obstacles that cause setbacks, things that hinder the work, and toxins that affect team members. These negatives have a far more significant impact than the positives. Remove them and let the positives flourish.
Don’t inadvertently undercut the meaning of the work. Avoid these four things that can negate the meaning:
- Having one’s work or ideas dismissed by managers or coworkers.
- Losing ownership over one’s work.
- Casting doubt that anyone will see one’s work.
- Feeling overqualified for the tasks you are being assigned.
Foster team bonds. Closely bonded team members will have better inner work lives and will be more productive. Team bonds can enhance collaboration, increase idea flow, and decrease interpersonal conflicts. Actions you take explicitly for the team’s benefit (not for the sake of the work or the project) can foster affiliation. This is especially important for teams where people work remotely or join as contract workers or on loan from another area.
Support the free flow of ideas. In the authors’ study, when managers genuinely listened to their employees, encouraged vigorous debate from many different points of view, and respected constructive criticism, even of themselves, ideas flowed best. People seemed to pull into themselves when managers shut down debate or criticized new ideas. In a self-protective mode, people’s inner work life is ruled by fearful emotions, negative thoughts about the workplace, and decreased motivation.
Handle problems directly and responsibly. When problems were faced squarely, analyzed, and met with plans to overcome or learn from them, inner work life was much more positive. Conversely, neglecting, punishing, or mishandling problems impair inner work life.
Celebrate success. When successes were celebrated and analyzed for knowledge gained, study participants’ thoughts, feelings, and drives improved. If success was ignored or questioned, they did worse.
Take a learning stance toward mistakes and failures. A psychologically safe environment is essential for people to take risks and be able to produce innovative work. In this environment, mistakes are commended, which promotes learning and the ability to move on after a failure.
Use a progress checklist to support your team:
- Be on the lookout for small wins, breakthroughs, setbacks, or possible crises.
- Provide catalysts and nourishers. Buffer the team from inhibitors and toxins.
- Look for signs of the quality of the team members’ inner work lives.
- Create an action plan.
As a team leader, your team’s progress is your progress.
Book details and where to buy it:
Get the book on Amazon: Ebook | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.5
Goodreads rating: 3.9
Page count: 272
Publication date: July 19, 2011
Author website: http://www.progressprinciple.com/
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