Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work. The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation. In fact, work motivation has been a subject of long-standing debate. In a survey asking about the keys to motivating workers, we found that some managers ranked recognition for good work as most important, while others put more stock in tangible incentives. Some focused on the value of interpersonal support, while still others thought clear goals were the answer.
Interestingly, very few of our surveyed managers ranked progress first. The diary research we describe in this article—in which we microscopically examined the events of thousands of workdays, in real time—uncovered the mechanism underlying the sense of achievement: making consistent, meaningful progress. To assess contemporary awareness of the importance of daily work progress, we recently administered a survey to managers of varying levels from dozens of companies around the world.
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The respondents ranked five tools—support for making progress in the work, recognition for good work, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals—in order of importance. The vast majority of respondents ranked support for making progress dead last as a motivator and third as an influence on emotion. In our diary study, recognition certainly did boost inner work life. Besides, without work achievements, there is little to recognize. If you are a manager, the progress principle holds clear implications for where to focus your efforts.
Knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress—and what does the opposite—turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work. In this article, we share what we have learned about the power of progress and how managers can leverage it. We spell out how a focus on progress translates into concrete managerial actions and provide a checklist to help make such behaviors habitual.
For nearly 15 years, we have been studying the psychological experiences and the performance of people doing complex work inside organizations. How happy workers feel; how motivated they are by an intrinsic interest in the work; how positively they view their organization, their management, their team, their work, and themselves—all these combine either to push them to higher levels of achievement or to drag them down.
To understand such interior dynamics better, we asked members of project teams to respond individually to an end-of-day e-mail survey during the course of the project—just over four months, on average. The projects—inventing kitchen gadgets, managing product lines of cleaning tools, and solving complex IT problems for a hotel empire, for example—all involved creativity. Twenty-six project teams from seven companies participated, comprising individuals. This yielded nearly 12, diary entries. Naturally, every individual in our population experienced ups and downs. Our goal was to discover the states of inner work life and the workday events that correlated with the highest levels of creative output.
In a dramatic rebuttal to the commonplace claim that high pressure and fear spur achievement, we found that, at least in the realm of knowledge work, people are more creative and productive when their inner work lives are positive—when they feel happy, are intrinsically motivated by the work itself, and have positive perceptions of their colleagues and the organization. Moreover, in those positive states, people are more committed to the work and more collegial toward those around them.
Inner work life, we saw, can fluctuate from one day to the next—sometimes wildly—and performance along with it. Once this inner work life effect became clear, our inquiry turned to whether and how managerial action could set it in motion. What events could evoke positive or negative emotions, motivations, and perceptions? There are predictable triggers that inflate or deflate inner work life, and, even accounting for variation among individuals, they are pretty much the same for everyone. Our hunt for inner work life triggers led us to the progress principle. Consider, for example, how progress relates to one component of inner work life: overall mood ratings.
Progress—even a small step forward—occurs on many of the days people report being in a good mood. Two other types of inner work life triggers also occur frequently on best days: Catalysts , actions that directly support work, including help from a person or group, and nourishers , events such as shows of respect and words of encouragement. Each has an opposite: Inhibitors , actions that fail to support or actively hinder work, and toxins , discouraging or undermining events. Whereas catalysts and inhibitors are directed at the project, nourishers and toxins are directed at the person.
Like setbacks, inhibitors and toxins are rare on days of great inner work life. Inhibitors and toxins also marked many worst-mood days, and catalysts and nourishers were rare. Events on bad days—setbacks and other hindrances—are nearly the mirror image of those on good days. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame. When we analyzed all 12, daily surveys filled out by our participants, we discovered that progress and setbacks influence all three aspects of inner work life.
On days when they made progress, our participants reported more positive emotions. They not only were in a more upbeat mood in general but also expressed more joy, warmth, and pride. When they suffered setbacks, they experienced more frustration, fear, and sadness. Motivations were also affected: On progress days, people were more intrinsically motivated—by interest in and enjoyment of the work itself.
On setback days, they were not only less intrinsically motivated but also less extrinsically motivated by recognition. Apparently, setbacks can lead a person to feel generally apathetic and disinclined to do the work at all. Perceptions differed in many ways, too. On progress days, people perceived significantly more positive challenge in their work. They saw their teams as more mutually supportive and reported more positive interactions between the teams and their supervisors.
On a number of dimensions, perceptions suffered when people encountered setbacks. They found less positive challenge in the work, felt that they had less freedom in carrying it out, and reported that they had insufficient resources. On setback days, participants perceived both their teams and their supervisors as less supportive. To be sure, our analyses establish correlations but do not prove causality.
Were these changes in inner work life the result of progress and setbacks, or was the effect the other way around?
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The numbers alone cannot answer that. However, we do know, from reading thousands of diary entries, that more-positive perceptions, a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness, and even elation often followed progress. Likewise, we saw that deteriorating perceptions, frustration, sadness, and even disgust often followed setbacks. It is discouraging to not be able to hit it after all the time spent and hard work. Almost certainly, the causality goes both ways, and managers can use this feedback loop between progress and inner work life to support both.
When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions. I felt relieved and happy because this was a minor milestone for me. Because inner work life has such a potent effect on creativity and productivity, and because small but consistent steps forward, shared by many people, can accumulate into excellent execution, progress events that often go unnoticed are critical to the overall performance of organizations.
It's premise is that unlike a Western meal, where everything i separate on the same plate, life is more like a soup—with the ingredients all mixed together—and you cannot partake of just one component without it affecting the others. Everything in life is interdependent. If you are to be productive, all areas of your life must be addressed as a homogeneous whole. Current system of productivity are damaged: They lead to broken lives, broken relationships, stressed out workers, and unproductive behaviors.
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This book emboldens people to get others to work in their system, do more during work hours, and get home on time. On a number of dimensions, perceptions suffered when people encountered setbacks. They found less positive challenge in the work, felt that they had less freedom in carrying it out, and reported that they had insufficient resources.
On setback days, participants perceived both their teams and their supervisors as less supportive. To be sure, our analyses establish correlations but do not prove causality. Were these changes in inner work life the result of progress and setbacks, or was the effect the other way around? The numbers alone cannot answer that. However, we do know, from reading thousands of diary entries, that more-positive perceptions, a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness, and even elation often followed progress.
Likewise, we saw that deteriorating perceptions, frustration, sadness, and even disgust often followed setbacks. It is discouraging to not be able to hit it after all the time spent and hard work. Almost certainly, the causality goes both ways, and managers can use this feedback loop between progress and inner work life to support both. When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough.
These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions. I felt relieved and happy because this was a minor milestone for me.
Because inner work life has such a potent effect on creativity and productivity, and because small but consistent steps forward, shared by many people, can accumulate into excellent execution, progress events that often go unnoticed are critical to the overall performance of organizations. Unfortunately, there is a flip side. Small losses or setbacks can have an extremely negative effect on inner work life. In fact, our study and research by others show that negative events can have a more powerful impact than positive ones.
Consequently, it is especially important for managers to minimize daily hassles.
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Making headway boosts your inner work life, but only if the work matters to you. Many people nominate their first job as a teenager—washing pots and pans in a restaurant kitchen, for example, or checking coats at a museum. In jobs like those, the power of progress seems elusive. No matter how hard you work, there are always more pots to wash and coats to check; only punching the time clock at the end of the day or getting the paycheck at the end of the week yields a sense of accomplishment.
You may have experienced this rude fact in your own job, on days or in projects when you felt demotivated, devalued, and frustrated, even though you worked hard and got things done. The likely cause is your perception of the completed tasks as peripheral or irrelevant. For the progress principle to operate, the work must be meaningful to the person doing it.
Work with less profound importance to society can matter if it contributes value to something or someone important to the worker. Meaning can be as simple as making a useful and high-quality product for a customer or providing a genuine service for a community. Whether the goals are lofty or modest, as long as they are meaningful to the worker and it is clear how his or her efforts contribute to them, progress toward them can galvanize inner work life.
Managers can help employees see how their work is contributing. Most important, they can avoid actions that negate its value. Most jobs in modern organizations are potentially meaningful for the people doing them. However, managers can make sure that employees know just how their work is contributing. And, most important, they can avoid actions that negate its value. Shockingly often, however, we saw potentially important, challenging work losing its power to inspire.
Diary entries from knowledge workers who were members of creative project teams revealed four primary ways in which managers unwittingly drain work of its meaning. Consider the case of Richard, a senior lab technician at a chemical company, who found meaning in helping his new-product development team solve complex technical problems.
However, in team meetings over the course of a three-week period, Richard perceived that his team leader was ignoring his suggestions and those of his teammates. As a result, he felt that his contributions were not meaningful, and his spirits flagged. When at last he believed that he was again making a substantive contribution to the success of the project, his mood improved dramatically:. I felt that my opinions and information were important to the project and that we have made some progress. Frequent and abrupt reassignments often have this effect.
This happened repeatedly to the members of a product development team in a giant consumer products company, as described by team member Bruce:. Especially when you have been with them from the start and are nearly to the end. You lose ownership.
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This happens to us way too often. Managers may send the message that the work employees are doing will never see the light of day. They can signal this—unintentionally—by shifting their priorities or changing their minds about how something should be done. We saw the latter in an internet technology company after user-interface developer Burt had spent weeks designing seamless transitions for non-English-speaking users.
Other options for the international [interfaces] were [given] to the team during a team meeting, which could render the work I am doing useless. Often, this arises from poor customer management or inadequate communication within the company.
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Therefore, there is a strong possibility that all the time and effort put into the project was a waste of our time. What can managers do to ensure that people are motivated, committed, and happy? Catalysts are actions that support work. They include setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing sufficient resources and time, helping with the work, openly learning from problems and successes, and allowing a free exchange of ideas.
Their opposites, inhibitors, include failing to provide support and actively interfering with the work. Because of their impact on progress, catalysts and inhibitors ultimately affect inner work life. But they also have a more immediate impact: When people realize that they have clear and meaningful goals, sufficient resources, helpful colleagues, and so on, they get an instant boost to their emotions, their motivation to do a great job, and their perceptions of the work and the organization. Nourishers are acts of interpersonal support, such as respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional comfort, and opportunities for affiliation.
Toxins, their opposites, include disrespect, discouragement, disregard for emotions, and interpersonal conflict. For good and for ill, nourishers and toxins affect inner work life directly and immediately. For instance, when a manager makes sure that people have the resources they need, it signals to them that what they are doing is important and valuable. When managers recognize people for the work they do, it signals that they are important to the organization. In this way, catalysts and nourishers can lend greater meaning to the work—and amplify the operation of the progress principle.
The managerial actions that constitute catalysts and nourishers are not particularly mysterious; they may sound like Management , if not just common sense and common decency.