The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

Article excerpt

The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010)

In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer masterfully summarize the findings of their work about the impact of everyday work life on creativity and performance. Based on rigorously designed behavioral experiments, Amabile and Kramer present clear evidence that challenges conventional approaches to employee motivation. "The best way to motivate people, day in and day out," they find, is not with conventional motivators, such as performance bonuses, but "by facilitating progress." Based on that finding, they recommend that corporate leaders reshape their roles from being managers of people--recruiting, motivating, developing, evaluating, rewarding--to facilitators of progress, focused on helping people succeed at moving forward with meaningful work. Managers and leaders must take an active role in ensuring that employees have rewarding inner work lives by removing obstacles to progress.

Seven companies from the high-tech, consumer products, and chemical industries participated in the authors' study, with an average of four teams participating per company. The companies were very diverse, ranging from young startups to established companies, small to large. A total of 11,637 daily surveys were completed by 238 employees over an average of 19 weeks. The individual participants were highly educated--about 82% had at least a college degree and some had graduate education--with a mean age of 38 years. This profile is representative of the contemporary knowledge worker, giving the book immediate relevance for current managers.

The central idea of The Progress Principle is that meaningful accomplishments have a strong positive impact on an employee's inner work life and a positive inner work life drives performance. Here is how the progress principle works. Our inner work life comprises our emotions, perceptions, and motivations; creativity, the authors found, is correlated to all three. Positive emotions enhance creativity, as does a positive perception of the work environment; employees intrinsically motivated by interesting, enjoyable, and challenging work are more creative. All three dimensions are positively affected when we achieve small wins and breakthroughs, reach goals, and get the feeling that we are moving forward. However, Amabile and Kramer discovered that simply getting tasks done is not enough to guarantee a good inner work life. For the progress principle to operate, the work must be meaningful to the person doing it. Here, what matters is not any objective notion of value, but that we perceive that our work is contributing value to something or someone. …