The Progress Principle

I’ve come across a number of studies in the past few years that link employee satisfaction with their productivity and tenure on the job. Not surprisingly, when people are happy, they do better work, they enjoy the work they do, and they feel good about the company and co-workers. So the $64,000 question becomes: How do you create an environment that fosters these sensibilities? Dr. Teresa Amabile, PhD and Dr. Steven Kramer, PhD share their insights in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

the progress principleTalented employees look for their employers to provide meaningful work, clear goals, and appropriate measures of autonomy, resources, and help. The degree to which the company delivers on these key elements of their work life affects their creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality. Moreover, companies add “booster rockets” to performance by creating opportunities for employees to realize small “wins” on a consistent basis. Progress stokes motivation.

Most managers aren’t clued into the importance of progress. They rest too easily on compensation packages, longer term performance incentives, high-level goal-setting, and recognition. Yet progress confers confidence and a sense of empowerment. It creates and sustains momentum. Amabile and Kramer would argue that work plans with many small milestones prove more effective than those with a handful of big ones.

Beyond architecting projects with progress in mind, the following factors contribute to an atmosphere of positivity:

  • Due consideration for people and their ideas
  • Adequate time to complete the work (but not too much!)
  • Clear, honest, respectful, free-flowing communication
  • Encouragement to overcome stumbling blocks and forge ahead
  • Post mortems on problems and setbacks that foster learning in a context of psychological safety

Attentive managers stay in touch with their teams to be mindful of their progress and needs. They “check in” without making folks feel as though they’re “checking up.”

As a former corporate employee, I certainly resonated with the core messages in this book and valued the research used to back it up. Yet as one who has been self-employed for many, many years, I needed to adapt the findings to account for wearing the employer and employee hats simultaneously. The obvious adjustments will surround my weekly “to do” lists, as follows:

  • Build each week’s “to do” list with enough work to keep me occupied without overloading the plate (and, therefore, making me feel discouraged or put upon)
  • Define tasks in greater detail to give more opportunities for victory celebrations
  • Reflect on what I’ve accomplished at week’s end rather than simply moving on to the next set of projects and chores
  • Enlist support and resources to help make progress faster!