Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer: An interview by Bob Morris

Teresa Amabile

Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Originally educated as a chemist, Teresa received her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. She studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. Teresa’s research encompasses creativity, productivity, innovation, and inner work life – the confluence of emotions, perceptions, and motivation that people experience as they react to events at work.

Steven Kramer

Steven Kramer is an independent researcher and writer in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is also co-author of The Progress Principle. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from UCLA, and his doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Virginia. Steve’s current research interests include adult development, the meaning of work in human life, and the subjective experience of everyday events inside organizations (inner work life). Previously, he researched the perceptual and cognitive development of infants and young children.

Morris: Before discussing The Progress Principle, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Amabile: My undergraduate mentors at Canisius College were extremely important in my personal growth. Let me describe one of several. Professor Frank Dinan, a chemist and my research supervisor for several years, helped me think through my love of science, my growing interest in psychology, and implications for my career choices. More than that, he was a model of a principled, intrinsically motivated professional – someone who obviously loved his work, cared about his profession, and nurtured the people around him.

Kramer: It is hard to choose one person. I would have to say that it was a group of women who did volunteer work at a school for children with behavior problems where I worked when I was in my twenties. From them I learned the value of doing meaningful work and the joy and satisfaction that it can bring. And I also learned much about myself and my own value through the contribution that I helped to make in the lives of those children.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Kramer: Another tough one. There are so many, but I will limit it to two people – Studs Terkel and Peter Drucker. Although I wasn’t able to meet either one of them, their work has had a profound effect on my thinking and my feelings about work. Both of them viewed work as something that could and should help to fulfill people’s lives. And they saw the nobility in work of all kinds. My hope is that our work, in its own small way, can build onto the foundation that they built.

Amabile: I think that would be my graduate mentors at Stanford University – psychology professors Mark Lepper (who got me interested in studying motivation, and supported my early explorations of creativity), Lee Ross (who introduced me to the excitement of experimental research on causal attribution), Phil Zimbardo (who helped me learn to teach), and Daryl and Sandy Bem (who modeled passion for their work, superb writing, and balancing family life with professional work).

Morris: Here are two questions for Teresa. First, When and why did you first become so interested in the creative process?

Amabile: As a child, I overheard my kindergarten teacher tell my mother that I showed great potential for artistic creativity. When I failed to show any achievement in art by the end of elementary school, I wondered why. Years later, when I began studying intrinsic motivation at Stanford, it occurred to me that motivational state could be terribly important for creativity – and might depend on the social environment as much as on natural talent. I began to read the creativity literature… and the rest is (my) history.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about creativity?

Amabile: A few myths crop up frequently: creativity is only possible in certain professions (like art or science); creativity depends primarily on talent; creativity thrives under pressure or unhappiness.

Morris: Now a few questions for Steve. In 1924, 3M’s then chairman and CEO, William L. McKnight observed: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” Here’s the first part of the question: What must supervisors do to accommodate both an organization’s need for structure and constraints and its workers’ need for “the room they need”?

Kramer: Supervisors must provide the overall direction for the organization and clearly communicate it their people. But they should do so with input from below. The workers in the trenches are much closer to the customers than management and they have more intimate knowledge of the practical constraints in meeting those goals. The direction of the organization must also be accompanied by a purpose or meaning, since it is meaningful work that engages people in the work. By meaningful work, we simply mean that the work has some meaning or value to the person doing it. It can be a lofty goal like curing cancer, but it can also be as mundane is providing a quality product or a useful service to your customer.

Once supervisors have provided workers with clear goals, they must do two things. First, support them in meeting those goals. Give them the resources and help that they need to succeed for the organization and for themselves. Second, give them the autonomy to use their talents, skills and knowledge in meeting those goals. In other words, check in with your people and find out what they need and, to the extent possible, give it to them. But do not look over their shoulders and tell them how to do their job. This is the difference between “checking-in” and “checking-up.”

Morris: If the results of recent research studies are to be believed, on average, less than 30% of a workforce in the U.S. are positively and productively engaged; the other employees are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively engaged in undermining the company. How do you explain this?

Kramer: There are obviously many reasons for this. But we think that a critical reason is that people are not making steady progress on work that they find meaningful. We found that of all the things that make people happily engaged in their work, the single most important one is simply making progress in meaningful work. We call this discovery the progress principle. Unfortunately, when we surveyed nearly 700 managers from around the world, we found that few understood how important meaningful work is to motivation.

And this problem has been exacerbated by the economic turn down. Companies are cutting back on people and resources, and this is making it much more difficult for people to move forward. Of course, management often has real concerns about costs. But people simply cannot be expected to succeed if they are not given what they need, and this will inevitably hurt both the organization and the people doing the work.

Morris: Opinions are divided – sometimes sharply divided – about 360º feedback. Some favor anonymity, others transparency, and still others want absolutely nothing to do with it. What are your own thoughts about 360º feedback?

Kramer: I think opinions are sharply divided on this because there are both positive and negative aspects to 360º feedback. In organizations where there is a high level of trust and respect, and where 360º feedback is used primarily as a learning tool, it can have a very positive effect. However, when that trust is not there, and where it is used solely to judge people, it will be very negative.

But even when it is used well, it is most often too infrequent. Annual reviews are of little help in fostering the kind of daily progress that fuels engagement in the work. Rather, there needs to be a constant flow of communication moving up and down the organization, where all ideas are listened to and respected – and where people get the support they need.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Progress Principle. When and why did you decide to write it, and write it together?

Amabile: The Progress Principle arose out of a multi-year research program that looked at what really goes on inside the hearts and minds of people at work, and how this affects performance. To study that, we asked 238 professionals working on creative teams to email us a diary form each work day for the length of a project. The form included a number of scale-rated questions about participants’ progress, creativity, moods and perceptions on the day. But the most important data was an open-ended question asking them to describe one event that happened that day that was related in some way to the work. When we were done, we had almost 12,000 of these diaries.

When we analyzed this data, two related findings rose to the top. First, was the inner work life effect. Inner work life is our term for the constant flow of emotions, perceptions and motivations that people experience as they react to and try to make sense of the events that occur throughout the work day. The inner work life effect is the strong influence that inner work life has on performance: creativity, productivity, commitment to the work, and collegiality. The second was the progress principle. These are reciprocal – positive inner work life leads to higher performance, and progress leads to better inner work life.

Kramer: I became involved in the research organically. Teresa and I would talk about her research over dinner and during walks. Soon, I found myself helping with the design and the data analysis, and then coauthoring articles. As we began to see what we had in the data, it became clear to us that we needed to write a book. First, the data were so rich and complex, that the only way we could truly understand the whole picture ourselves was to write a book. And second, it became clear that we had discovered something that could not only make the lives of people within organizations better, it could help to improve the performance of those organizations.

Morris: Who brought what to the collaboration?

Kramer: I think we were complementary, both intellectually and temperamentally. Teresa is more careful and detail oriented, while I am more spontaneous and tend focus on the big picture. I am more technologically inclined and more sophisticated regarding statistics and data analyses. Teresa certainly has a better grasp of business and management theory than I do, and is a more talented writer. As a developmental psychologist, I probably help out most when we need to understand some of the more childish behavior described in our diaries!

Amabile: Steve’s description is quite accurate. Our skills our quite complementary, and so are our styles – when they aren’t clashing! Overall, I feel that our appreciation for each other has deepened through this experience. Our marriage is still strong and highly enjoyable!

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations during your research? Please explain.

Amabile: Probably the most surprising was the primacy of the progress principle. As psychologists, we started out thinking that recognition or interpersonal support would be the most important contributor to inner work life. While we believed that progress was an important factor, we were surprised that it was the most important one – by a wide margin.

Of course, in retrospect, it all seems obvious now, but we were like a lot of other people — including many managers — in not recognizing its importance. Not long ago, we surveyed nearly 700 managers, asking them to rank five employee motivators (including incentives, recognition, etc.) in terms of importance. Only 5% chose progress as #1.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Kramer: Interesting question, and a bit of a sore subject. Actually, we wrote three versions of this book. The first was really for ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, we actually needed to write a version of the book in order to integrate and make sense of all the data we had. The second version we did intend for publication, but it really did not reflect the experiences that our participants expressed in their diaries very well. The final version is a big improvement and we are very pleased with it. We are truly grateful to everyone who helped us along the way. Take a look in our Acknowledgements for all the names!

Morris: Please explain the reference to “the new rules” in the Introduction.

Amabile: According to the conventional rules, managers manage people. They recruit the best talent, provide them with incentives, review their performance, and retain and promote those who clear the bar. While these activities are certainly important, they miss a crucial role of the manager because they assume that performance depends solely on something inherent in the individual worker. The progress principle suggests another critical role of management – managing for progress.

When you do what it takes to facilitate progress in work people care about, managing them – and the organization – becomes much more straightforward. You don’t need to parse their psyches or tinker with their incentives, because helping them succeed virtually guarantees good inner work life and strong performance.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain what you mean by “inner work life.” For example, what are its components and dynamics? What are its vital signs?

Kramer: Inner work life is the confluence of emotions, perceptions and motivations that people experience throughout their work day. Emotions are the feelings we have toward our work, our colleagues, our organization and even ourselves. Perceptions are our thoughts and impressions of those same things, including our sensemaking – our attempt to make sense of the events that happen throughout the day. Finally, motivation is our drive to do the work, and the basis for the drive.

These three components interact with each other in complex ways. For instance, when you are motivated by a passion for the work itself, you feel joy in doing it even when the work is challenging. When you are happy, your perception of the work and the people around you will be more positive and vice versa – when your perceptions are positive you will tend to be happier. Because of these interactions, the only way to understand inner work life is to see it as a complex system. Trying to understand the components in isolation can never capture the full richness of inner work life.

Morris: How does inner work life “drive performance”?

Amabile: Positive inner work life leads to higher creativity, productivity, commitment to the work, and collegiality. For example, one study with these data showed that, when people experience more positive moods on one day, they are not only more likely to come up with a creative idea that day, they are also more likely to come up with a creative idea the next day.

Morris: By what process did you formulate the Progress Principle?

Kramer: We discovered it empirically by looking at both our quantitative data and the qualitative data contained in the diaries. There were, in fact, a number of analyses that support the progress principle. In one study, we used peoples’ self-ratings of their inner work lives and compared their “event of the day” descriptions on their very best inner work life days with their very worst days. When we did this, we found that the most frequent type of event to occur on best days, by far, was simply making progress on meaningful work. In fact, 76% of peoples’ best days included some kind of progress. In contrast, their worst days were characterized by setbacks – 67% of peoples’ worst days contained a setback of some kind.

Morris: What is the relevance of the Progress Principle to “using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work”?

Amabile: When we looked at the kind of progress that happened on peoples’ best days, we found that it was often a small or incremental step forward rather than a major breakthrough. The same was true in the opposite direction for setbacks, though, unfortunately, more so. The negative effect of setbacks on inner work life was 2-3 times stronger than the positive impact of progress.

This has an important implication. While “big, hairy, audacious goals” (or BHAGS) are great for providing strategic direction and meaning to the work, they are obtained too infrequently to drive the progress principle. When you have those BHAGS, it is critical to break them down into smaller goals that can be reached in reasonable time periods, so workers can consistently feel the sense of accomplishment that accompanies progress.

Morris: What is the catalyst factor and why is it significant?

Kramer: We discovered two major classes of events that help drive progress in the work. The first set of events are “catalysts” that directly support progress in the work. Catalysts include things like providing clear goals and sufficient resources. Their opposite is inhibitors, which serve to block progress. The second class of actions are “nourishers” which drive progress indirectly by supporting inner work life which, in turn, drives performance. Nourishers include things like showing respect and recognition and providing emotional support. Their opposite are toxins, which poison inner work life.

Morris: Please explain “the power of small losses.”

Amabile: Avoiding small losses is critical because they can have such an outsized negative impact on inner work life. Recall that their negative effect is 2-3 times greater than the positive effect of progress, and thus they can quickly lead to a downward spiral. Therefore, it is important to not only support progress, but to take extra care to remove small hassles and other obstacles to progress. And because some setbacks are inevitable, it is crucial to do two things. First, make sure that people are making consistent progress so that the power of progress can overcome the power of small losses. Second, avoid treating setbacks as failures, by creating mechanisms for using them as learning opportunities and challenges instead.

Morris: Briefly, what is the “neuroscience of inner work life”?

Kramer: Neuroscientists and psychologists, including Antonio Damasio, have shown that there are deep interconnections between the brain centers that are important for emotions, motivations, perceptions, problem solving, and decision-making. Our finding that performance, emotions, motivations and perceptions are interdependent in the workplace is a real-world confirmation of the neuroscience.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question to your response to the previous question: So what?

Amabile: The neuroscience shows that inner work life is a fundamental part of being human. It cannot be ignored because it sounds like soft science, or it is messy to deal with. The reality is that people’s performance is inescapably tied to their inner work lives, and therefore managers must take it seriously if they want to have high performance organizations.

Morris: Please explain how and why happiness can “boost creativity.”

Kramer: Positive affect, such as happiness or joy, can serve to broaden people’s thinking. For instance, Barbara Fredrickson has shown that people are more open to new ideas and experience and more flexible in their thinking when their emotions are positive. In contrast, when people have negative emotions, they tend to shut off new ideas and avoid new experiences. In extreme cases, such as fear, people — like other animals — are reduced to simply choosing between flight and fight.

Morris: To what extent (if any) can stress be a positive factor in inner work life?

Amabile: Low to moderate levels of stress for short periods of time can have positive impacts on inner work life. Periodic moderate stress can make us feel excited and appropriately aroused to action. However, stress will eventually begin to diminish inner work life. And extremely high levels of stress are almost always negative.

Morris: What is the “nourishment factor”? Why is it significant?

Amabile: The nourishment factor is the second class of events that support progress. Nourishers include showing respect and emotional support. They support progress indirectly by nourishing inner work life. They are significant because they help to make people happy and motivated, which in turn makes them more creative and productive at work.

Morris: What are the benefits of a daily checklist? What should be recorded? Then what?

Kramer: The importance of the daily checklist is to help managers create and sustain a climate of attention to daily progress and inner work life. By taking the time at the end of each day to reflect on what progress was made and what facilitated and inhibited progress, they will be better able to continue that progress and remove any obstacles the following day. In addition, by simply being aware of progress, managers are in a better position to recognize workers for their contributions to that progress. And finally, by paying attention to the progress of their direct reports, managers can fuel their own inner work lives, as they come to recognize that the progress of their people is also their own progress.

It is important to take the time to record progress in order to make it a habit. In our busy  lives, it is all too easy to just move on to the next item on our to-do list, and never appreciate what we or our team actually accomplished. By making it a habit to attend to and celebrate progress, we can begin to really take advantage of the power of progress on inner work life.

Included in the checklist are action items for the next day. So, the next step is to make a plan for the next day and follow through on it. We believe that if this becomes a habit, the increase in progress that will result will motivate managers to continue to use it regularly.

Morris: Why “journal for well-being”? Then what?

Amabile:  Our checklist was designed for managers, but what about others in the organizations? What about the workers in the trenches? What can they do? When we were finishing up our research, we were surprised that a number of participants said that they would miss filling out the diary form. Others asked us if we could keep sending it to them. We were surprised, because we assumed that these questionnaires would be viewed as a nuisance, and that after filling them out each day for months, people would never want to see them again. But many of these workers said that they found a few minutes of reflection at the end of the day to be really beneficial. It helped them to reflect on what they were doing, what they had accomplished, and how they could improve their work and their lives. In fact, these comments were one of the inspirations for developing the daily progress checklist for managers.

Of course, in retrospect, we should not have been surprised. There has been abundant research by Jamie Pennebaker and others showing that daily journaling can have great psychological benefit. And people as diverse as Oprah Winfrey and General George Patton have attested to the value of journaling in their own lives.

*     *     *

Amabile and Kramer cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

For more about The Progress Principle, please click here.

You can also watch a video (about four minutes in length) offering a portion of an interview during which Teresa Amabile discusses The Progress Principle.  To watch the video, please click here.

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