The Progress Principle: A book review by Bob Morris

The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
Harvard Business Review Press (2011)

How to “unravel the mystery of what really affects workplace creativity”

The information, insights, and recommendations that Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer provide in this book are research-driven — based on real people in real-world situations — and thus have a legitimacy that would not otherwise be credible. The authors collected data from 238 professionals on 26 project teams who reported their day-to-day workplace experiences in seven companies. Analyzing the 12,000 daily electronic diaries they gathered, the authors obtained answers to two “burning” questions: “How do positive and negative work environments arise?” and “How do they affect people’s creative problem solving?” The revelations are shared in this book. Here are three that were of greatest interest to me.

First, what Amabile and Kramer characterize as “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 is inner because it goes on inside each person…It is work because that is both where it arises – at the office – and what it is about – what people do…[and it is life] because it is an ongoing, inevitable part of the human experience at work every day.” The challenge for leaders is to determine how to create and then sustain workplace conditions — at all levels and in all areas — that will foster positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favorable perceptions of colleagues and the work itself. “Great inner work life is about the work, not the accoutrements…As inner work life goes, so goes the company…Work-related psychological benefits for employees translate into performance benefits for the company…and the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress – even small wins.”

By now, those who are reading this brief commentary are no doubt curious to know what The Progress Principle is. (I certainly was when I began to read the book.) Its nature has already been suggested in the previous paragraph: The single most important event supporting inner work life is making progress in meaningful work. The book guides and informs efforts to facilitate progress, “even small wins.” All organizations need leadership at all levels and in all areas. Therefore, what Amabile and Kramer characterize as “the power of meaningful accomplishment” must be generated throughout the given enterprise. Setbacks are to be expected. In fact, if viewed and (key point) if taken full advantage of as precious learning opportunities, setbacks can be invaluable allies to progress, whatever its nature and scale may be. The three primary influences are events that signify progress (e.g. goal completion), events that support the work (e.g. setting clear goals that everyone understands), and events that support the individual worker (e.g. continuous indications of being appreciated). Progress offers evidence of achievement; setbacks offer evidence of what has yet to be achieved.

I was also keenly interested in know what the unique leadership challenges are for those who attempt to establish and sustain an “Inner Work Life Culture.” Almost immediately, in the Introduction, Amabile and Kramer share startling results from the research: “95 percent of the leaders [surveyed] fundamentally misunderstood the most important source of motivation [when ranking] `supporting progress’ dead last as a work motivator.” Amabile and Kramer provide a wealth of invaluable advice throughout their narrative about effective leadership, much of it in Chapter 6 (“The Catalyst Factor: The Power of Project Support”) and Chapter 7 (“The Nourishment Factor: The Power of Interpersonal Support”). In brief, the defining characteristics of effective supervisors and team leaders include: (1) Showing that they respect people and the work they do; (2) Recognizing and rewarding the accomplishments of those for whom they are directly responsible and also praising other associates; (3) When needed, provide emotional support to those who report to them; and (4) create opportunities for the development of friendship and camaraderie between and among team members.

Before concluding this commentary, I presume to note that during exit interviews of hundreds of thousands of highly-valued employees who are leaving to pursue their career elsewhere, the one reason cited more often than all others combined is their supervisor. More specifically, what they perceive to be an insufficiency of one or more of these from their “boss”: respect, encouragement, emotional support, and affiliation. It is no coincidence that these four fundamental human needs serve as the foundation of the Inner Work Life Culture.

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