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

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October 2012

A lot has been written about internal and external motivation of workers. Many lists of possible external rewards and recognitions have been developed. In The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (2011, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, MA) Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer detail their research to learn more about internal motivation.

Amabile and Kramer define ‘inner work life’ as a dynamic state of an individual’s mind that is the result of “…perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday.” (p. 20) Perception involves making sense of the actions of others and the organization, possibly in light of past experiences. Emotion can be pleasant or unpleasant, and mild or intense. Motivation includes the decision to work on a task, the amount of effort to expend, and the drive to persist on the task.

The researchers analyzed daily e-mail diaries from 238 knowledge workers involved in projects of about four months in duration, at seven companies in three industries. Workers were asked to provide their perceptions, emotions, motivations, and an event that stood out for the day.

The analysis led to what Amabile and Kramer call the Progress Principle: “of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress – setbacks in the work.” (p. 76-77) They encourage supervisors to establish work processes that enable workers to see progress resulting from work in a timely manner. They also identify catalysts, actions that enable progress; inhibitors, actions that limit progress; nourishing actions such as interpersonal respect; and toxins such as discouragement or neglect of workers. Seven catalysts are identified:

  1. Clear goals and priorities
  2. Autonomy and opportunity for creativity in how to do the job
  3. Resources needed to do the job efficiently and effectively
  4. Time – more than for a crisis deadline, but less than that indicating the work doesn’t matter
  5. Help as needed from supervisors and coworkers
  6. Systematically learning from problems and successes
  7. Sharing of information and allowing ideas to flow

Amabile and Kramer propose that at the end of each day, supervisors complete a daily progress assessment. What progress was made and what were the setbacks? What catalysts and inhibitors were present? Interpersonally, were there nourishing actions or toxins? Based on the answers, what observations can be made about the perceptions, emotions, and motivations contributing to the inner work life of subordinates? Finally, what is the action plan for tomorrow to facilitate progress?