Progress Principle

What is the best way to motivate employees to do creative work? Help them take a step forward every day.

The Progress Principle describes the findings of a multi-year research project that Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer conducted to discover what makes people happy, motivated, creative and productive at work. They asked 238 people working on creative teams to send  a confidential electronic “diary” at the end of each work day for the entire length of a project. The diary form asked participants to provide ratings on their inner work life — the constant stream of emotions, perceptions and motivations that people experience as they go through their work days.  They were also asked to describe one event that stood out in their mind from the day – any event that was relevant to their work.

Having a positive inner work life is key to making progress.

In an analysis of 12,000 daily diaries, the authors found that of all the events that occur on best days, one stood out well above the rest – simply making progress on meaningful work.

“This pattern is what we 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. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one. This pattern became increasingly obvious as the diaries came in from all the teams in our study. People’s inner work lives seemed to lift or drag depending on whether or not their projects moved forward, even by small increments. Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one. We tested our impressions more rigorously in two ways. Each confirmed the power of progress to dominate inner work life.”

Motivation sparks creativity:

“On days when people have made real progress in work that matters to them, they end the day feeling more intrinsically motivated—turned by their interest in and enjoyment of the work. There’s plenty of research showing that, when people are more intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to be creative. This means that when your subordinates have pulled off a real accomplishment, they may be more open to new, challenging work that calls for creativity. In other words, they should be particularly eager to take on vexing problems and find creative solutions following days of notable progress.”

The authors discovered that work is truly important to most people. Employees want to succeed and they want to make a contribution to something. Contrary to conventional wisdom, work is not merely about business; it is very personal to the people doing it. Meaningful work does not necessarily mean lofty goals like curing cancer, but the work must be of value to the person doing it.

A lesson for managers

The study also revealed most managers don’t have a clue about how important progress is to employees.  Only 5% of managers  correctly identified progress as the #1 factor in creating fulfilled, engaged employees. Managers can aid progress by giving employees what the authors call “Catalysts” and “Nourishers.”

Catalysts of progress  (events that helped a project move forward) include setting clear goals; allowing autonomy; providing resources; giving enough time-but not too much; offering help with the work; learning from both problems and successes; and allowing ideas to flow.

Nourishers of progress include interpersonal interactions that lift people’s spirits. Inhibitors (events that induce setbacks) and Toxins (interpersonal interactions that serve to undermine employees’ spirits) can have an extremely negative effect on the work environment.

Keep your own Progress Journal

Amabile argues that keeping a journal is one of the best strategies for learning about yourself and improving your professional performance over time. I agree.

Use your journal at the end of your workday to track progress, discover creative insights, and reveal patterns in behaviour that help or hinder progress. Find at least one good thing to report, even if you had a bad day (for me, that means expressing what I am grateful for).

As a starting point, answer the following questions used in the Progress Principle study: (Point form is fine)

  • What event stands out in my mind from the workday, and how did it affect my inner work life?
  • What progress did I make today and how did it affect my inner work life?
  • What nourishers and catalysts supported me and my work today? How can I sustain them tomorrow?
  • What one thing can I do to make progress on important work tomorrow?
  • What setbacks did I have today, and how did they affect my inner work life?
  • What can I learn from them?
  • What toxins and inhibitors impacted me and my work today? How can I weaken or avoid them tomorrow?
  • Did I affect my colleagues’ inner work lives positively today? How might I do so tomorrow?

Journaling online

I’ve started experimenting with journal writing with my coaching clients using Penzu, an online journaling platform. It is nicely designed, easy to use, and it lets you post privately and share entries with others. When clients show me their entries I can make a quick comment, and be better informed on our next coaching call.

How are you progressing with your creative projects?

Buy The Progress Principle Amazon