The Progress Principle: or How to Stop Worrying and Celebrate the Small Wins

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” – Amabile and Kramer.

In their 2011 book “The Progress Principle”, Teresa M. Amabile, a Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at San Diego State University, explain how seemingly mundane workday events can make or break employees’ inner work lives.

It’s a pivotal look at how meaning, achievement, happiness and success owe everything to the notion of everyday progress. Most especially it shows how managers can leverage progress to boost motivation and how celebrating small wins sets us up for further success in the future.

Progress and the inner life

Amabile and Kramer posit that “it’s forward momentum in meaningful work-progress that creates the best inner work lives” [1]. They suggest that while the subject of work motivation has been studied and commented upon extensively many times in the past, managers often fail to give it its due prominence in practice. In a survey asking about the keys to motivating workers, they found that “very few of our surveyed managers ranked progress first.”

Their research process included rigorous analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in seven companies over four months. These employees took a daily survey that sought to assess their emotions, moods, motivation levels and perceptions of work that day, as well as noting what they did and any events that stood out.

The results were striking, and resulted in Amabile and Kramer coining the concept of the “progress principle.”

“When we compared our research participants’ best and worst days (based on their overall mood, specific emotions, and motivation levels),” they write, “we found that the most common event triggering a “best day” was any progress in the work by the individual or the team. The most common event triggering a “worst day” was a setback” [2].

In terms of numbers, work progress of some kind occurred on 76% of people’s best-mood days, with set-backs occuring on just 13%. While setbacks occurred on 67% of people’s worst-mood days, and progress on just 25% of them.

Surmising, they write that, “If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame” [3].

Progress affected every aspect of employees’ inner work lives. On days when they made progress, participants reported more positive emotions, became more intrinsically motivated and experienced more positive perceptions, i.e. seeing challenges as something exciting to be overcome rather than something frustrating that was holding them back.

The reverse proved true as well. On setback days, mood suffered, with feelings of fear, frustration and sadness rife. Motivation slumped and their perception of events skewed significantly more to the negative, both in how they viewed the work itself and also those around them.

The necessity of meaning

Progress, then, is key. But it must be progress that matters. That doesn’t mean the definition of progress must be limited – only applying to some seismic breakthrough, a rare, nigh impossible feat miraculously overcome. It simply means that it must be more than just progress for progress’ sake in a field that ultimately achieves little or nothing.

An example they give is washing pots in a kitchen or checking coats at a museum. Though progress is tangible – one more pot washed, one more coat checked – it feels purposeless on any grander scale and may not provide any deeper satisfaction despite the employee having worked hard. “The likely cause [of this dissatisfaction],” they write, “is your perception of the completed tasks as peripheral or irrelevant. For the progress principle to operate, the work must be meaningful to the person doing it” [4].

They cite how in 1983, when trying to entice John Sculley to leave PepsiCo to become Apple’s new CEO, Steve Jobs reportedly asked him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Meaning matters. John Sculley wanted it, pursued it, and the rest is history.

Becoming CEO of Apple is obviously a high-end example, but there are all sorts of roles in which we can find meaning, so long as the work matters to us. What brings about that feeling will change person to person – some will derive satisfaction from writing a line of code that helps streamline a process, others from making a good presentation that helps entice new clients, others from being kind and personable behind the shop counter ensuring customers keep coming back. What you’re doing matters less than how it makes you feel.

Celebrate good times, come on

We derive satisfaction from progress, from making breakthroughs big and small. As already noted, they boost our mood, motivation and perceptions. As Amabile and Kramer note, “Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions.” 28% of incidents that only had a minor impact on the project at hand were found to have a major impact on people’s feelings about it.

On the other side, small losses or setbacks were also found to have an outsized negative impact. In fact, “our study and research by others show that negative events can have a more powerful impact than positive ones. Consequently, it is especially important for managers to minimise daily hassles” [5].

One way managers can ensure positive progress is felt and maximised is to celebrate small wins.

Writing in Forbes, Whitney A. White, CEO & founder of Afara Global, writes that when starting a new business or taking on a new project, “It can be tempting to focus on a big, shiny end result instead of the smaller steps along the way. While holding a great vision can be helpful when going into a new venture, it can also distract from the important victories you need to maintain momentum” [6].

White suggests tracking small victories, taking time to celebrate them, even if it’s just ten or fifteen minutes, and using this positivity to feed future momentum.

Also writing in Forbes, Jody Michael, CEO of executive coaching firm Jody Michael Assoc., points out that she often encounters superstition when it comes to celebrating small wins.

“People don’t want to get too excited about an accomplishment,” she says, “because they don’t want to end up disappointed in the end. They don’t embrace the wins for fear that a loss is coming” [7].

This is the wrong approach. Yes, losses are coming. No matter what you do, how much you plan and how hard you work, something bad will happen; that’s life. Repressing positivity as a preparatory measure for the inevitable equal and opposite reaction that’s surely coming does not keep negative events at bay. So celebrate the positive moments while they’re here. Your spirits will be dampened by the bad times, so make sure they’re lifted by the good ones.

Michael continues, “a belief system that dampens the opportunities to celebrate wins and over-indexes on the losses isn’t a great strategy for your physiology or for your psychology” [8].

From a managerial standpoint, celebrating the small wins is a simple and crucial way to aid employee satisfaction and motivation. A study by the enterprise collaboration web app Socialcast found that, “69% of employees would work harder if they felt their efforts were better appreciated” [9].

Celebrating small wins fosters a positive work environment, builds momentum and helps improve your employees’ inner work life, which, as we’ve already noted, is pivotal to their performance.

Inner life management

Amabile and Kramer lay out their strategy for how managers can foster a work environment that enhances their employees’ inner work lives. They propose utilising what they term “catalysts” and “nourishers”.

They define catalysts as “actions that support work. They include setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing sufficient resources and time, helping with the work, openly learning from problems and successes, and allowing a free exchange of ideas. Their opposites, inhibitors, include failing to provide support and actively interfering with the work” [10].

They define nourishers as “acts of interpersonal support, such as respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional comfort, and opportunities for affiliation. Toxins, their opposites, include disrespect, discouragement, disregard for emotions, and interpersonal conflict” [11].

They note that while their proposition is not radical – in fact, to many it may seem like Management 101 – their studies show that many managers fall short of even these basics.

It would be easy to read that and think, “well, sure, but not me, or not any other decent managers.” And maybe not. But it’s worth giving it further consideration. Just because most managers know what they should be doing doesn’t mean they are doing it.

Think of it like any other aspect of your lifestyle. You may know that your mental and physical health is better when you eat healthily every meal and exercise everyday. Does that mean you never slip up? You may know that you gain little and feel bad about yourself after a prolonged period scrolling your phone, but next time you’re bored on the sofa, what do you think you’ll find yourself doing?

Management is no different. Just because you know you should be encouraging, open, attentive, patient and generous doesn’t mean there aren’t times you fall short. How we are on our worst day says a lot more about our character than who we are on our best. So basic as it may seem, try to pay active attention going forward, self-assess. Ask yourself, “am I actually enacting all the positive management traits I know and believe in? Am I practising what I preach? If not, can I start now?”

Small wins, big progress

The progress principle measures how our inner work life, consisting of our mood, motivation and perception, are affected by the progress we’re making. Even small progress has a drastic impact. That impact can be maximised by celebrating every win, no matter how small. A lot of that responsibility falls to managers. It is their job to foster a work environment that allows for progress and duly celebrates it, leading to a happier, more motivated and productive workforce. Understanding it is easy. Putting it into practice requires one to self-reflect and actively work to enhance the inner lives of their employees.

More on Purpose

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