The Power of Progress: The Key to Employee Engagement

What is one thing managers can do to increase creativity, productivity, and commitment by their employees?

A recent study by two psychologists, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, concludes: “If you focus on supporting the daily progress of people working in your organization, you will not only foster the success of the organization but also enrich the everyday lives of your employees.”

Brick Wall - Stuart Miles

This simple, powerful insight isn’t obvious to managers.  They surveyed managers, asking what they thought were the most important factors in influencing motivation and emotions at work.  Managers ranked “recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals” as top.  “Support for making progress” was ranked as dead last as a motivator.  So managers had it wrong.

How did Amabile and Kramer come to their conclusion?  They conducted research focused on the inner work lives of employees (not managers) by inviting 238 people in seven different companies to keep a daily diary of their perceptions, emotions and motivations each day – yielding 12,000 diary entries that they then analyzed.

Amabile and Kramer say: “Inner work life matters for companies because, no matter how brilliant a company’s strategy might be, the strategy’s execution depends on great performance by people inside the organization.” They were surprised when they found that the particularly most powerful force supporting inner work life is the ability to make progress in meaningful work.

But “meaningful” doesn’t necessarily require working on thing that have a profound importance to society.  They say: “What matters is whether you perceive your work as contributing value to something or someone who matters (even your team, yourself, or your family).”

I was struck by this same insight a few years ago when I talked with someone trying to fix a dysfunctional state government bureau that dealt with rescinding drivers’ licenses for drunk drivers.  The employees were notorious for taking months to respond to court orders.  But my friend invited a state trooper to speak to an all-hands staff meeting of the bureau.  He emotionally told them about the death of a little girl by a drunk driver whose license had not been suspended in time – and how important their work is to him in keeping such drivers off the street.  He helped them understand why their seemingly mind-numbing paper-processing was important to the community.  Shortly after, the processing sped up dramatically.  The employees had the meaningfulness of their work clarified.

As psychologists, Amabile and Kramer understand that: “Most people have strong intrinsic motivation to do their work . . . as long as the work is meaningful, managers do not have to spend time coming up with ways to motivate people to do the work.  They are much better served by removing barriers to progress, helping people experience the intrinsic satisfaction that derives from accomplishment.”

So, they conclude: “Any manager’s job description should start with facilitating subordinates’ progress every day.”  This may be obvious to frontline workers, but not so obvious to managers.

So, if you are a manager, commit to removing at least one barrier facing your employees before you leave the office today!
IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Mark Hammer

Thanks for the article link. I highly recommend the work and writing of Adam Grant, at the Wharton School, who has written widely on the general subject of prosocial motivation in the workplace, the sense of having impact/consequence on those things and people that matter to you, and honouring the social contract.

I find many people who write and talk a good game about engagement have it backwards. They propose that if you engage employees, you enhance their client service orientation. Nah. There are few things in life that will motivate one to bust their hump for a cause or a program, or a client, moreso than the sense of having had the sort of impact that others are thankful for, of doing something that made a difference. When someone thanks you for what you did for them, sincerely, not with a plaque, it puts a whole lotta spring in your step, and energy in your efforts.

Look at it from the other direction as well, by considering the burnout literature. Though not restricted to the area, a great many instances of burnout happen in the human services field, where people who came in all fired up for the cause find themselves unable to muster anything even remotely resembling enthusiasm, or even a positive thought. And in the preponderance of these cases what drains them of all fire is the sense that none of what they do or try to accomplish amounts to very much, ever catches up to the need, or serves the people and causes they care about, adequately.

The central matter in employee engagement is the answer to the daily question “Why bother?”.