How would you like to make your team more creative, productive, committed, and collegial? It’s completely possible, says Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile – and it doesn’t require handing out huge bonuses. Instead, as she argues in her book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (co-authored with Steven Kramer), it’s a matter of focusing on the right things – namely, ensuring your employees feel a sense of progress at work. “On the days when people are feeling happiest, proudest, and most motivated,” she says, “the single most prominent event in those days is making progress in meaningful work.”
But, she says, “Most managers don’t have a clue about how important progress is.” Indeed, in an international survey she conducted, only 5% of managers correctly identified it as the #1 factor in creating fulfilled, engaged employees. “I think it might be because managers think progress is what people are supposed to do,” says Amabile. “They might say, ‘They’re supposed to do their work, so of course they’re going to make progress, and it’s not what I have to worry about as a manager.’ But they need to worry about it a lot.”
A sense of forward momentum is actually critical to humans’ psychological health. “We all have a need to feel effective in making things happen in the world,” says Amabile, “and work is centrally important for most people.” Through her extensive research – following 238 creative knowledge workers and collecting nearly 12,000 individual daily reports from them – she developed a real-time portrait of what matters to employees and helps them do their best work. Feeling a sense of progress can create a virtuous feedback loop where work feels enjoyable, leading to more creative success, which makes work even more enjoyable.
The impact of this positive spiral can be dramatic. “On those days when people are feeling most deeply engaged in their work, they’re most likely to perform well,” says Amabile, who is also Research Director at Harvard Business School. “We found that if people are in a better mood on one day, they’re more likely to come up with creative ideas on that day – and the next day, regardless of the next day’s mood. There’s a carryover effect, an incubation effect, so that when you’re in a good mood, there seems to be a cognitive process that gets going where you’re making connections between things, which can show up in a new idea or a creative solution to a problem.”
So how can you harness “the progress principle” to improve your team’s creativity and performance? Here are three things you can do today.
Outline clear goals. No one can hope to make progress if they don’t know what they’re working toward. Make sure your employees understand what you’re trying to achieve, why those goals matter, and how their contribution helps. And if your goals change, be sure to tell them – or, even better, bring them into the process so they understand what’s going on.
Give them autonomy. Clear goals are good – telling employees precisely how to achieve them isn’t. “When some managers hear about the need for goal clarity, they think it means they need to micromanage,” says Amabile. On the contrary, letting employees determine the best way to proceed helps them build skills, flex their creativity, and feel a sense of agency.
Set an example of support. Amabile’s research showed that little things can have an outsized impact on employees’ attitude toward work. So set an example for your team by giving compliments liberally and letting people know you appreciate their efforts. “You can get a positive contagion effect going if you treat your co-workers with respect,” says Amabile. With just a few words, “you’ll boost the inner work life of the person you say it to, and in turn, that can enhance how you feel at work.”
How do you help your employees feel a sense of progress? What strategies can you share?
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the forthcoming Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation.