The Progress Principle

“Managers can help employees see how their work is contributing. Most important, they can avoid actions that negate its value.”

How managers can leverage the power of progress?

If you are a manager, the progress principle holds clear implications for where to focus your efforts. It suggests that you have more influence than you may realise over employees’ well-being, motivation, and creative output.

Knowing what serves to catalyse and nourish progress — and what does the opposite — turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work.

People are most satisfied with their jobs (and therefore most motivated) when those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement.

To understand interior dynamics better, Teresa Amabile and her team conducted a inner work life study with twenty-six project teams from seven companies, comprising 238 individuals. Naturally, every individual in this population experienced ups and downs.

The goal was to discover the states of inner work life and the workday events that correlated with the highest levels of creative output.

There are three components of inner work life: Progress, Catalysts, and Nourishes
Progress only relates to one component of inner work life i.e. overall mood ratings. Catalysts, actions that directly support work, including help from a person or group, and Nourishers, events such as shows of respect and words of encouragement.

What happens on a Good Day?

Steps forward occurred on 76% of people’s best-mood days. By contrast, setbacks occurred on only 13% of those days.
Catalysts and nourishers, each has an opposite: Inhibitors, actions that fail to support or actively hinder work, and toxins, discouraging or undermining events.
Like setbacks, inhibitors and toxins are rare on days of great inner work life.

Catalysts and inhibitors are directed at the project, nourishers and toxins are directed at the person

What happens on a bad day?

Events on worst-mood days are nearly the mirror image of those on best-mood days
  • Setbacks predominated, occurring on 67% of those days
  • Progress occurred on only 25% of them.
  • Inhibitors and toxins also marked many worst-mood days, and catalysts and nourishers were rare.
This is the progress principle made visible:
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.

How work get stripped of its meaning by managers?

Diary entries from 238 knowledge workers who were members of creative project teams revealed four primary ways in which managers unwittingly drain work of its meaning.
  1. Managers may dismiss the importance of employees’ work or ideas.
  2. They may destroy employees’ sense of ownership of their work. Frequent and abrupt reassignments often have this effect.
  3. Managers may send the message that the work employees are doing will never see the light of day. They can signal this — unintentionally — by shifting their priorities or changing their minds about how something should be done.
  4. They may neglect to inform employees about unexpected changes in a customer’s priorities. Often, this arises from poor customer management or inadequate communication within the company.

A Model Manager — Tools for emulating

Teressa mentioned Garaham as a model manager here, and his management approach excelled in four ways.
  1. Establish a positive climate, one event at a time, which set behavioural norms for the entire team. When the customer complaint stopped the project in its tracks, for example, it is better to engage immediately with the team to analyse the problem, without recriminations, and develop a plan for repairing the relationship.
    In doing so, you can model how to respond to crises in the work: not by panicking or pointing fingers but by identifying problems and their causes, and developing a coordinated action plan.
  2. Manager can stay attuned to his team’s everyday activities and progress, while keeping a non-judgemental climate. This can encourage team members to update work frequently — without being asked — on their setbacks, progress, and plans
  3. Manager can target his support according to recent events in the team and the project. Each day, he could anticipate what type of intervention would have the most impact on team members’ inner work lives and progress. The intervention could be a catalyst or the removal of an inhibitor; a nourisher or some antidote to a toxin as well.
    In the end, if he could not make that judgment, Manager should ask.
  4. Manager establishes himself as a resource for team members, rather than a micromanager; he should be sure to check in while never seeming to check up on them.
Many managers, however well-intentioned, will find it hard to establish above habits.
Awareness, of course, is the first step.
However, turning an awareness of the importance of inner work life into routine action takes discipline. With that in mind, Teresa and her team have developed a checklist for managers to consult on a daily basis. The aim of the checklist is managing for meaningful progress, one day at a time.

The Daily Progress Checklist

Near the end of each workday, use this checklist to review the day and plan your managerial actions for the next day. After a few days, you will be able to identify issues by scanning the boldface words.
Near the end of each workday, use this checklist to review the day and plan your managerial actions for the next day. After a few days, you will be able to identify issues by scanning the boldface words.
  1. Focus on progress and setbacks and think about specific events (catalysts, nourishers, inhibitors, and toxins) that contributed to them.
  2. Consider any clear inner-work-life clues and what further information they provide about progress and other events.
  3. Prioritise for action. The action plan for the next day is the most important part of your daily review: What is the one thing you can do to best facilitate progress?
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