The Worth of Small Wins: Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer on The Progress Principle

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

In their book The Progress Principle, authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer remind us to manage progress, not people. When an executive does this, he or she builds a cadre of employees who have satisfying inner work lives; consistently positive emotions; strong motivation; and favorable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues.

Leader’s Edge asked the authors a number of questions about their new book.

What is “inner work life” and why should today’s leaders be aware of it?
Inner work life is the constant flow of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience as they go through their work days. One way to think about inner work life is that it is moment by moment engagement at work. Because it’s usually hidden, we needed to find a way to study it. We chose to ask people working on creative teams to send us “work diaries” at the end of each day over the length of a project. In these diaries, people rated their own feelings, motivations, performance, and work environment, as well as those of their colleagues. But the most important data we received was the answer to an open-ended question, “Describe one event that occurred today that stands out in your mind and was relevant to your work on the project.” In total, we received nearly 12,000 of these diaries from 238 people working on 26 creative teams in seven companies. We also collected separate data on the performance of these people.

When we began analyzing the performance data against the inner work life data, we made our first discovery. We call it “the inner work life effect” and it essentially shows how inner work life drives performance. When people had more positive inner work lives—happier, thinking well of their work and their organization, and more intrinsically motivated by the work—they were more creative, productive, collegial, and more committed to their work. For example, we found in one study that people were not only more creative on a day when they felt happier, but they were also more creative the next day, even when their emotion on that second day was taken into account.

So, inner work life is critical to people’s performance and – in aggregate – to the performance of an organization.

What is the “progress principle"?
After we discovered the inner work life effect, we wanted to understand exactly what leads to positive inner work life. To do this, we looked at the events that people described on their very best days at work and compared those to events occurring on their very worst days. The results were startlingly clear: the single most important contributor to positive inner work life was simply making progress on meaningful work. This is the progress principle. In fact, 76% of our participants’ very best days involved making progress. This dwarfed any other kind of event mentioned in the diaries on those days.

Notice, that for the progress principle to operate, the work people are doing must be meaningful in some way. But meaningful work does not necessarily mean it has to be toward a lofty goal like curing cancer or changing the world. Meaningful work can be as simple as providing a valuable product or useful service to a customer. The people doing the work only need to feel that they are contributing to something worthwhile.

People’s worst days at work reveal the downside to the progress principle. Of all the events that they described on those days, the single most important was experiencing setbacks or having their progress blocked in some way. And sadly, the negative effects of setbacks on inner work life are two to three times stronger than the positive effects of progress. Therefore, it is critical that leaders do everything they can to eliminate obstacles to progress, since these can have such a profound impact on inner work life and ultimately performance.

So supporting progress is the number one thing that leaders can do to keep workers engaged and happy at work. While it might seem obvious that people want to make progress in their work, we found that most leaders do not act as if they understand that. Only a minority of managers, across the companies we studied, consistently facilitated people’s progress. Moreover, when we asked 669 leaders from companies around the world to rank order five employee motivators—including supporting progress in the work—they ranked progress dead last. In fact, only 5% of these managers ranked progress number one.

How can leaders follow in Google’s footsteps and create an engaged (and happy) workforce?
Although people often focus on the incredible perks that Google offers its employees, we think that that’s only a very small part of what makes Google employees happy and engaged. In fact, we think that it is not the perks themselves that are so important but what they signal to workers. They say to the employee, “You and the work you do are valued.” But it doesn't take expensive perks to accomplish this, and by themselves those perks would not be enough.

There are three things that Google does extremely well, each of which supports inner work life. The first is to provide people with meaningful work. We know, from talking to people at Google, that its mission—to organize and make accessible all of the world’s information—is incredibly meaningful to many of them. The company has laid the groundwork for the progress principle to operate.

Second, Google managers support progress. They give people the resources they need to succeed at their work, and they do a very good job of removing obstacles to that progress.

Third, they provide people with autonomy in how they achieve the goals of the organization. This allows them to feel that their efforts and talents are contributing to the success of the organization.

You say that “small wins” in the workplace can be particularly powerful. How so?
One thing that we discovered, in looking at those best and worst days, is that most of the progress events that people reported were not major breakthroughs. Rather, they were usually small, incremental steps forward. Yet these “small wins” often had huge effects on inner work life. Here is just one example from the diary of a software engineer who had been struggling with a bug in his program:

“I smashed that bug that’s been frustrating me for almost a calendar week. That may not be an event to you, but I live a very drab life, so I’m all hyped. No one really knows about it; three of the team [members who] would be involved are out today—so I have to sit here rejoicing in my solitary smugness.”

Fixing a software bug is a pretty ordinary event in the day-to-day life of a programmer, but for Tom  it made a real difference. And it wasn’t just Tom. When we looked at all the 12,000 diaries, we found that nearly 28% of these small events had a big impact on inner work life.

Of course, the downside is that small negative events also have a large impact on inner work life, and as we mentioned earlier, that impact is actually greater than the positive impact of progress.

Is there a positive side to small losses?
Great question! Well, obviously, small losses are certainly better than big loses. But, more seriously, as we mentioned earlier, small losses often have an inordinately large negative effect on inner work life. In general, managers should do what they can to prevent small losses from happening in the first place.

That said, most modern work is both complicated and difficult, and as a result, setbacks are inevitable. So the question is: how can the negative effects of those setbacks be mitigated? We found that the best leaders treated setbacks in a matter-of-fact manner. They did not punish people for setbacks. Rather, they recognized that setbacks were often a necessary step in making progress. These leaders would ask their people what could be learned from a setback and whether that setback might actually offer new opportunities. In this way, they helped to redefine the setback into a small win.

How are managers killing meaning and creativity at work? Is this common?
Sadly, it is all too common that we find managers killing meaning and creativity at work. We don’t have the space here to list all the ways they do this, but here are a few common managerial missteps that we saw in our research:

First, people have a hard time finding work meaningful if the value of that work to the mission of the organization is not clearly communicated. Even when there is a clear mission, there is often a disconnect between that mission and what people do in the trenches each day. In addition, frequently changing priorities—what we call “Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder”—leads people to feel that their time is being wasted, and consequently, that the work lacks value.

Another misstep that we saw was management that gives lip service to being great, inadvertently signaling the opposite to their people. We saw this most often when organizations were too heavily focused on cost cutting. While they told their workers they wanted greatness, they were also telling them to make do with less and to sacrifice quality for savings. While keeping costs down is important, we often saw leaders who only rewarded savings instead of innovation and quality.

How can leaders build inner work life for positive organizational success?
There are two key ways to support inner work life. First, the progress principle provides the key—provide meaningful work to people and support progress in that work; good inner work life will follow. We refer to managerial actions that support progress as “catalysts,” and they include things like providing clear goals and sufficient resources. The opposite of a catalyst is an “inhibitor,” such as lack of goal clarity and insufficient resources.

The second way to fuel inner work life is to support it directly through “nourishers.” Nourishers are really the human connections at work that provide people with emotional support and encouragement. They include showing respect and recognition to people. The opposite are “toxins,” including actions like disrespecting people or failing to recognize their contributions.

Both catalysts and nourishers are critical to providing a work environment where people are happy and highly engaged in their work.

How do you measure return on investment?
Our own research does not allow us to provide a metric for return on investment. However, of the seven companies we studied, the one that was most successful, and is still thriving today, was also the one where leadership consistently provided catalysts and nourishers and where inner work life was the best. By contrast, the company where inhibitors and toxins predominated was sold to a smaller rival and its offices and factories were closed down within two years after our study was completed.

While it’s difficult to draw strong conclusions based on the small number of organizations we studied, our findings are backed by the Gallup research finding that the cost of employee disengagement is over $300 billion annually, in the U.S. alone. Also, Aon Hewitt has found that organizations with a highly engaged workforce provide greater returns to stockholders.

What are catalysts to successful work?
Although this is not an exhaustive list of catalysts, we found seven that were particularly important in the organizations that we studied. These include:

  1. Providing clear, meaningful goals in the work
  2. Providing autonomy
  3. Providing sufficient (though not necessarily extravagant) resources
  4. Providing people with direct help in solving problems and getting their work done
  5. Creating an environment where people can learn from both problems and successes
  6. Creating an environment where there is a free flow of ideas and everyone’s ideas are heard and respected
  7. Providing sufficient time, though not too much time, to explore options and develop innovative solutions.

About the Author(s)

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. Teresa Amabile is a professor of business administration and a director of research at Harvard Business School. The author of numerous articles and books, including Creativity in Context, she has long studied creativity, motivation, and performance in the workplace. Steven Kramer is a developmental psychologist and has coauthored a number of articles in leading management periodicals, including the Harvard Business Review and the Academy of Management Journal.