Highlight progress to motivate employees

Here’s a quiz: Which of the following tools is most powerful for motivating employees?

  • Recognition for good work
  • Incentives
  • Interpersonal support
  • Clear goals
  • Support for making progress in work

If you are like 95 percent of managers who responded to a Harvard study, the answer will surprise you. Most managers believe that recognition for good work has the most impact on employees’ emotions and motivation. Yet a study from Harvard University shows that support for making progress is actually most powerful, especially for scientists, engineers, programmers, marketers, and other knowledge workers.

For more than a decade, researchers from Harvard tracked the motivation of employees by having them keep detailed diaries of their days. By analyzing the diary entries, the researchers discovered that employee emotions, perceptions, and motivations fluctuate every day. Lead researcher Dr. Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., writes, “We found that the most common triggering event for a ‘best day’ was any progress in the work and the most common event triggering a ‘worst day’ was a setback.”

Amabile and her colleagues named this phenomenon the progress principle and they detail their research, findings, and implications for managers in their new book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

What does the progress principle mean for you? Should you stop giving recognition or providing financial incentives for a job well done? Of course not. These tools are still an important part of your motivation toolkit. However, if you manage people who do creative, complex work you will see the biggest improvement in motivation if you focus first on helping your people make progress.

I’ve been studying energy at work for years and have long noted that the manager’s day-to-day actions can have an enormous effect on their people’s drive and dedication. Thanks to this new research, we now understand that manager actions directly impact employee motivation, which in turn improves the employees’ performance and productivity.

To boost motivation, managers need to focus on actions that help people make progress. Such actions include:

  • Clarifying goals
  • Providing resources and tools to get the job done
  • Removing obstacles
  • Providing support and encouragement
  • Enabling autonomy and ownership
  • Helping employees solve problems
  • Encouraging team members to help one another

This list of actions will not seem new if you’ve been managing for any length of time. The problem is that trying to remember all of these ideas and implement them can be overwhelming. The beauty of the progress principle is that if you want to motivate your people you simply need to ask yourself, “What can I do to help my team members make progress in their work today?” And when employees seem demotivated or deflated, ask, “What is getting in the way of progress?” Then experiment with taking actions and watch the resulting impact on your people’s emotions and productivity. You may be surprised.

Mack is a Woodland Park based consultant, speaker, and facilitator who specializes in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at Wendy@WendyMack.com.