AMABILE and Kramer tracked the day-to-day activities and
motivation levels of several hundred employees over a number of years and found
that the greatest motivator isn’t external incentives, but something quite
different: making progress.
I might have dismissed this book as just another set of
management insights (of which there is no shortage), were it not for the
compelling sophistication of their research.
They reveal profoundly important,
but counter-intuitive conclusions about what will motivate your staff based on
what they call your “inner worklife” - what you are thinking or feeling during
Let me first describe the research. It was conducted on 238
employees from seven companies in three industries. They ranged in age from 22
to 68 and had been working for their companies for anywhere from two weeks to 36 years; 82% were university graduates and the research lasted from
nine to 38 weeks.
Each day, each person sent in a form describing
briefly an event that occurred that day that stood out for them. Their privacy
was guaranteed. In all, some 12 000 “event of the day” journal narratives were
collected. I have never come across any research like this before, but then
again the principal author, Teresa Amabile, is the professor of business administration and a director of research at Harvard Business School.
The research was the basis for their conclusions about inner
worklife and its influence on a person’s productivity, creativity, commitment
and collegiality. On the day when a staff member is experiencing a positive
inner worklife all these are heightened, and the converse is true when the staff
member is experiencing a negative inner worklife.
A trigger affecting the state of one’s inner worklife is the
quality of relationships with colleagues or management. Were you praised in a
meeting, or studiously ignored? Were you given a responsibility that clearly
indicated that you are trusted, or were you overlooked? And so on.
A second trigger of inner worklife is the assistance (or its lack) to your
work, which includes being given or deprived of
resources necessary to do good work, being given enough time to complete an
assignment, or being allocated an inappropriate environment to do the work in.
And so on.
The third trigger of inner worklife affects productivity,
commitment and motivation more profoundly than the other two combined.
describe it, take a moment to rank the following five issues in terms of how
strongly you believe they impact the motivation and productivity of your staff:
1. recognition; 2. incentives; 3. support at a personal level; 4. set clear
goals; and 5. making progress in their work.
This question was posed to 669 managers and they all ranked
number 5, making progress on your work, dead last as a motivator. However, the
extensive research conducted by the authors proves unequivocally that the
feeling of making progress is the single most important motivator of people,
far more powerful than all the others put together!
Of the 12 000
“event of the day” journal narratives that described having had a really good
day, 76% involved making some progress with whatever it was the respondent was
Rather than spending any more time tweaking the incentive
scheme, honing your recognition programme or beefing up your employee
assistance programme, you would be better off digging deeper into the issue of
how to provide staff with support to make progress with their work.
Since one’s inner worklife will determine what work
gets done, as well as the level of desire to do the work, the quality with which
is done, and the speed with which it is completed, it is clearly where
manager’s need to focus.
The research also proves that focusing on facilitating
progress is easier than one would have thought.
There was overwhelming evidence in the research that small
events have a disproportionate impact on inner worklife. An example is the
manager who brought the team muffins and juice as they worked on a tough
project with a tight deadline in appreciation of their efforts.
Another was the manager
responding to a request for some time off to address a personal issue, who said:
“Certainly, you’ve earned it – you’ve really made great progress with the
project.” It was incidents like this that were seen as “the event of the day”
in the journals, small issues with disproportionate impact.
Conversely, small negative incidents also have a
disproportionate negative impact on inner worklife and resultant motivation.
However, the impact of the negative small events was significantly higher than
the impact of positive small events.
The importance of the insights of this book for you as a
manager can be inferred from two other, non-research sources. One is video game
design - what keeps people so hooked on video games?
One factor found in all
the financially successful games is a constant progress indicator and the
achievement markers. What will keep your people hooked on the work? Provide
your staff with constant progress indicators and achievement markers.
The second non-research source of proof of the importance of
the insights of this book is your own inner worklife experiences. You know how
much the small things affect you, positively and negatively.
Insights: High -+--- Low
Practical: High --+-- Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership