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Finding an inner worklife

Jan 15 2012 10:37
*Ian Mann

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 any workday.

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.

Before I 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 working on.

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.

Readability:   Light --+-- Serious

Insights:       High -+--- Low

Practical:      High --+-- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.


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ian mann  |  workplace  |  book review



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