The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

By Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

One of the downsides of writing a newsletter for many years is that occasionally I have to eat my words. In 2012, I wrote a newsletter devoted to motivation where I bluntly stated that I had read enough about motivation and would stop looking for new motivation models and methods. That proclamation lasted about six months or until I learned about the work of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. These authors have added serious new research to the dilemma of employee engagement and motivation, specifically around the power of small wins and a sense of purpose, and have compiled the results of their research into a very readable and informative book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

The research methodology behind The Progress Principle is simple yet elegant. The authors contacted 238 individuals in 7 companies in 3 different industries and asked them to keep a daily diary recording one event from their day that stood out in their minds. The resulting 12,000+ diary entries created a huge database of immediate perceptions on both the good and the bad of their work life.

Amabile and Kramer set the foundation of motivation and engagement on the concept of a satisfying inner work life. Our outer work life is what we see and experience daily, the physical manifestations of the work environment. The outer work environment is what organizations often focus on when trying to improve morale through corporate programs and perks. But it is the quality of the inner work life, those positive emotions and favorable perceptions of our organization, our work and our colleagues which really drives personal performance.

One of the drivers that promotes a positive inner work life is the perception that we are making progress on doing meaningful work. Progress, supported by catalysts (events that directly help our work) and nourishers (interpersonal events that uplift spirits) is the key to building and sustaining a satisfying inner work life.

As the title implies, progress that feeds inner work life is not the annual awards meeting but more the power of small wins experienced daily. We are accustomed to focus on grand success, winning a major contract or the closing of financials quarterly. While those big wins surely feel good at the time, their glow can fade unless followed by signs of day-by-day positive achievement.

Amabile and Kramer’s model for motivation has serious implications for leaders. Business leaders have the strongest capacity to serve as nourishers. Leaders’ voices and actions carry great weight. Small but significant recognition of progress can boost spirits; conversely holding positive feedback for biweekly check-ins can leave a worker feeling as if progress is elusive.

Another aspect of the perception of progress that falls squarely in the leader’s lap is communicating clear goals and expectations. Progress will only be perceived if one fully understands the task at hand and how actions are affecting outcomes. When priorities shift and staff are pulled in different directions it becomes difficult to feel like profess is being made. The result is a climate of futility and disengagement which prevents leaders from getting optimal performance out of staff. This unproductive situation demonstrates the importance of leaders paying attention to the quality of employees’ inner work lives.

Amabile and Kramer provide leaders with an evidence-based model which sheds new light on creating a work environment that brings out the best in everyone.