Purposeful Progress

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May 2012

Purposeful Progress
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of the book, The Progress Principle (mentioned in the last edition of The Edge) conducted a study to try to find out if leaders would identify supporting progress as a key motivator of people. Up to this point, their mounting research collected from the evaluation of numerous actual diaries of employees was conclusively showing them that the realization of identifiable progress had an overwhelming impact on one’s motivation and inner work life. So, if progress in one’s work is such a powerful motivator and satisfier, the authors wanted to know if leaders and managers recognize its significance.

Prior to the study, they had been asking managers/leaders individually and in groups to name their most important levers for motivating employees. What they found was a decisive bias toward the traditional aspects that much management literature tends to discuss: recognition, tangible incentives, interpersonal support and clear work goals. Very few were talking about helping their people see progress in their work. So a survey was constructed asking 669 managers to rank the four motivational items listed above with one additional item, “support for making progress in the work”.

The authors found that, “support for making progress in the work” was dead last as a recognized motivator. Only 35 of 669 ranked it as first (5.2%). What ranked first was “recognition for good work” (either public or private recognition). Although recognition is a solid motivator, it is not nearly as prominent as progress, according to Amabile and Kramer’s cumulative findings.

The second fundamental aspect of this progress principle is that people need to see their work as meaningful. To be meaningful, the work needn’t rise to the level of Nobel Peace Prize achieving proportions. What counts is that people perceive their work as contributing value to something or someone who matters. Meaningful work could be saving the company millions of dollars or coming up with a revolutionary customer solution/product, but oft times it is work that fits with the authentic values and mission of the organization or team.

The implications and opportunities derived from these findings are more than compelling. If people need to see progress and are highly motivated by experiencing progress in meaningful work, then the mission of the leader is crystal clear. A leader must be constantly engaged in discovering how progress can be measured, illuminated and looped throughout most of the work of the organization. The leader becomes a supporter, a broker of individual and cultural progress. The engaged leader must wear his/her CPO (Chief Progress Officer) hat as a foundational aspect of their leadership.


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