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

by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer                  

“Inner work life influences people’s performance on four dimensions: creativity, productivity, work commitment, and collegiality… Inner work life matters for companies because, no matter how brilliant a company’s strategy might be, the strategy’s execution depends on great performance by people inside the organization.”

“To a great extent, inner work life rises and falls with progress and setbacks in the work. This is the progress principle and, although it may be most obvious on the best and worst days at work, it operates every day.”

The Progress Principle is the result of primary research by two psychologists who studied 238 knowledge workers from 26 teams in 7 companies representing 3 industries over the course of a team project—generally about 4 months. Participants submitted daily diary forms to the researchers confidentially. The authors cite some positive and negative scenarios, using pseudonyms to disguise the individuals and their employers.

INNER WORK LIFE. “Inner work life is the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday… Because the three elements influence each other to create an overall subjective experience, this means that inner work life is a system, a set of interdependent components that interact over time.”

“Perceptions can range from immediate impressions to fully developed theories about what is happening and what it means. They can be simple observations about a workday event, or they can be judgments about the organization, its people, and the work itself. When something happens that grabs your attention at work, you start sensemaking—trying to figure out what it means. Your mind poses a series of questions, especially if what happened was ambiguous or unexpected; these questions and their answers make up your perceptions.”

“People make sense of each day’s events against the backstory of the days that preceded it. Myopic focus on a narrow timeframe can blind you to the big picture of what’s really going on with both inner work life and progress… An accumulation of [negative] events could permanently taint the person’s backstory about the organization.”

“You can’t turn off the emotions. Even though many managers—and employees—would like to ignore emotions, pretending that such ‘messy’ things do not belong in the workplace, such studied ignorance is a dangerous gamble.”

“Most people have strong intrinsic motivation to do their work, at least early in their careers. That motivation exists, and continues, until something gets in the way. This has a startling implication: as long as the work is meaningful, managers do not have to spend time coming up with ways to motivate people to do that work. They are much better served by removing barriers to progress, helping people experience the intrinsic satisfaction that derives from accomplishment.”

“Individual performance is closely tied to inner work life. If people do not perceive that they and their work are valued by a trustworthy organization, if they derive no pride or happiness from their work, they will have little drive to dig into a project. And without a strong drive to deeply engage the problems and opportunities of a project, people are unlikely to do their best work.”

PROGRESS/SETBACKS. “Of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work… We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life.”

“But just as progress is the biggest stimulant to inner work life, setbacks are the biggest downer… If you want to foster great inner work life, focus first on eliminating obstacles that cause setbacks. Why? Because one setback has more power to sway inner work life than one progress incident.”

Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.”

The authors note that “virtually all videogames feature ‘progress bars’ that are constantly visible onscreen… Progress motivates people to accept difficult challenges more readily and to persist longer… If people feel capable, then they see difficult problems as positive challenges and opportunities to succeed… If they suffer consistent setbacks, they see those same challenges as opportunities to fail, and avoid them.”

CATALYSTS/INHIBITORS. “Catalysts support progress in the work. Inhibitors hinder progress or cause setbacks… Surprisingly, though, catalysts and inhibitors can have an immediate impact on inner work life, even before they could possibly affect the work itself.”

The Seven Major Catalysts are setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing resources, giving enough time, help with work, learning from problems and successes, and allowing ideas to flow.

“In modern organizations, people need each other; almost everyone works interdependently… We found that ideas flowed best when managers truly listened to their workers, encouraged vigorous debate of diverse perspectives, and respected constructive critiques—even of themselves.”

NOURISHMENT/TOXINS: “Where catalysts are triggers directed at the project, nourishers are interpersonal triggers, directed at the person. They include respect, encouragement, comfort, and other forms of social or emotional support… It’s not just how managers interact directly with subordinates. It’s also establishing the foundation for subordinates to give each other nourishment.”

“Toxins are the opposite of nourishers, and have the opposite effect. The four toxins are disrespect, discouragement, emotional neglect, and antagonism.”

COMMUNICATION. “Clear, honest, respectful, and free-flowing communication is essential for sustaining progress, coordinating work, establishing trust, and conveying that people and their ideas have value to the organization.”

CREATIVITY. “Over the past thirty years, we and our colleagues have conducted several studies showing that people are more creative when they are driven primarily by intrinsic motivators: the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself—and not by extrinsic motivators: the promise of rewards, the threat of harsh evaluations, or the pressures of win-lose competitions or too-tight deadlines… Imagine how much more strongly motivation and creativity can be depressed in workplaces that bombard employees with carrot-and-stick motivators every day.”

PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. “Without accurate information, no manager can provide the catalysts and nourishers that people need to make progress… ‘That’s all right, as long as you know what you did.’ Remember that statement. This is how a manager creates a climate of psychological safety—by focusing on the work and what can be learned from it, rather than berating subordinates for errors. More generally, this is how a manager can sustain virtuous cycles of progress and positive inner work life in the face of the inevitable setbacks that occur in any complex project.”

TRUST. “Once trust has been lost, it can be quite difficult to repair. In the extreme, there is a point of no return.”

MICROMANGEMENT. “Checking in, Not Checking Up… Micromanagement not only poisons inner work life, it stifles creativity and productivity in the long run. When people lack the autonomy, information, and expert help they need to make progress, their thoughts, feelings, and drives take a downward turn—resulting in pedestrian ideas and lackluster output… People hide problems from these managers, until those problems erupt into crises.”

TEAM LEADERS. “Because of their close working relationship with subordinates, team leaders can have an especially powerful impact on inner work life through the nourishers they provide or fail to provide… You can even attenuate the negative impact of an unsupportive upper management.”

SENIOR MANAGEMENT. “But that doesn’t excuse top organizational managers from their responsibility to create a positive organizational climate for people and their ideas. It’s a waste of local leaders’ talent and energy to bear the sole responsibility for sustaining their people’s inner work lives. And they can’t do it indefinitely. Because negative events pack a stronger punch than positive ones, a hostile organizational climate will have its way in the end.”

Amabile, Teresa M., and Steven J. Kramer. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. Buy from

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