February 20, 2013
Are Your Employees Making Progress?

Smart leaders know that a sense of momentum is as powerful a motivator as money or praise.

Leaders try to motivate their teams to work harder in all sorts of ways: bonuses, pizza parties, trips. All have their place. But some research finds that the most effective way to motivate people may involve the structure of the work itself.

Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and Steven Kramer, a developmental psychologist, analyzed nearly 12,000 diary entries from teams across multiple companies. The people on these teams scored their days in terms of productivity and mood, and reported what they did on those days.

The 1,000 top scoring days, Amabile and Kramer found, were highly likely to contain evidence of small wins, meeting goals or otherwise making what they called “progress.” The 1,000 worst days — those unproductive, unhappy days everyone wants to avoid — were highly likely to contain setbacks, delays and the like. They were more likely to feature setbacks than what one might think of as more obvious problems, like being insulted by a co-worker. As Amabile and Kramer write in their 2012 book, The Progress Principle, “making headway on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long term performance.”

So how can you use that principle to help your team be more productive?

Amabile and Kramer write that the key “is to design each job so that, in the act of carrying out the work, people gain knowledge about the results of their effort.” Here are some ways to do that.

First, be very clear about what “good” looks like. What are you aiming for? Help your team members set ambitious but achievable goals. Think 100 new, engaged followers on Twitter this week or receiving a new request for a proposal.

Second, help your people break their big goals into doable steps. Getting new Twitter followers might involve finding related experts to follow, joining conversations and adding 10 surprising (and retweetable) new posts each day. Getting a new request for a proposal might involve reaching out to six former (but dormant) clients and scheduling conversations.

Third, hold your people accountable for those steps — but make sure to publicly celebrate their victories. If you’ve got a small team, create a digest in the morning (or perhaps on Monday, if your work lends itself to a weekly cycle) of what everyone intends to accomplish. Then at the end of the day (or on Friday) send around updates showing what everyone’s done. The idea is to create a sense of inexorable forward momentum. You’re closer to success today than you were yesterday. So is everyone else on your team. Tomorrow, you’ll be closer still. That’s what makes work fun.

How do you help your team make progress?

Laura Vanderkam
Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2012) and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She writes the 168 Hours blog for CBS MoneyWatch, is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors, and speaks frequently about time management and leadership topics. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Other Articles by Laura Vanderkam:

How To Give Regular Feedback And Still Get Work Done

Why And How Managers Should Help Workers Set Boundaries

Work-Life Balance Is Dead—Why That Might Be A Good Thing

It’s Time To Stop Asking CEOs How They 'Balance'

How To Figure Out Your Optimal Workload

7 Common Mistakes New Managers Make

The Right Way To Use Company Perks

How To Figure Out Your Most Productive Time Of Day

Why You Should Rethink That Morning Meeting

5 Ways To Keep Your Best Employees From Quitting