The progress principle: How to keep employees on track

A new book's insights into productivity have important implications for supervisors, writes columnist Steve Kelman.

When Bob Sutton, a leading management professor at Stanford University, says a new book “just might be the most important business book I’ve ever read,” the rest of us should take notice.

Sutton is right. “The Progress Principle” — by Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and the country’s leading researcher on creativity in the workplace, and Steven Kramer, a psychologist and independent researcher — is fantastic.

The book is based on original research involving 238 employees on 26 project teams at seven companies who were asked to send in mini-diaries describing each day in the life of their projects, which averaged about four months. They were asked to briefly describe one event from each day that stood out in their minds.

The book tells a straightforward story. The diaries revealed day-by-day variations in what Amabile and Kramer call people’s inner work life — their mood and mental state in approaching work. In turn, those variations were associated with variations in the employee’s creativity and productivity, as reported (separately) by supervisors and teammates. Finally, how an employee experiences his or her inner work life is strongly associated with whether he or she has made concrete progress on a meaningful task on a given day. That is the “progress principle.”

The insight has important implications for what supervisors should be doing.

“To harness this powerful force, you must ensure that consistent forward movement in meaningful work is a regular occurrence in your employees’ daily work lives, despite the inevitable setbacks that all non-trivial work entails,” the authors write.

Amabile and Kramer recommend that managers check with team members each day about how their work is going and whether they need any help or support to move forward. The authors say the process should involve checking in, not checking up — in other words, the goal is not to micromanage.

There are other steps supervisors can take to increase the chances that progress is made every day and to recognize employees when such progress is made. Those ideas include “streamlining review processes for projects, greeting team leaders’ ideas for new experiments with an open mind [and] celebrating team successes at all-company gatherings.”

Those activities need to be part of a supervisor’s job every day because an employee’s inner work life varies a great deal. Managers must stay attuned to what is going on. “The Progress Principle” even provides a checklist of things a supervisor should do daily to help employees make — and be recognized for — progress.

Although every concrete reference in the book is to the business world, in my view, the findings are even more relevant for government organizations. Federal managers lack the economic incentive tools private firms have to motivate employee effort, so tools that are not incentive-based, such as those discussed in this book, are even more important for public managers to master. Also, the reasons for poor inner work life among government employees, with resultant poor performance, become more apparent when we think about the many layers of review and coordination that inhibit the ability of government employees to feel they are making progress each day.

As a sidebar, this book is also one of the most effective examples of scholarly research presented for a non-scholarly audience that I have ever seen.

In short, I am a big fan of this book, and I have decided to make it one of the alternate end-of-semester book assignments for the master’s students in my introductory public management course this fall.

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