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The Progress Principle

Last month’s Harvard Business Review included an interesting article by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, reporting the findings of a long study into motivation. Amabile and Kramer invited 238 employees in seven organisations from a range of industries to complete daily surveys about their work lives. In total, they collected and analysed 12,000 surveys to uncover the patterns behind moods, motivation levels and what was happening at work each day.

The one big finding? That perceived progress with meaningful work tasks is heavily associated with motivation, productivity and creativity.

There are some questions worth raising about the research. For example, surveys can measure motivation reasonably well, but productivity and creativity are more complex variables to calibrate. Also, surveys are inadequate for uncovering clear evidence of causal relationships and their direction. Did progress cause motivation, motivation cause progress, something else cause them both, or was some complex mixture of these links at work? Amabile and Kramer speculate that there is a useful ‘feedback loop’ that managers should tap into – directly seeking to raise the scope for both motivation and progress.

I’m inclined to think that Amabile and Kramer’s conclusions hold water. Although their angle adds novel value, their findings chime neatly with much existing research, going right back at least to the work of Herzberg. It also fits well with research from the strategy execution field that underlines the importance of employee involvement in shaping strategy and its execution and maximising ‘line of sight’ between organisational and individual goals.

If progress is crucial to motivation, perhaps the most significant finding from this research is that managers don’t think it is – only five percent of them rated it as the most significant motivator (the majority rated it last in the list provided). They placed higher value on factors such as recognition, incentives and clear goals. This highlights a thorny problem. Not only must leaders re-learn what really motivates people at work and then begin the difficult process of adapting their personal behaviours to meet these needs. They must also think about how to reshape the designs, systems and processes that support activities at work, to ensure the sense of progress that individuals crave becomes possible. A significant personal and organisational challenge indeed…

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