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Are You Making Progress?

Recent research suggests that a sense of making progress is a powerful motivator. Unfortunately, setbacks knock us down much more than progress drives us forward.

Making progress?

In their fascinating recent book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed how the feeling of making progress motivates employees more than anything else.

The authors got employees at a number of companies to create diary entries throughout each day to document how they were feeling about what was currently happening in their work lives. They point out that we all want a sense of self-efficacy, the feeling of being competent to achieve our goals.

They use the analogy of video games to illustrate their point. Video games have a progress bar that constantly shows players how they are doing, which may be why they are addictive. Conversely, in many work environments employees either feel in a vacuum with regard to progress or they are more aware of what hasn't been done yet or what has gone wrong.

Making progress is a bit like recognition: both make us feel that we're achieving something, getting closer to important goals. Achievement and failure in sports have the same effects they do on the job.

Even the best golfers or tennis players can lose confidence very quickly if they make just a few poor shots. It becomes a vicious downward spiral with poor shots generating lower confidence; reduced confidence leading to more poor shots in turn.

Regular milestones create a sense of making progress in lengthy projects to make up for the distance to the completion date. But even milestones are too infrequent. What is really needed is daily, even hourly, feedback to raise employee motivation dramatically.

The Motivational power of Progress

Maybe some day all jobs will be like video games with built-in progress bars, but what can you do until then?

The psychologist B.F. Skinner was right. Reinforcement that is immediate is the most powerful. We need it to avoid slipping into a lazy inertia of minimal effort.

The conventional advice to managers to "catch people doing something good" is too haphazard and infrequent. Worse, it's only good for highly visible achievements. This approach leaves most employees, most of the time, in a vacuum.

There are two reasons why video games, or other computer games, are addictive if B.F. Skinner is right: (1) reinforcement is immediate when you score and (2) it is variable, not continuous. That is, our wins are spaced out but not too infrequent to discourage us. Sufficiently frequent, though irregular, wins keep us going despite occasional losses.

At work, however, we have two counterproductive tendencies:

  • To overlook small achievements
  • To place more emphasis on mistakes or setbacks

Overlooking Small Achievements

Possible reasons why we discount small achievements include a tendency to take them for granted and our fear of missing the next milestone.

With any job we enjoy and are good at, we tend to think that small achievement steps are nothing special, that anyone could have achieved them. Thus we are our own worst enemy because we discount our achievements.

We focus on milestones because we know we have to account for our progress to our boss. This is negative, fear-based motivation. Yes, deadlines can spur us on but in a coercive way that may not generate strong, positive motivation.

Emphasizing Mistakes

Fear of failing heightens our awareness of mistakes. Instead of being motivated by success, we are driven by our fear of failing, either missing a deadline or suffering the embarrassment of an avoidable error.

To make matters worse, our boss is also more aware of mistakes than positive achievements. But we can't blame the boss for this tendency. All humans need habits to work and live efficiently. Habits entail expectations that things will work as usual. For this reason, we all pay more attention to mistakes, violations of our expectations, than we do to successes.

We have even elevated this fact of life into a management principle: "management by exception" meaning that we can make best use of our time by attending only to "exceptions" to our expectations. This works well enough for non-human processes but has a devastating effect on motivation when applied to people. As Amabile and Kramer discovered, setbacks and mistakes have an even more powerful impact on motivation than progress, so to be avoided as much as possible.

Improving Progress Monitoring

There are two things management can do to help employees feel a stronger sense of making progress:

  1. In all regular progress meetings, discuss achievement steps, not just problems.
  2. Ask employees to document progress steps continuously and review daily with a buddy.

Progress Meetings

Managers commonly hold weekly team meetings to review progress on key projects. Some emphasis is put on progress but the bulk of the time is devoted to problems. A simple discipline to counteract this negativity is to ask all team members to review all of their progress steps since the last meeting.

Reviewing small achievements should be done before focusing on problems to create a greater sense of forward momentum and to counteract the failure mentality that can arise through an excessive focus on mistakes and setbacks.

Continuous Progress Monitoring

Managers should encourage employees to document small progress steps frequently throughout the day, then to run through this list with a buddy at the end of each day. Not only will employees feel a stronger sense of motivation and self-efficacy, they may be inspired to get more done every day in order to have more to talk about.

In conclusion, the evidence offered by Amabile and Kramer in their book, The Progress Principle, suggests that we need to do a much better job of helping employees feel a stronger sense of making progress. Wherever possible, it is desirable to build progress monitoring into the job, but managers can help by creating a better balance in meetings between progress and problems.

See also: Discovering Your Career PathEngage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?, The Post-heroic Manager, How's Your Confidence Today?, Cultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager. Also Collaborative Assertiveness.

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