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Action University Summary (March 6, 2017): The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile & Steven Kramer

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Back when Google was still considered a startup, companies from around the world would emulate their corporate culture. They saw the surface items - the free food, ping pong tables and wifi shuttles - and put them in place in their companies too.

But they forgot to look under the hood, where the real culture lived. As Larry Page and Sergey Brin once said, “Our main benefit is a workplace with important projects, where employees can contribute and grow.”

As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer tell us in the Progress Principle, the secret to great culture and performance is to create the conditions for great inner work life. The conditions that help foster positive emotions, internal motivation, and favourable perceptions of colleagues and the work itself. 

Their research revealed that the secret to amazing performance is empowering talented people to succeed at meaningful work.

There are 3 types of events that need to be in place in order to get this performance - progress (events signifying progress), catalysts (events supporting the work), and nourishers (events supporting the person.)

We’ll look at each in turn, but by far the most important of those three is progress. Hence the title of the book.

Let’s get started.

The Dynamics of Inner Work Life

Before we jump into the 3 events, we’ll take a look at what inner work life is.

According to psychological research there are three major processes to impact performance - emotions, perceptions, and motivation.

Emotions

Emotions can be intense immediate reactions like excitement and anger, but also general feelings like good and bad moods.

In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to emotional intelligence, and how to use it to get the most out of your employees. But as the authors point it, it’s easy to feel like you’ve won the entire inner work like battle if you’ve addressed your team’s feelings and emotions.

Emotions are only once piece of the equation, and without perception and motivation, you won’t get the results you are looking for.

Perceptions

As human beings we are wired to create meaning in our lives. And the perceptions we hold about our company, our team, and even the work that we do - has an enormous impact on how we react to daily events.

The interesting thing is that this usually happens without us realizing it is happening. Your brain perceives an event, starts asking a bunch of questions about it, and then eventually comes to a conclusion about what the event means.

For instance, you are about to leave your office for an important meeting with your boss, and all of a sudden you get an email from her assistant telling you that the meeting was cancelled without offering an explanation or a new meeting time. At the same time, there is a major reorganization going on at the company, and you are worried about your future.

You can imagine the questions that might come up in your mind. Am I being fired? Why would she cancel without an explanation - does she not care about me at all? Is she interviewing somebody else for my job right now?

On the other hand, somebody who wasn’t worried about their future and has a history with that boss might not have those same questions bubble up in their mind.

The point is that each of us interprets what goes on in our work lives based on our own backstories inside our companies.

Motivation

Finally we have motivation. It’s a person’s choice to do a task, their desire to exert effort in doing it, and the drive to persist in that effort until it’s done. There are three types of motivation that are most relevant to work life.

First, extrinsic motivation is the drive to do something so that we get something else in return. The salary and benefits you get paid to do your job is the most obvious example.

Second, intrinsic motivation is about the love of the work itself. You do the work because it is interesting, satisfying and personally challenging. This is an interesting one because it can drive people to display surprising amounts of seemingly unrewarded effort. You’ll often find people volunteering to work nights and weekends on a project that they get no extra extrinsic value from, simply because they find it rewarding.

Lastly we have relational (or altruistic) motivation, which stems from our need to connect with and help other people. When we believe that our work brings real value to the world, and when we can do that work with a group of people we enjoy being around, we feel motivated to work harder.

We should point out that you can experience all of these motivations at the same time for the exact same work. For instance, I work on these book summaries because it’s my job, and get paid to do it. But I love the work for it’s own sake because I’m learning (which I love), and I know that somebody out there (you?) will be impacted by one of the ideas in this summary. All three motivations are present for me in my work.

Does Inner Work Life Drive Performance?

The argument the authors make here is that over the long haul people do better work when they are happy, have positive views of their organization and its people, and are motivated primarily by the work itself.

(For short periods you can get people to perform at high levels under extreme stress, but only in special circumstances and not for a long time.)

The authors have found that in most organizations high performance has four dimensions: creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. They also found that each of these fluctuates in direct correlation to the inner work life (emotions, perceptions and motivation) of the person being studied.

They found that when inner work life is good, people are more likely to pay attention to the work itself, become deeply engaged in their team’s project, and stick to the goal of doing a great job.

They also found that when inner work life is bad, the opposite happens - they are more likely to get distracted from their work, disengage from their team’s projects and give up on the goals that are presented to them.

The Progress Principle - The Power of Meaningful Accomplishment

Now that we know that inner work life drives performance, it’s time to move our attention to what drives great inner work life - progress, catalysts and nourishers. As we’ve already pointed out, progress is the most important of the these three drivers.

One of the most basic human desires is self-efficacy - the belief that you are capable of planning and executing the tasks required to achieve your goals. When you feel capable, you are more likely to see difficult problems as positive challenges and opportunities to succeed.

Not surprisingly, the authors found that the inner work life of the employees was much better on days when there was progress on work that mattered to the employee. They found that the progress didn’t need to be profound, it just needed to be present, no matter how small.

To be meaningful, the work doesn’t have to have a society-changing impact. What matters is whether or not you see your work as contributing something valuable to someone (or something) that matters. It could be making a product that your customers find valuable, supporting your teammates, or making a contribution to your community.

To put it all together, the more you see yourself making progress in meaningful work, the more you feel like you are capable of achieving your goals, the more positive your experience will be, and the better your resulting performance will be.

The authors go as far as saying that making sure employees understand how they are making progress on a daily basis be part of any managers job description.

Of course, there are two sides to this coin. Just like you can help an employee see meaningful progress, there are four situations in which an employee will see meaningful progress disappear:

- When their work or ideas are dismissed by team members;
- When they sense a lack of ownership in one’s work;
- When they doubt the work they are doing will see the light of day;
- When they feel overqualified for the tasks they have been asked to do.

So make sure you help your team find meaningful progress, but also make sure that you don’t eliminate the positive impact you are creating by making one of those mistakes.

The Catalyst Factor - The Power of Project Support

Now that we know how to create an environment where meaningful progress is made, let’s turn to how we can support that process.

Throughout their study, they identified seven major catalysts which impacted the inner work life of employees (which of course, impacts the work itself.)

1. Setting clear goals. People like to understand where they are heading - both in the short and long-term.

2. Allowing autonomy. Giving people the room to achieve those goals  and direct their action is critical. We all know that micromanaging doesn’t create the type of environment where great work happens.

3. Providing resources. People need to have the tools in order to do what you’ve asked them to do.

4. Giving enough time—but not too much. Here you need to balance the extremes of boredom and intense stress. Somewhere in the middle is what you are shooting for.

5. Help with the work. People should have access to other people in the organization who can help them achieve their objectives.

6. Learning from problems and successes. Creating an environment where people feel free to bring forward both their failures and successes to be analyzed is critical.

7. Allowing ideas to flow. When ideas can flow freely throughout the organization, inner work life is in a good place.

If you can get these seven things right, you’ll be well on your way to supporting your team in creating meaningful progress.

The Nourishment Factor The Power of Interpersonal Support

We are all wired to crave human connection. The more we get it at work, the better our inner work lives are, the better we perform.

But you can’t just fire up an internal social network and call it a day. That’s because there are four major nourishers, and you need to pay attention to all of them.

The first nourisher is respect. You can show somebody respect in a number of ways. You can give them recognition - everybody feels respected when their efforts are acknowledged. You can give their ideas serious attention - they’ll feel as though their insights are valued. You can deal with people honestly and with civility. When you respect people enough to do these things, you gain their trust and their commitment.

The second nourisher is encouragement. When was the last time you complained about somebody giving you too much encouragement? Probably never. You can do this in a couple of ways. Your enthusiasm for your own work will increase the motivation of your team. You can also encourage others in their work, and make  sure they know that you believe they can do it.

The third nourisher is emotional support. People feel more connected to others at work when their emotions are validated. So practice as much empathy as you possibly can - understanding the positive and negative emotions of your team goes a long way in increasing engagement.

Finally, the fourth nourisher is affiliation. Building personal bonds between coworkers is important. Finding ways for people to meet face-to-face on a regular basis and have fun together isn’t just a nice thing to do. It helps improve the flow of ideas and increase collaboration and it limits the impact of interpersonal conflict. This becomes even more important in an age where more of us work remotely.

Conclusion

If people in your organization struggle to make consistent progress in meaningful work, they cannot have good inner work lives. Which means that you don’t get the results you are looking for.

There is a lot in this summary to take in, but start by taking two or three of the ideas here and implementing them this week.

You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish with a few simple tweaks to your daily routine.

 

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