Here is an excerpt from an article written by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
Artwork: The Big Mobile (2004), 3rd Biennial of Contemporary Art of Valencia
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People can’t do their most productive, creative work unless they are highly engaged in their projects. According to the progress principle, of all the events that can keep people engaged and happy at work, the most important is simply making progress on meaningful work. The progress can be great or small, and the meaning can be as noble as trying to cure diabetes or as common as providing a useful service to a customer.
There is a dark side to the progress principle. Of all events that can destroy engagement, joy, and productivity at work, having setbacks or being stalled in the work is number one. Our research revealed that, on 76% of peoples’ very best days — days in which they were happy and highly engaged — they had made some degree of progress in the work; only 13% of those best days had setbacks. By contrast, only 25% of people’s worst days showed any progress, while 67% had setbacks. Even worse, the negative effect of setbacks on engagement is two-to-three times the positive effects of progress.
The obvious lesson for managers is that they should do everything in their power to support the daily progress of their workers, and reduce impediments to progress as much as possible. But there will always be setbacks. The innovative work that contemporary organizations need for survival is often hard and complicated, so problems are inevitable. What can a manager do to keep people engaged, productive and creative when things do go wrong? Here [is one of] three suggestions:
First, don’t treat setbacks as failures, but rather as challenges and learning opportunities. It is common wisdom that we learn from our mistakes, but too many managers seem to forget this and try to assign blame when things go wrong. Listen to the words of Alvin, one of the 238 participants who took part in our research:
“So far every solution I’ve developed for this project does not meet with the cost constraints. I’m becoming very frustrated with not finding the acceptable answer. Around here, not finding a solution is perceived as not being competent!”
Clearly, Alvin had a difficult problem to solve, but rather than being able to sense any forward progress, he was beaten down and made to feel incompetent. Contrast this quote from Tim, who worked for a different company with a very different attitude about setbacks:
“I showed the project manager the results I got and told him that there was a mistake in one of the trials. He said that is all right, as long as we know what we did.”
In the end, Tim and his team had a stunning success, while Alvin and his team never found an acceptable answer.
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To read the complete article, please click here.
Teresa Amabile is Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She researches what makes people creative, productive, happy, and motivated at work. Steven Kramer is a psychologist and independent researcher. They are coauthors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).
Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Originally educated as a chemist, Teresa received her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. She studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. Teresa’s research encompasses creativity, productivity, innovation, and inner work life – the confluence of emotions, perceptions, and motivation that people experience as they react to events at work.
Teresa gave an 18-minute TEDx talk on Sept. 13. The video of the talk is now up on the TEDx Atlanta site. During this talk, she shares a passionate message about improving everyday work life – and lifting performance – in organizations everywhere. If you have any feedback for her, she’d love to hear it. To contact here, please click here.
To watch the video, please click here.
How to “unravel the mystery of what really affects workplace creativity”
The information, insights, and recommendations that Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer provide in this book are research-driven — based on real people in real-world situations — and thus have a legitimacy that would not otherwise be credible. The authors collected data from 238 professionals on 26 project teams who reported their day-to-day workplace experiences in seven companies. Analyzing the 12,000 daily electronic diaries they gathered, the authors obtained answers to two “burning” questions: “How do positive and negative work environments arise?” and “How do they affect people’s creative problem solving?” The revelations are shared in this book. Here are three that were of greatest interest to me.
First, what Amabile and Kramer characterize as “Inner Work Life” is the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday. “Inner work life is inner because it goes on inside each person…It is work because that is both where it arises – at the office – and what it is about – what people do…[and it is life] because it is an ongoing, inevitable part of the human experience at work every day.” The challenge for leaders is to determine how to create and then sustain workplace conditions — at all levels and in all areas — that will foster positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favorable perceptions of colleagues and the work itself. “Great inner work life is about the work, not the accoutrements…As inner work life goes, so goes the company…Work-related psychological benefits for employees translate into performance benefits for the company…and the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress – even small wins.”
By now, those who are reading this brief commentary are no doubt curious to know what The Progress Principle is. (I certainly was when I began to read the book.) Its nature has already been suggested in the previous paragraph: The single most important event supporting inner work life is making progress in meaningful work. The book guides and informs efforts to facilitate progress, “even small wins.” All organizations need leadership at all levels and in all areas. Therefore, what Amabile and Kramer characterize as “the power of meaningful accomplishment” must be generated throughout the given enterprise. Setbacks are to be expected. In fact, if viewed and (key point) if taken full advantage of as precious learning opportunities, setbacks can be invaluable allies to progress, whatever its nature and scale may be. The three primary influences are events that signify progress (e.g. goal completion), events that support the work (e.g. setting clear goals that everyone understands), and events that support the individual worker (e.g. continuous indications of being appreciated). Progress offers evidence of achievement; setbacks offer evidence of what has yet to be achieved.
I was also keenly interested in know what the unique leadership challenges are for those who attempt to establish and sustain an “Inner Work Life Culture.” Almost immediately, in the Introduction, Amabile and Kramer share startling results from the research: “95 percent of the leaders [surveyed] fundamentally misunderstood the most important source of motivation [when ranking] `supporting progress’ dead last as a work motivator.” Amabile and Kramer provide a wealth of invaluable advice throughout their narrative about effective leadership, much of it in Chapter 6 (“The Catalyst Factor: The Power of Project Support”) and Chapter 7 (“The Nourishment Factor: The Power of Interpersonal Support”). In brief, the defining characteristics of effective supervisors and team leaders include: (1) Showing that they respect people and the work they do; (2) Recognizing and rewarding the accomplishments of those for whom they are directly responsible and also praising other associates; (3) When needed, provide emotional support to those who report to them; and (4) create opportunities for the development of friendship and camaraderie between and among team members.
Before concluding this commentary, I presume to note that during exit interviews of hundreds of thousands of highly-valued employees who are leaving to pursue their career elsewhere, the one reason cited more often than all others combined is their supervisor. More specifically, what they perceive to be an insufficiency of one or more of these from their “boss”: respect, encouragement, emotional support, and affiliation. It is no coincidence that these four fundamental human needs serve as the foundation of the Inner Work Life Culture.
Now, here is something strange.
When people need to find work, which a whole lot of people need to find right now, they need to absolutely become world-class net-workers. They need to be the networking energizer bunny. They need to “Never Eat Alone” (Keith Ferrazzi’s book), they need to meet new people every week, and go to as many events as possible.
And they do – for a while. But there comes this moment, this horrible moment, when they simply can no longer face having to utter the words: “no progress yet.”
Thus, they withdraw – just when they need to keep engaging.
I’ve seen this. I think of someone who is so very gifted, talented, skilled. Well educated, with so much to offer. His department was shut down. His company cut workers, including him. And after a long while, he said (I’m paraphrasing): “I just don’t want to be around those people who are successful, having to admit, or really even to face the fact, that I have not gotten back to the top.”
This story (and I suspect many of us know others with similar stories) is now being written about. Here are paragraphs from a recent column by Doyle McManus, Great Recession’s Psychological Fallout — From lower birthrates to decreased civic participation and volunteerism, economic downturns have many non-economic effects:
But here’s something more surprising: As the recession deepens, participation in civic activities — community organizations, volunteer groups, even church attendance and social clubs — is likely to drop. Sociologists once assumed that during hard times people would naturally band together, if only to protest their plight or to give each other solace. It turns out that the opposite is true: Economic distress causes people to withdraw.
“Rather than get together and hold community meetings or march in protest, the effect of unemployment in the Great Depression was to cause people to hunker down,” said Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard sociologist whose book, “Bowling Alone,” examines Americans’ civic engagement in the 20th century. “We found exactly the same thing in the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s … and I’m pretty confident we’ll see the same pattern in this recession too.”
And according to the experts cited in this column, the really disturbing part of this may be that many of the people who withdraw never fully re-engage. The disengagement may be permanent – it may last a lifetime. Maybe they have “learned,” or simply think that, “what’s the use, it’s going to collapse again soon anyway.”
By the way, this is a problem for middle-aged folks “in transition,” and for current graduates from top universities and graduate schools. For example, one nationally regarded Law School has implemented a new “long career launch” program, in which they provide recent graduates “salaries” (small salaries) to work in jobs for a few months. In other words, they have jobs, but the law school is providing the salaries through the company/agency that “hires” the law school graduates. This is a help to the graduates; this gives them something to do. But it also keeps the law school from dropping in the rankings (the rankings are based, partly, on percentage of graduates who do find work). And here is a note about the “mood:” on that campus, the most feared question is this: “Do you know what you will be doing?”
I have no simple solution to this problem. But if you are struggling during this downturn, and you find yourself disengaging, try your best to fight it. It really is ok to say, “nope, no progress yet. But I’ll keep trying.” Because, I assure you, you really are not alone. There are a whole lot of people in the same boat that you are in.
And we realize, ever more clearly, that a long bout of trying to get back on your feet can lead to real self-esteem issues. (Duh!). I have written about a related part of this struggle in my post A Jobless Recovery and a Slip Down Maslow’s Hierarchy.
I do not presume to give advice to anyone. But I have read and heard that one key is to be sure to “go to work everyday,” even if going to work is just sending our more resumes for the umpteenth time, and going to that next gathering for networking purposes.
When Paul Harvey went back to work after one of his bouts of serious illness, he remarked to his engineer in his studio, which was at his home, that things just did not feel right yet. His engineer said something like this: “Mr. Harvey, you’re not dressing for work. You’re recording your programs in your pajamas and robe. I think if you dressed for work, you’d feel better about things.” So he did – and he did.
Maybe working in your pajamas on a regular basis is not such a smart idea after all. Just a thought… And, if your need is to keep your name out there, and network like the energizer bunny, then you may have to dress and show up for work, even if you don’t want to. Remember the brilliant advice from Dr. J:
“Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” (Julius Erving).
Change it a little: “being a professional is doing the things you need to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”
Cheryl offers: I LOVE my dogs and as I read Women Want More by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre, I learned I am in the good company of most women because women receive great joy from their pets. Now they aren’t all dogs of course. They might be cats, pigs, or iguanas, but in their research to determine what women want, these two Boston Consulting Group consultants learned that women want time with their pets, regardless of education level, income bracket, career choices, or location. Even more important to retailers, we are willing to spend a lot of our money on those babies. It makes perfect sense to me. When I’m experiencing a tough day, have a headache, or come home after a 14 hour day, there they are. My dogs have a way of cheering me up and making whatever was bothering me just moments before disappear. They insist on taking daily walks and maintaining a schedule. What a relief; otherwise, I’d likely sit at the computer too long and miss some great fresh air. All of a sudden, I might be working away, and here comes one or the other. It’s always a surprise which one of the four has been volunteered by the others to lead the charge. And I must admit, it’s a nice surprise. In fact, I’m wondering right now, who will wander in to save me…hurry, I’m tired!
Sara adds: There are a couple of leadership lessons here. First, when someone (two or four legged) wants to have fun, do stuff together and always (always, always) trusts us, it’s hard not to respond in like kind – that’s the lesson on the receiving end. The message on the sending end (leadership in action) is one of consciousness. If we learn a lesson from our pets, it’s to be really aware of our employees because it’s contagious! Fred Kofman states it in Conscious Business, “Conscious employees take responsibility for their lives…unconscious employees do the opposite.” Consider the value of an employee that takes responsibility versus one who does not. Which would you rather have? Let’s go back to the lessons. First, if a leader shows their employees that they want to have fun, do stuff together and that they trust them, it’s hard not to smile and join in. And consciousness modeled by a leader is picked up by those they lead. Remember how the excitement of the dogs invited play from Cheryl. Excitement from a leader invites engagement (or consciousness.) My dog pokes me in the ribs with her snout when I’ve been sitting too long. She is a great inspiration!
So, what is required of a leader to create and then sustain allophilia between and among different (perhaps antagonistic, even hostile) groups? I suggest three essentials:
1. Vision: Here is a quotation from George Bernard Shaw (frequently and incorrectly attributed to Robert Kennedy): ”You see things and say ‘Why?'; but I dream things that never were and I say ‘Why not?” That statement could also be attributed to all of those on any list of history’s greatest leaders, no matter who they are.
2. Character: As Bill George explains in True North, someone who is authentic, whose internal compass that guides her or him at the deepest level. “It is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life. Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your True North pulls you toward the purpose of your leadership.”
3. Judgment: As Roger Martin describes it in The Opposable Mind, someone who has “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” can “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” That is, so someone who has mastered “integrative thinking.”
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Todd L. Pittinsky earned his A.B. in psychology from Yale University, M.A. in psychology from Harvard, and Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Business School. He is an Associate Professor of Public Policy, and serves as Research Director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and is currently on leave.