Here is an excerpt from still another outstanding article written by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, featured online by The McKinsey Quarterly (January 2012), published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, obtain information about the firm, access other resources, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
Senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees in four avoidable ways.
As a senior executive, you may think you know what Job Number 1 is: developing a killer strategy. In fact, this is only Job 1a. You have a second, equally important task. Call it Job 1b: enabling the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization who strive to execute that strategy. A multiyear research project whose results we described in our recent book, The Progress Principle [Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press, August 2011], found that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.
Even incremental steps forward—small wins—boost what we call “inner work life”: the constant flow of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that constitute a person’s reactions to the events of the work day. Beyond affecting the well-being of employees, inner work life affects the bottom line. [See Sangeeta Agrawal, James W. Asplund, James K. Harter, Emily A. Killham, and Frank L. Schmidt, “Causal impact of employee work perceptions on the bottom line of organizations,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, July 2010, Volume 5, Number 4, pp. 378–89.] People are more creative, productive, committed, and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in work that matters. The first, and fundamental, requirement is that the work be meaningful to the people doing it.
In our book and a recent Harvard Business Review article [See Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, “The power of small wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011, Volume 89, Number 5, pp. 70–80.], we argue that managers at all levels routinely—and unwittingly—undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions. These include dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers.
But what about a company’s most senior leaders? What is their role in making—or killing—meaning at work? To be sure, as a high-level leader, you have fewer opportunities to directly affect the inner work lives of employees than do frontline supervisors. Yet your smallest actions pack a wallop because what you say and do is intensely observed by people down the line. A sense of purpose in the work [See Robert Sutton, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best . . . and Learn from the Worst, New York: Business Plus, 2010; and Sutton’s related article, “Why good bosses tune in to their people,” mckinseyquarterly.com, August 2010.], and consistent action to reinforce it, has to come from the top.
[Next, Amabile and Kramer identify and then discuss the "four avoidable ways" or “traps” by which "leaders kill meaning at work. To read the complete article, please click here.]
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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 aforementioned 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. Steven Kramer is an independent researcher and writer in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is also co-author of The Progress Principle. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from UCLA, and his doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Virginia.