The Progress Principle


Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work


These authors did a study. Turns out people really like making progress at work. They like it more than pretty much anything else. This book summarizes this conclusion and shares a lot of good insights for how to manage a team using progress as a motivator.


30 second summary


According to their research, Amabile and Kramer contend that MAKING PROGRESS on meaningful work has perhaps the biggest effect on an employee’s “inner work life” (innver work life being emotions, motivation, and perception of the company). Performance and creativity are bolstered by a positive inner work life. In other words, making progress – even small progress –
causes employees to be motivated, happy, and glad, and that leads to better performance.


Key Concepts in the Book


Employees have an “inner work life.” This consists of their motivation, their emotions, and what they think about the organization.

“We will show that making progress (being productive and creative) leads to positive inner work life. This creates the progress loop, the self-reinforcing process in which progress and inner work life fuel each other.”

“Many factors besides the progress – the help they received, release from other demands, interpersonal and management support, recognition – boosted the team’s inner work life…but we came to realize that making progress in meaningful work is the most powerful stimulant to great inner work life.”

“We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.”


Who Should Read This Book and Why


Anyone who managers someone.

Whether or not you agree that progress is the MOST important factor in employee engagement, it is certainly important. You’ll learn some really useful ways to facilitate progress for your team.


So far I only have a collection of quotes and notes. Will break out into a series of posts at some point!

The three components of Inner Work Life

    Perceptions/thoughts – sense making about workday events
  1.       The Organization
  2.       Managers, teams, self
  3.       The work
  4.       Sense of accomplishment
  • Emotions/Feelings – reactions to workday events
    1.       Positive and negative emotions
    2.       Overall mood
  • Motivation/drive – desire to do the work
    1.       What to do
    2.       Whether to do it
    3.       How to do it
    4.       When to do it

There are three main things that affect inner work life (p85)

  1. The progress principle
    1.       Small wins, breakthroughs, forward movement, goal completion
  2. The catalyst factor
    1.       Setting clear goals, autonomy, providing resources, helping with the work, learning from problems and successes, allows ideas to flow.
  3. The nourishment factor
    1.       Respect, encouragement, emotional support, affiliation

“Our work is unambiguous. As inner work life rises and falls, so does performance.” P45

This is the inner work life effect: 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.” P47

High performance has four dimensions:

  1. Creativity – coming up with novel and useful ideas
  2. Productivity – getting work done on a steady basis; high quality work; completing work successfully
  3. Commitment – demonstrated when people persevere, help others through difficulties, do what it takes to succeed
  4. Collegiality – is shown by any action which contributes to the cohesiveness of the team; show that they care about how well the team functions

Our research revealed a definitive connection between positive emotions and creativity. “Creativity as higher when our study participants had more positive perceptions of their work environment – from the highest levels of management and the entire organization to their own jobs.” P54

“Motivation, the third component of inner work life, also influences creativity…that people are more creative when they are driven primarily by intrinsic motivators.” P55

“Results shows that employees satisfaction and perceptions of their organization, their managers, their colleagues and their work significantly predicted sales, profitability, customer loyalty, and employee retention.” P58

“We discovered that the inner work life effect operates in three primary ways: attention to tasks, engagement in the project, and intention to work hard.” P59

“This is one of the most important findings of our entire study: that making head-way on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term performance. Real progress triggers positive emotions life satisfaction, gladness, even joy. It leads to a sense of accomplishment and self-worth as well as positive views of the work and, sometimes, the organization. Such thoughts and perceptions (along with those positive emotions) feed the motivation, the deep engagement, that is crucial for ongoing blockbuster performance.” P68

“We will show that making progress (being productive and creative) leads to positive inner work life. This creates the progress loop, the self-reinforcing process in which progress and inner work life fuel each other.” P69

Work having more meaning = greater sense of accomplishment…which is one of the key perceptual elements of positive inner work life. P70

“Many factors besides the progress – the help they received, release from other demands, interpersonal and management support, recognition – boosted the team’s inner work life…but we came to realize that making progress in meaningful work is the most powerful stimulant to great inner work life.” P74

“…The progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress – setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.” P76-77

“Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.” P77

Is inner life caused by progress on the work, or is progress caused by having good inner work life? Hard to tell by the raw data. The data suggests that good feelings follow after having made progress. “Almost certainly, the causality goes both ways.”

Food for thought: how do you know when you have made progress? Feedback. Feedback from your manager or from the work itself. “The key …is to design each job so that, in the act of carrying out the work, people gain knowledge about the results of their effort.” P81

In addition to progress and setbacks, there are two other factors: (p82)

  1. Catalysts – actions that directly support or facilitate the work.
    1. The opposite of a catalyst is an Inhibitor
  2. Nourishments – interpersonal things like respect encouragement, comfort and other social or emotional support.
    1. The opposite of nourishment is a Toxin.

The Progress Principle (Chapter 5)

Management seems to be unaware of the power of progress.

“Any manager’s job description should start with facilitating subordinates’ progress every day.” P89

“If people feel capable, then they see difficult problems as positive challenges and opportunities to succeed”…they develop a sense of empowerment…”if they suffer consistent setbacks, they see those same challenges as opportunities to fail, and avoid them.” P91

While progress has a huge effect on happiness and decreases frustration, they found that the opposite – setbacks – has an even larger relative negative effect. P92

Meaning. “What matters is whether you perceive your work as contributing value to something or someone who matters…Whether the goals are lofty or modest, as long as they are meaningful, then the condition are set for progress to rule inner work life.” P96

Four ways to negate meaning p97

“However, managers should make sure that employees know just how their work is contributing. And most importantly, managers should avoid actions that negate the value of the work.” P96

  1. Having one’s work or ideas dismissed by the leaders or coworkers.
  2. Losing a sense of ownership in one’s work
  3. Make employees doubt that the work they are doing will ever see the light of day
  4. When people feel like they are overqualified for many of the specific tasks that they are being asked to do.

Progress Loop – “progress enhances inner work life (the progress principle) and positive inner work life leads to further progress (the inner work life effect), creating a virtuous cycle.” P98

The Catalyst Factor (Chapter 6)

Catalysts and inhibitors can have an immediate effect on inner work life, even before they ever actually affect the work itself. People get a boost (to perceptions, emotions, and motivation) as soon as they get a catalyst like autonomy, resources, etc.

Catalysts (listed in depth 104-105)

  • Setting clear goals
  • Allowing autonomy
  • Providing resources
  • Giving enough time – but not too much (“for optimal creative performance, go for low or moderate time pressure as a general rule – punctuated by occasional periods of focused urgency” p107)
  • Help with the work
  • Learning from problems or successes
  • Allowing ideas to flow

Organization’s climate – the set of norms that shape the behavior and expectations of the people at work…it is out of the company’s climate from which catalysts and inhibitors pop up. P108 There are 3 main climate forces which shape events:

  1. Consideration for people and their ideas
  2. Coordination
  3. Communication

“A Tale of Two Teams” showcases good and bad examples of work climates p111 and on

“For many of the teams we studied, work catalysts – or inhibitors – far outweighed interpersonal factors in elevating or depressing inner work life. For others, social, interpersonal interactions mattered more – the sympathy and smile…” and those interpersonal interactions are addressed in Nourishment factors.

Nourishment Factor (Chapter 7)

Managers can nourish their employees by recognizing or rewarding good work, encouraging employees, or offering emotional support.

It’s also important to establish the foundation for subordinates to give each other nourishment.

Four major nourishment factors

  1. Respect (disrespect)
  2. Encouragement (discouragement)
  3. Emotional Support (emotional neglect)
  4. Affiliation (antagonism)

“If you are a team leader, you may have even more power than top managers to create a supportive or debilitating work environment for members of your team.” P146

“Emotional support enhances inner work life by soothing negative emotions – calming fears, reducing frustrations, or dispelling despair.” P153

Drucker once wrote “The goal [of management] is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.” It’s not about supervising or controlling, but by service leadership, by focusing on contributing to real work progress by your individuals. P155