Leaders: Are you one of the 95% who does not understand the most important source of employee motivation?

The authors surveyed 100’s of managers around the world and asked what motivated employees.  They were startled to find that 95% of these leaders fundamentally misunderstood the most important source of employee motivation.  It’s not about getting the right people on the bus.  Or about higher incentives.  Or about athletic facilities and free child care.  Their research has found that the best way to motivate people is by facilitating progress, even small wins.  Yet managers surveyed, had ranked “supporting progress” as dead last as a work motivator.

The authors conducted a rigorous analysis of nearly 12,000 daily diary entries provided by 200+ employees in 7 companies.  They found that the best managers create a high quality of “inner work life” for their employees.  Inner work life is about favorable and unfavorable perceptions employees have about their managers, the organization, the team, the work and even oneself.   A positive inner work life determines whether the employee has the motivation to their best work – it determines their attention to tasks, the level of their engagement and their intention to deliver their best work.

The authors found that there are 3 types of events that are particularly important in creating a positive inner work life:

  1. Progress in meaningful work (e.g. small wins, breakthroughs, forward movement, goal completion),
  2. Catalysts that directly help work (setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing resources, providing sufficient time, helping with the work, learning from problems and successes, allows ideas to flow),
  3. Nourishers/interpersonal events (e.g. respect, encouragement, emotional support, affiliation/bonds of mutual trust & appreciation) that uplift people doing the work.

Research found that #1, progress in meaningful work, was the most important event in creating a positive inner work life.

People’s inner work lives seemed to lift or drag depending on whether or not their projects moved forward, even by small increments.  Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly negative one.  So, small actions to try to reduce daily hassles can make a big difference for inner work life and for overall performance.

It’s also important to note that small losses or setbacks were found to overwhelm small wins.  Small everyday hassles hold more sway than small everyday supporting activities.

Be sure that you are not the source of the obstacles.  Negative team leader behaviors affect inner work life more broadly than positive team leader behaviors.  And employees recall more negative team leader actions than positive events and do so more intensely and in more detail.

Chapter 8 includes a Daily Progress Checklist which is worth the price of the book.  A self assessment asking questions on Catalysts/Inhibitors, Nourishers/Toxins, the state of the Inner Work lives of your team and Action steps.  (e.g., Did the team have clear short term and long term goals for meaningful work or was there confusion?  Did I give help when they needed it or did I fail to provide help?  Did I show respect to team recognizing their contributions to progress or did I disrespect any team members? Did I encourage team members who have difficult challenges or discourage a member of the team in any way?)

Bottom line, to harness the powerful force of the quality of your employees’ inner work lives, you must ensure that consistent forward movement in meaningful work is a regular occurrence in your employees ‘ work lives, despite the inevitable setbacks.

Source: “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins To Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity of Work“.  Authors: Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

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