By: Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, coauthors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.)
No doubt about it -- there is a disengagement crisis at work -- a trend that’s impacted employee engagement.
If you’re an employer, this is probably not news to you.
Studies from the APA, Aon and others have found that a high percentage of people are stressed, unhappy, and disengaged from the work they do. In fact, in a recent article, Gallup reported that a majority of US employees do not feel engaged at work.
Much of the blame undoubtedly falls on changing work environments. Since the economic downturn, cost-cutting measures have required many people to carry a greater burden of the work with fewer resources, a topic that we’ve written about more than once in our Harvard Business Review blog.
Improving Employee Performance
The question becomes what managers can do to improve employee engagement and the well-being of their employees -- which, incidentally, improves employee performance.
In our research, we analyzed nearly 12,000 daily diaries from professionals in several different companies, in order to determine what makes for good inner work life: joy, engagement, and positive views of the job.
Our research made a surprising discovery. Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the single most prominent factor for employee engagement is simply making progress in meaningful work. We call this the progress principle.
Here are seven ways you can use our discovery to sustain your employees’ engagement in their work:
1. Help employees find meaning in the work they do. This doesn’t have to be some higher purpose such as curing cancer. It can simply be contributing to a quality product or service for their customers. It can even be supporting their teammates. It is critical that you communicate the value of the organization’s mission and how their daily efforts contribute to those goals.
2. Support progress each day. Providing meaningful work is only the first step. People must also have the opportunity to succeed at that work. Give them the resources and help they need to do great work. Even when resources are tight, there is much you can do to support progress. Be sure that people’s skills are well-matched to their work. Make sure that their goals are clear and that they have sufficient autonomy to use their own skills and talents to meet those goals. And make yourself available to help out when needed. These and many other things you can do are not costly, but they can make a huge difference in the success or failure of a project.
3. Ensure that employees find time each day for the work that they find most meaningful. Too often, even when people work hard all day, they find themselves unable to get to the work that they think is most important. They are interrupted by unexpected demands or smothered under a mountain of necessary but tedious “grunt work.” Try to protect some “sacred” time each day that people can use to focus on critical work, and eliminate extraneous tasks as much as possible.
4. Make note of employees’ progress and celebrate it. When workers complete one task, there is invariably another one to take its place. It’s natural for people to just move on, without having a moment to savor their own accomplishment. We discovered that the progress principle operates even when people make a small step forward toward some meaningful goal -- a small win. So take a moment to recognize even small steps forward.
5. Encourage employees to celebrate the successes of their teammates. Because so much of modern work requires teamwork, one person’s accomplishment is really the team’s accomplishment. Create a climate where employees routinely support, recognize and celebrate each other’s progress. Even when a worker is having setbacks, his or her inner work life can still be nourished by the accomplishments of others. And because team members will be recognizing each other’s progress, some of the burden will be lifted from your shoulders.
6. Value setbacks. There is a dark side to the progress principle: of all the events that contribute to poor inner work life, having setbacks (being blocked or stalled in the work) is by far the most prominent. Even worse, the negative effect of setbacks is two to three times stronger than the positive effect of progress. Yet setbacks are inevitable in complex and difficult work. When someone does have a setback, don’t view it as a failure and, above all, don’t punish it. Rather, view it as a natural part of doing hard work. Then help people extract value from it; ask what was learned that can help the team move forward.
7. Encourage friendship. OK, this tip isn’t about progress, but it is about inner work life. Gallup researchers have long found that having a best friend at work can turn a moderately engaged employee into a highly engaged one. So, create opportunities for people to develop friendships and bond. These can be team lunches, other get-togethers, or activities outside of work. As stronger friendships develop, you’ll find that employee will likely be happier and more engaged at work. As a bonus, they’ll become more collaborative and helpful.
These techniques are not costly, they don’t take much time, and they aren’t very difficult. But they do require your attention. Keep them on your mental agenda in the coming year. You might even consider making them your New Year’s Work Resolutions.
Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School. She has written extensively on creativity, motivation, and everyday work life. Steven Kramer is a developmental psychologist, writer, and researcher on inner work life and performance. Amabile and Kramer are the coauthors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.)