October 2012

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletterJoAnn Hackos

Small Wins—A Key to Engaging Your Team

If you haven’t, as a manager or team leader, read The Progress Principle, put it on your reading list today. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer interviewed over 200 white-collar employees, asking them to keep daily diaries for more than nine months. Amabile, who is a professor in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, and her husband Kramer, who is a developmental psychologist, carefully analyzed over 12,000 records in which they had asked people to respond to questions such as, “Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind.” They were looking for trends in the stories, occurrences in the workday that made people feel enthusiastic and positive about their work and occurrences that had a negative influence on them.

The most unusual finding showed clearly that what made people happy, enthusiastic, and more creative and productive was not what business leaders commonly think of when they try incentives. Salaries and bonuses were just not that important. What resonated with people was work progress. When people made real progress with their work that experienced a surge in positive feelings. Their inner work life went over the top, and they became more creative and productive.

In contrast, people’s worst days were those in which they experienced setbacks in their work. When projects lost ground, people felt bad, really bad. Negative events were even more powerful, however, than positive events.

Amabile and Kramer argue that a positive inner work life is essential but that in many organizations, team members feel that management is against them. They urge good managers to change the Dilbert stereotype of the pointy-headed boss.

“As inner work life goes, so goes the company. We discovered that people are more creative and productive when they are deeply engaged in the work, when they feel happy, and when they think highly of their projects, coworkers, managers, and organizations. But there’s more. When people enjoy consistently positive inner work lives, they are also more committed to their work and more likely to work well with colleagues. In other words, work-related psychological benefits for employees translate into performance benefits for the company.”

The study described in The Progress Principle focuses on knowledge workers, the same kind of people who are our team members in information development. To help people improve their inner work lives and continue to be responsive and creative in their work, Amabile and Kramer describe two critical factors that are directly related to the Progress Principle itself: The Catalyst Factor and The Nourishment Factor.

The Progress Principle

The Progress Principle encompasses events that mean that progress has occurred: small wins, breakthroughs, forward movement, and goal completion. In their study of white-collar workers, Amabile and Kramer found these signs of progress to be essential for a positive inner work life. People were happiest and most productive and creative when they made progress on work that was meaningful to them.

However, then they studied what managers thought was important to employees, progress didn’t even make the list. Managers credited recognition, money, bonuses, and praise to be most important for motivating people. Progress wasn’t even on the list, or when it was suggested, it was given the least level of importance. Certainly, people are not adverse to recognition and money, but none of these is more important than progress with meaningful work.

Meaningful work means doing something that is both appreciated by the organization and one’s peers and is also personally valuable. People take pride in their own accomplishments. When everything is going well and when they have a sense of empowerment, their inner work lives thrive. At the same time, if the work is not meaningful and if the work is going badly, strong setbacks occur and inner work lives turn negative.

To foster the progress principle and keep team members positively engaged in their work, managers must first ensure that the work is truly meaningful. Then they must eliminate obstacles to the work performance. Setbacks are very destructive; small losses easily overwhelm small wins. The job of the manager is to keep the atmosphere positively charged. Some of the most destructive setbacks occur when a manager dismisses someone’s idea, fails to exploit someone’s skills effectively, creates an environment in which the team member loses a sense of ownership over the work, or allows an environment build in which the team member’s work “never sees the light of day.”

If the manager sets meaningful goals, ensures that the projects are moving forward, allows for breakthroughs and new ideas, and promotes opportunities for small wins, the team members will be their most creative and innovative and their most productive. With positive inner work lives, everyone is happier.

The Catalyst Factor

To enable the progress principle, Amabile and Kramer argue that managers put in place catalysts that help team members to succeed and build positive inner work lives. At the same time, they strongly recommend that managers avoid inhibitors that cause setbacks to occur.

Perhaps the most important catalyst is having clear goals. Goals are motivating, helping to direct thinking and actions in a positive direction. Goals energize people, allowing them to devote their time and good ideas to a worthwhile task. They empower people to move forward, often with little pressure. Without clear goals, people become frustrated because they cannot tell if they are making any progress at all.

However, to move forward toward a goal, everyone must have adequate resources and time. I often find that organizations that embrace structured, topic-based authoring and content reuse as a goal, then fail to provide adequate resources and time to reach the goal. No one is available to help with planning, developing an information model, converting legacy content, or learning to write new content. The entire team is already committed 100% to existing work. If they’ve bought into the original goal, they are frustrated because they can never reach it. The entire project bogs down, a victim of negative inner work lives.

To keep people positive about their work means allowing new ideas and approaches to flourish, providing real help when people are under time pressures, and helping everyone learn from mistakes and pursue success. In contrast, an environment that punishes people for mistakes, especially when they are under time pressure, without adequate resources, inhibits progress and creates victims.

For managers, it’s important to ensure that the environment you create is filled with catalysts and empty of inhibitors. It’s the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the catalysts are in place so that people can learn, move forward, prosper, and celebrate success.

One point that Amabile and Kramer emphasize in discussing the Catalyst Factor—a company culture can be a strong Catalyst or a strong Inhibitor. They point to cultures that are positive and supportive, creating a great working climate. They also point to those that are negative, punishing, and become bad places for people to work. I am always concerned when I visit companies or speak to writers or managers who work for companies where technical communicators are considered second class citizens. Their work is labeled a “necessary evil,” and they are often treated with disrespect, sometimes bordering on abusive. I wonder what sort of companies these are, often guided by the personal attitudes of the founders or the senior executives. In one dramatic case, I witnessed a company turn from strongly supportive to strongly inhibiting within two years after a new CEO was brought in to replace the founder. Nothing ever worked well for information developers there again.

There’s absolutely no excuse for a class of employees to be treated without respect. No company should be run that way by the powerful.

The Nourishment Factor

If a caustic environment is not a catalyst for a positive inner work life, it certainly doesn’t provide a nourishing environment for team members. In their second key factor, Nourishment, Amabile and Kramer point to the events in an organization that actively support people. They explain that a human connection at work is crucial to making progress and feeling good about it. And, perhaps unexpectedly, they insist that it is management’s responsibility to foster a nourishing environment.

When people are treated with respect, when management infuses their work with great meeting, their inner work lives thrive and they are happier, more productive, and more creative. Respect means acknowledging everyone’s effort and ensuring that an atmosphere of basic civility prevails. So, when a general manager told the publications manager that he wasn’t about to invest in sorely needed technology to make the writers’ life easier, he ensured that everyone able to find another job quickly did so. His comment struck me as the epitome of disrespect and created a toxic work environment.

To nourish the team members, managers must communicate their own enthusiasm for the work their team members do. Without that common ground, team members feel increasingly unsupported. Even basic emotional support for people’s life events is part of the Nourishment Factor. Everyone wants to feel supported when something goes wrong, even if it is outside of work. Emotional support helps alleviate negative influences and setbacks.

Finally, nourishment means ensuring that the team members are respectful of one another and work together effectively. And it means ensuring that they also have fun together, even if they are in different or isolated locations or working from home. In fact, isolated individuals may need even more support.

In each case, it is up to management to create a supportive environment and avoid a toxic one, if they are to achieve their goals and ensure that progress toward those goals is steady and creative.

So think about it—do you foster the progress principle? Are you building an environment in which people’s inner work lives are supported? Do you want and need a productive and successful team? Do you want to be part of such a team yourself?

I invite you to read the Progress Principle and heed the authors’ advice. It’s a brilliant study with many more recommendations than I can discuss here. I welcome your feedback. CIDMIconNewsletter