Enabling steady progress will make your small business employees more creative and productive

Last week I read about a new concept related to employee productivity that I instantly knew to be true. Research done by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, a psychologist and independent researcher, sought to discover what makes people happy, motivated, creative and productive at work. They found that the key ingredient is to enable employees to make progress each day, no matter how small that progress may be.

While reading about this, I thought back to a former job that I found terribly frustrating and unrewarding. It was a job filled with management team meetings in which the boss inevitably said something along the lines of “I’d like to revisit that decision we made yesterday” or “Let’s table this topic and circle back around to it next week.” Revisit and circle back became my most hated words.

The same approach carried over to the actual work. Even if a press release had already been edited five times, the boss was unable to let it go. “I just want to review it one more time before it goes out,” she’d say. As a result, we were always banged up tight against deadlines, no matter how early you started the work. I would drive home many evenings feeling that the day had been a waste. As a result, per the research of Amabile and Kramer, I was unproductive, uncreative, and seriously unhappy with my work.

The researchers arrived at their conclusion about the link between being able to make forward progress and being a contented, contributing employee after reviewing over 12,000 diary entries generated by 238 people in which, at the end of the workday, they responded to questions in which they rated their mood, motivation, productivity and creativity. The researchers labeled all of this information as the “inner work life” of people – the stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivation that people experience at work. These emotional reactions and perceptions, the researchers say, are a powerful influence on performance and creativity.

The researchers say the most important diary question turned out to be one in that asked people to describe one event relevant to their work that stood out in their mind from that day. What they found when they compared the days in which participants had their very best inner work life experiences with those in which they had their worst inner work life experiences was that on the positive days they had been able to make progress on meaningful work.

So what does all this mean to you, the small business owner, who wants to have creative, productive employees? Here is the meat of their message from a Forbes article in which Teresa Amabile talks about how to apply their learnings:

“We identified two factors or classes of events that are key to people’s inner work lives and their progress. The catalyst factor includes events that directly enable progress in the work. Catalysts include things like providing clear goals for the  work and providing people with sufficient resources to accomplish those goals.  The opposite of catalysts are inhibitors; these make progress difficult or  impossible. They are the mirror image of the catalysts, and include giving unclear goals, micro-managing, and providing insufficient resources.

“Nourishers directly support people’s inner work lives and include actions like  showing respect and providing emotional support. Their opposite is toxins, which include being disrespectful or creating a hostile work environment.”

There is a heap of valuable advice on how to be a good leader in those two paragraphs. But to learn more, Amabile and Kramer have written about a book about their findings that you might want to check out. It’s called The Progress Principle: sing Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. I’m thinking of buying a copy and sending it to my former boss! You can learn more about the book here as well as information on other interesting workplace research done by Amabile.

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