In this current tight labor market and a looming recession, it is vital that managers find effective ways to keep employees motivated and satisfied with their jobs (and the company). It turns out that incentives (especially monetary and non-monetary ones) aren’t such a strong motivator.
True motivation comes from the ‘progress principle,’ according to research conducted at Harvard Business School. We explore some of the concepts and practices behind the progress principle and how they can help employees to stay committed and engaged as they do their work.
Emotions and Productivity
One’s emotional state has a strong bearing on how motivated they are and how productive they get on a day by day basis. On the days that an employee makes progress in their work, they tend to have positive emotions like motivation, joy, comradeship with team members, and so on.
Conversely, negative emotions normally characterize days when a setback has been encountered. Workers can feel frustrated, unsupported, isolated and so on when they experience a setback in their work.
Managers need to be conscious about the role that emotions play in fostering productivity and create an environment that supports positive emotions while minimizing opportunities for triggering negative emotions. For example, toxic work environments like workplaces that pay a deaf ear to sexist or racist acts can kill morale and compromise employee productivity. Little progress can be made in such settings, and any progress made comes at a needlessly high cost.
Research has also revealed that when progress happens, employees tend to perceive their colleagues as supportive and challenges are welcomed. In contrast, setbacks trigger perceptions of colleagues as being unsupportive, challenges as being insurmountable and resources as being inadequate for the project at hand.
As a manager or leader, it is your duty to take steps to manage the perceptions of those you lead so that their perceptions support progress and productivity. For example, go out of your way to grant team members autonomy to deliver projects minus micromanaging every aspect of the work they are doing. Be a mentor who checks in, not a micromanager who checks out employees and what they are doing.
‘Minor’ Milestones Have Major Effects
Making progress, however minor that progress, is very important to the inner work of employees. This is because that win boosts their confidence, lifts their spirits and shows them that they have what it takes to attain the bigger goal. This is the reason why ‘chunking down’ large goals into small daily targets works so well.
Making progress, however small that progress may be, is critical to keeping employees motivated and engaged in their work. Small wins trigger the positive emotions that support productivity and they improve job satisfaction.
In contrast, seemingly minor setbacks can have a profound adverse effect on productivity, which is why managers need to take steps to prevent circumstances that can result in setbacks for employees. For example, if priority changes are likely to mean that an employee’s work isn’t going to be used as previously thought, it is vital to communicate this change in a timely manner so that the affected employee doesn’t feel that they wasted their time and effort on something that doesn’t have any value.
Similarly, employees should be given clear goals, necessary resources and the support they need to successfully complete the tasks assigned to them so that the likelihood of failure is minimized. Setbacks often have a more pronounced adverse effect than the positive effects arising from the equivalent wins, so special care should go to minimizing setbacks.
Catalysts and Nourishers vs. Inhibitors and Toxins
It is also easy to keep employees motivated and help them register progress in their daily work if managers and leaders invest in providing catalysts and nourishers. Catalysts and nourishers are things that support the execution of the project and the individual performing a task, respectively. For example, setting a clear goal when assigning a task is a catalyst, while catching an employee doing something right and recognizing their effort is a nourisher.
In contrast, inhibitors and toxins are factors that make it hard for progress to be made by employees. For example, not availing the needed resources to execute a project is an inhibitor while finger-pointing and assigning blame are toxins that trigger negative emotions within an employee and prevent them from being adequately motivated to perform a task and complete it.
Coaching and other forms of support to employees serve as strong catalysts and nourishers which can boost productivity and progress on a daily basis. Emphasize these while limiting inhibitors and toxins.
Is the Task Meaningful?
We have mentioned that any win, however small, nurtures the right inner work that promotes progress in employees. But, there is a caveat. The work that someone is doing has to be meaningful to them.
For example, someone washing dishes in a restaurant will not see the completion of a pile as progress because a steady stream of dirty dishes will keep flooding in. The only meaning that such a person can note is when they receive their payment at the end of the day.
In contrast, a surgeon who performs life-saving surgery on a sick child will see their work as meaningful because it has life and death consequences for the people in his or her care. However, you don’t have to be a surgeon for your work to be meaningful. You just have to recognize the positive contribution that your work makes to customers, the environment and so on. Only then will the small wins that you notch have an effect on your emotions like motivation.
Managers can use this awareness to explain goals and objectives and how each project contributes to bigger organizational aspirations. Let each team member know that what they are doing is vital to overall success at the company, and watch their motivation soar.
As this discussion shows, motivating team members needs to focus on helping them to make progress in their work. Other motivators, such as monetary incentives, serve a secondary role. Making the mindset shift to putting the progress principle first in your management style takes some work, but who said anything worthwhile comes easy?