Small wins mean progress

“Of all things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” “Everyday progress – even a small win – can make all the difference”… in how you and your employees feel and perform.

“What motivates people on a day-to-day basis is the sense that they are making progress.”

These findings are the result of research by Teresa M. Amabile of the Harvard Business School and Steven J. Kramer, a researcher/consultant, which stretched over 15 years, as reported in an article in the Harvard Business Review, May 2011. Simply the title of their forthcoming book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work creates a need to know more.

What do you rank first when asked what you think drives motivation? Most managers put recognition of good work, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals first. Very few (5%) rank progress first.

Inner work life
Take note that people are more creative and productive when their inner work lives are positive – when they feel happy, and are intrinsically motivated by the work itself, and have positive perceptions of the colleagues and their organisation.

Inner life can fluctuate from one day to the next and affect performance with it that day and even the next day. Have we not all experienced this personally?

Progress (“best days”) and setbacks (“worst days”)
In researching 26 project teams in seven companies, covering 238 individuals who supplied nearly 12 000 daily diary entries, the researchers found that the most common event triggering a “best day” was any progress in the work by the individual or the team. The most common event triggering a “worst day” was a setback.

Catalysts & nourishers vs. inhibitors & toxins
Two other types of inner work life also occur frequently on best days: Catalysts, actions that directly support work, including help from a person or group, setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing sufficient resources and time helping with the work, openly learning from problems and processes, and allowing a free exchange of ideas.

Nourishers are acts of interpersonal support and events such as shows of respect and words of encouragement and emotional comfort.

Each has an opposite: Inhibitors, actions that fail to support or actively hinder work, and toxins, discouraging or undermining events such as disregard for emotions, and interpersonal conflict. Inhibitors and toxins affect inner work life directly and immediately.

As manager the best thing you can do for your people is to purposefully provide the catalysts and nourishers that allow projects to move forward while removing the obstacles and toxins that result in setbacks.

Meaningful work – to the person doing it
When we think of progress we tend to think of achieving a long-term goal or a breakthrough. Such wins are relatively rare. The researchers point out that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Take note, that the key to motivating performance is supporting progress in meaningful work. ”Making headway boosts your inner work life, but only if work matters for you.” Simply working hard and achieving a task is not enough.

The work has to be meaningful to the person doing it.

Implications for managers
All of this has implications for each and every manager. If you loose your cool every now and then, you may negate the good work that has been done.

Developing long-term strategies and goals can often be seen as more important than ensuring that subordinates have what they need to make steady progress and feel supported as human beings.

Take note that even the best strategy will fail if managers ignore the people who try to execute it.

What should managers do?
•    Establish a positive climate and focus on one event at a time. When things go wrong focus on problems. With the inputs of your team, identify the problems and their causes and develop a coordinated action plan.

•    Stay attuned to your team’s everyday activities. Be non-judgemental and your team will willingly update you on setbacks, progress and plans.

•    Target your support according to recent events. Each day, anticipate what type of intervention – a catalyst or the removal of an inhibitor; a nourisher or some antidote to a toxin would have the most impact on team members’ inner work lives and progress.

•    Become a resource for your team rather than a micromanager. Check in on employees and do not check up on them.

Micromanagers do four things regularly:
•   They fail to allow autonomy in carrying out work.

•   They frequently ask subordinates about their work without providing any real help.

•   They are quick to affix personal blame when problems arise, leading subordinates to hide problems rather than to honestly discuss how to surmount them.

•  They tend to hoard information to use as a secret weapon. When subordinates perceive that a manager is withholding useful information, they feel infantilized, their motivation wanes, and their work is handicapped.

The Progress Loop
Inner work life drives performance; in turn, good performance, which depends on consistent progress, enhances inner work life.

Managers need not be able to read the inner psyche of their workers to ensure that they are motivated and happy. Just show basic respect and consideration and focus on supporting work itself.

Facilitate the steady progress of your employees in meaningful work, make that progress applicable to them, treat them well, and they will experience the emotions, motivations and perceptions necessary for great performance.

The researchers conclude: “Their superior work will contribute to organisational success. And here’s the beauty of it: They will love their jobs”.


PS. The publication will be released in August 2011. Also consider buying a copy of the article The Power of Small Wins from HBR at It contains a very useful daily progress checklist in table format. If any one of my current SA clients wants to join me in ordering the book, please contact me.


2 Responses

  1. After reading Albert’s piece entitled Small Wins Means Progress, I wrote the following to my own small team:

    What Albert says is important for us, especially since we are engaged in building a new team, with new goals and commitments and a new vision. In addition, it gives suggestions that, if we apply them intelligently, will help the three of us to grow together as separate individuals, but with common objectives. Mutual respect will allow us to differ from each other when it is necessary. It will also help us to take the heat out of such differences so that we may use our differences as stepping stones to greater cohesion, productivity and the fulfillment of the shared business vision that we are developing together.


  2. Andre – Many thanks for your comprehensive input and for your thoughts. It is very nice to receive a thoughtful comment such as yours.

    As our experience grows we both seem to learn that a focus on the intangibles, on human capital, on the members who constitute our teams, is the right one. Our team first. Then clients. Then products and services.

    Build each individual in the team and support his or her growth – and especially ensure that each is able to achieve progress of some sort each day.

    Progress or small wins will make their day – and will build our organisations.


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