Never a year goes by without some esteemed management journal or professor announcing to the world that they’ve found the big one! The one big thing you absolutely must do if you want to transform your employees into superstars! On the face of it this can be a bit annoying, because this year’s thing is rarely the same as last year’s thing, so are we all being taken for a ride or what?

Call us eternal optimists, but we don’t think so. We previously featured an article on the best employee engagement study we’ve ever come across – Gallup’s 12 Factors of Employee Engagement, What Talented Employees Want. We’re so enamoured of this study that we’ll probably feature it again in a year or two, but there’s always room for another take on the subject, another angle from which to view the same issue.

Employee engagement is like fitness – there’s no one way to achieve it, no one best approach that suits all people in all situations. Swimmers have different training needs to motor racing drivers. Sprinters place greater emphasis on power than do 1500m runners. But more than this, there are different ways of reaching the same goal. Who’d have thought that Rugby professionals would be taking pilates classes to strengthen their core muscles? Or that American footballers would take ballet classes to improve their balance and flexibility?

So now we have the results of a new study from Harvard Business School which tells us that the number one motivating factor for employees is a sense of making progress.

The study, conducted by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, tracked the activities, emotions and motivation levels of hundreds of knowledge workers over several years – knowledge workers being people who primarily work with specialised information, such as IT professionals, teachers, lawyers, scientists, students, doctors and so on. In the study, workers would detail their key activities, rate their motivation and emotion levels, and send these, along with diary entries, for analysis at the end of each day.

The Findings

What they revealed is not so much a new source of employee motivation, so much as a new take on the subject – a new emphasis, if you like.

– On days when workers felt they were making good progress, or when they received support to overcome obstacles, their emotions were most positive and their drive to succeed was at its peak

– On days when they felt like they were spinning their wheels or encountering obstacles they couldn’t overcome, their moods and motivation levels were at their lowest

The correlation between seeing progress and higher enthusiasm and motivation levels was very strong- making progress, even incremental progress, was noted on 76% of people’s best days and only 25% of their worst.

It doesn’t take too much analysis of our own experience to see the connection; we’ve all had many many days when, despite our best laid plans and endless ‘To Do’ lists, we seem to finish the day worse off than we started it. Do any of these things sound familiar?

– constant interruptions
– conflicting priorities
– equipment failures, system failures, logistical failures
– marketing’s new initiative that no-one seems to know anything about
– people not replying to emails and phone calls

The list could go on and on!


Another interesting finding of Amabile and Kramer’s is that second most uplifting for workers after being able to see they were making progress was collaboration. This is recorded separately from making progress, but collaboration is nothing if not about making progress. It’s also linked inextricably with interpersonal and often material support, so it ticks more than one box in both the Harvard and Gallup studies.


Interestingly, Amabile & Kramer’s recommendations dovetail nicely into Gallup’s findings; to encourage a sense of making progress and to support the removal of obstacles they urge employers to ensure workers have:

– crystal clear goals and priorities
– the material support – tools and equipment – to do their jobs
– sound interpersonal support the manager as facilitator
– plenty of recognition for progress made

In short, everything they need to make sure they can do the jobs they’re paid to do. So if you’re looking for new year’s resolutions, you could do worse than commit to removing one obstacle to progress a week – think of the difference you’ll make by this time next year!

Why not view our solutions on leadership today?

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