The Seven Major Catalysts that Inspire Progress

In their book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer offer seven catalysts that inspire progress.

The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

1. Setting clear goals. People have better inner work lives when they know where their work is heading and why it matters. Unambiguous short- and long-term goals give teams tangible mileposts that render their progress salient. When people have conflicting priorities or unclear, meaningless, or arbitrarily shifting goals, they become frustrated, cynical, and demotivated. Time is wasted as people spin their wheels, and the work suffers.

2. Allowing autonomy. Setting clear goals can backfire if it amounts to nothing more than telling people what to do and how to do it. To be truly intrinsically motivated and to gain a sense of self-efficacy when they do make progress, people need to have some say in their own work. What’s more, when employees have freedom in how to do the work, they are more creative. A key aspect of autonomy is feeling that one’s decisions will hold. If management generally overrides people’s decisions, they quickly lose motivation to make any decision, which severely inhibits progress. Work gets delayed because people feel that they have to wait and check in before they begin or change anything.

3. Providing resources. Lavish resources aren’t required, but access to necessary equipment, funding, data, materials, and personnel is. When employees lack those catalysts, they realize that progress will be difficult or impossible and their inner work lives dip. The fact is that “lean and mean” rarely succeeds over the long haul, especially when it comes to cutting personnel. Providing resources has a twofold positive effect on inner work life. Not only does it allow employees to envision success on a project, but it also signifies that the organization values what they are doing. Withholding necessary resources or rendering them difficult to access engenders a sense of futility, anger at having to waste time scrounging or doing “grunt work,” and a perception that the project must not be very important.

4. Giving enough time—but not too much. Time pressure is one of the most interesting forces we studied. Although occasional time pressure for short periods can be exhilarating, using extreme time-pressure to stimulate positive inner work life, for weeks on end or even in the short run, is playing with fire (see “Time Pressure and Creativity”). If managers regularly set impossibly short time-frames or impossibly high workloads, employees become stressed, unhappy, and unmotivated—burned out. Yet, people hate being bored. Although it was rare for any participant in our study to report a day with very low time pressure, such days—when they did occur—were also not conducive to positive inner work life. In general, then, low-to-moderate time pressure seems optimal for sustaining positive thoughts, feelings, and drives.

5. Help with the work. In modern organizations, people need each other; almost everyone works interdependently. Employees left entirely to their own devices, without any assistance or support from someone else, accomplish very little—they need help. Help can take many forms, from providing needed information, to brainstorming with a colleague, to collaborating with someone who is struggling. Employees become dejected when help is inaccessible, frustrated when it is withheld by someone important to the project—managers at any level, colleagues anywhere in the organization, teammates, and even suppliers or customers—and infuriated when they perceive that someone is actively hindering their work. Conversely, getting the right sort of help, from the right people, at the right time, can give a significant boost to inner work life—even when that help has not yet resulted in progress.

6. Learning from problems and successes. No matter how skilled people are, or how well designed and well executed their projects, problems and failures are inevitable in complex, creative work. We found that inner work life was much more positive when problems were faced squarely, analyzed, and met with plans to overcome or learn from them. Inner work life faltered when problems were ignored, punished, or handled haphazardly. Learning from success mattered, too. Our participants’ thoughts, feelings, and drives fared better when successes, even small ones, were celebrated and then analyzed for knowledge gained. They fared worse when success was ignored, or when its true value was questioned. The ability to learn and move forward after failure is much more likely in organizational climates marked by psychological safety—a shared expectation, conveyed by the words and actions of leaders, that people will be commended for admitting or pointing out mistakes, rather than shunned. Only in a psychologically safe climate can people take the risks necessary to produce truly innovative work.

7. Allowing ideas to flow. Our research participants had some of their best days when ideas about their projects flowed freely within the team and across the organization. We found that ideas flowed best when managers truly listened to their workers, encouraged vigorous debate of diverse perspectives, and respected constructive critiques—even of themselves. When this crucial catalyst was missing or inhibited—when managers shut down debate or harshly criticized new ideas—people seemed to shrink into themselves. In self-protective mode, inner work life is dominated by fearful emotions, negative perceptions of the work environment, and stunted motivation.

Organizational Culture

Catalysts and inhibitors don’t just pop up randomly. These everyday triggers that influence inner work life arise out of the organization’s climate, the prevailing set of norms that shape the behavior and expectations of the people who work there. Climate (or culture) is an organization’s “signature” to people inside and outside the organization. It is created largely by the words and actions of leaders …Climate spawns the specific events that unfold within the organization; over time, similar specific events reinforce the climate.