Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Book Review: The Progress Principle

I wrote recently that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is as pertinent to the world of work as it is to the rest of an individual’s life. Organizations that want more innovation from their employees need to understand that innovation is more likely to happen when many of the “lower order” functions of Maslow’s hierarchy are fulfilled for an employee or a team.  This means that simple needs like safety, security and basic needs are fulfilled completely and are not at risk.  Only then can issues like esteem and creativity be fully engaged.  Since far too many employees in far too many businesses are worried about the basics of their job – security, safety, continuity – they don’t have the investment or time to engage in higher order activities.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have conducted extensive research into issues of employee engagement, productivity and creativity.  In a far-reaching survey of over 12,000 diary entries created by hundreds of employees across a number of firms, Amabile and Kramer identified factors that lead to satisfying what they call “inner work life”, which consists of emotions, motivations and perception of employees’ organization, work and colleagues.    Amabile and Kramer have now documented the research and discussed their findings and the implications of their analysis in a new book entitled The Progress Principle.  In the book they introduce inner work life and its components, and identify factors that support and sustain a positive inner work life.  Most interestingly, they identify “progress” as perhaps most important to a positive inner work life.  What they mean by this is progress of a project or initiative toward a goal – even small, incremental steps.  Progress was so important to a positive inner work life that they included “progress” in the title of the book.

The authors stipulate there are three components of inner work life:  perceptions (how we make sense about work and what we do), emotions (reactions to events) and motivation (desire to do the work).  These seem fairly obvious on their face, yet few managers are attuned to assess this concept of inner work life, and few know instinctively how to create an environment where inner work life is developed and sustained.  The authors attempted to assess how employees felt about their inner work life through surveys that asked the employees to report on four significant criteria:  creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.  Based on this feedback, they confirmed what many other management thinkers and researchers have already discovered – intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation, especially where higher order activities like creativity are concerned.  This aligns to work by Daniel Pink in his book Drive.

Once the authors have defined the inner work life, they turn their attention to progress.  On page 68 they define the benefit of progress as “Real progress triggers positive emotions like satisfaction, gladness, even joy.  It leads to a sense of accomplishment and self-worth as well as positive views of the work and, sometimes, the organization.”  The authors argue that making progress on an initiative or project, even small, incremental steps, leads to an enhanced inner work life, which creates engagement and can lead to greater creativity and productivity.  However, progress is just one of three factors that influence inner work life.  The other two factors are catalysts, which are actions that directly support work on the project, and nourishment factors, which are interpersonal triggers like praise, respect and encouragement.    As every action has an equal and opposite reaction, progress is opposed by setbacks, catalysts by inhibitors and nourishment by toxins.

The book includes a list of catalysts that should be relevant to any manager:  clear goals, autonomy, adequate resources, adequate time to work on an initiative, providing assistance, learning and allowing ideas to flow.  These catalysts engage and accelerate efforts and promote progress, which reinforces inner work life.  Clearly, inhibitors work in opposition to catalysts.  Inhibitors are uncertain goals, lack of autonomy, limited resources, limited time, lack of assistance and a restricted view of ideas.  These inhibitors limit how people work, stymie their progress and impact inner work life, leading to frustration and a lack of engagement.

Similarly, nourishment adds to a positive inner work life through respect, encouragement, emotional support and affiliation.  These factors encourage a very positive working environment and improve perceptions, emotion and motivation.  Toxins, on the other hand, block this nourishment and poison the atmosphere, again leading to a poor inner work life and lack of engagement.

So far, so good.  The research is exhaustive, the insights are compelling, but the implications aren’t quite so clear.  Amabile and Kramer have done an excellent job peeling back a layer of management obfuscation to remind us that people need to be engaged in what they do, and as work becomes a bigger part of everyone’s life, inner work life must be effectively understood and managed.  This means that every corporation must consider its corporate culture and make adjustments to ensure the appropriate catalysts and nourishments are in place.  Executives and managers must examine their management style to understand how they impact progress and inner work life.  The authors devote an entire chapter to “Tending your own inner work life”, yet at the end of the book I am left asking the question:  who is this book for?  Is it a prescription to radically change corporate cultures for greater engagement and creativity?  If so, it should be directed at senior leadership.  Is it a book about recruiting, hiring and training the best managers to sustain inner work life?  If so, then it should be targeted at middle managers and talent management.  Is it a “self-help” book targeted to individual contributors?  It’s simply not clear who should hear this message and how they should respond.

Further, the benefits of a radically improved inner work life aren’t described adequately.  If an organization can dramatically improve inner work life, what are the potential outcomes?  Drastically improved employee engagement?  Improved creativity and innovation?  A reduction in unplanned employee turnover?  The book doesn’t make a lot of claims about what the outcomes will be in what will be a relatively significant investment in training and management coaching.   The authors spent a significant amount of time building their case for progress and for the other factors, but they neglected to spend enough time describing the outcomes and benefits of improving inner work life.  One could argue that the benefits are obvious – happier, more engaged people who feel encouraged and respected at work.  But those psychological benefits have to be converted into meaningful, quantifiable outcomes that shareholders will care about – higher revenues, lower costs, higher growth.  I’m sure that many firms on the end of bankruptcy demonstrate many inhibitors and toxins, and conversely many fast growing firms demonstrate catalysts and nourishers.  Yet we need a bridge between qualitative “good” outcomes and quantitative results if we are to ask executives and managers to embrace what will be significant cultural change, and I’m not sure the authors have provided that bridge.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:48 AM


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