Managers Don’t Know What Motivates Employees

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jun 25, 2012
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Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., speaks at the Masters Series session during the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference. Photo by Steven E. Purcell

ATLANTA—Managers asked to rank five employee motivators—recognition, incentives, clear goals, progress in the work and interpersonal support—placed recognition and clear goals at the top of the list and progress in the work at the bottom, according to Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., professor of business administration and director of research at Harvard Business School.

Yet Amabile explained during her June 25 Masters Series session at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) 2012 Annual Conference and Exposition held in Atlanta through June 27, 2012, that making progress on meaningful work is the No. 1 driver of “inner work life”—the combination of perceptions, motivations and emotions employees experience during the workday.

The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Press, 2011), presents the findings of research Amabile and co-author Steven Kramer conducted at seven companies. The researchers gathered nearly 12,000 daily diary entries from 238 professionals to understand the factors that had the greatest positive and negative impact on employees.

They discovered that employees’ “best days” were those in which they made progress on projects considered “meaningful” to the organization’s mission, while their “worst days” were those in which they faced setbacks.

Amabile noted that employees often don’t show their emotions at work when faced with setbacks. The inner work life is just that—inner, she noted. “You don’t get to see it, especially if you are in a position of power.”

Yet it’s something employers need to understand, she said, because “inner work life drives the bottom line.” For example, she said the perceptions, motivations and emotions that make up the inner work life lead to higher levels of creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.

Fortunately, Amabile found that “The Progress Principle” is activated even when people make small steps toward completion of meaningful work; what she called “The Power of Small Wins.”

Thus, when employees have “big hairy audacious goals”—a term coined by Jim Collins in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 2004)—she said managers should try to break them down into smaller components to give employees a sense of progress along the way.

The payoff can be significant, she noted, because progress and a positive inner work life combine to create what she called “The Progress Loop,” in which one feeds the other in a continuous loop.

Amabile said there are a number of basic actions managers can take to support progress and to enhance inner work life.

The Catalyst Factor. Catalysts make it possible for employees to make progress toward work. They include:

  • Clear, meaningful goals.
  • Autonomy.
  • Sufficient resources to do the work.
  • Help with the work, such as access to information.
  • Ability to learn from problems and successes.
  • Open idea flow.
  • Sufficient time.

The Nourishment Factor. She said that “nourishers” are those things that occur in the work environment, naturally or intentionally, that enhance inner work life, including:

  • Respect and recognition.
  • Encouragement.
  • Emotional support.
  • Affiliation and camaraderie.

What makes people happy and motivated at work, Amabile said, is “progress with a steady diet of nourishers.”

Yet Amabile noted that HR managers don’t have to delve too deeply into employees’ inner work lives. Instead, she encouraged attendees “to keep progress in the work at the top of every manager’s agenda.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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