The Progress Principle

While there are some valuable insights in The Progress Principle, getting to them was a real chore. That is probably because this publication, like so many business and self-help books, is long on situational anecdotes, and short on analysis. While authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer do a better job than most of substantiating their claims with research, I quickly tired of reading through meandering narratives explaining that employee Dave was “an agreeable, soft-spoken thirty-four-year-old PhD chemist who enjoyed growing bonsai trees as a hobby,” or that Barbara was “outspoken, self-confident, and physically striking, with large brown eyes and jet-black hair.” These details are intended, I’m sure, to elicit an emotional response from the reader. However, I’ve read enough business books to know that correlation is too often interpreted as causation. My ability to empathize with individuals in the presented scenarios has nothing to do whether the proposed “Progress Principle” is a valid hypothesis.

Central to the book’s theorem is the notion of an “inner work life.” This nebulous concept is never directly defined; the initial mention of the phrase suggests that a “great” inner work life is evidenced by “positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favorable perceptions of colleagues and […] work itself.” I suppose this means that someone is psychologically healthy. Later in the book, an inner work life is defined as “a rich multifaceted phenomenon.” Again, this type of vague definition makes it hard to know exactly which aspect of a person’s psychological make-up is being addressed.

Whatever the inner work life might be, it is said to exert an “inner work life effect.” According to the authors, inner work life “influences people’s performance on four dimensions: creativity, productivity, work commitment, and collegiality.” Thus, we are led to believe, any factor having a large positive effect on inner work life must therefore generate better workplace performance.

As the book’s title suggests, it is conjectured that the inner work life of employees, and hence their workplace performance, is most positively impacted by steady forward progress in meaningful work. The “progress effect” is stronger, it is claimed, than commonly promoted incentives such as recognition, compensation, interpersonal support or clear work goals. The authors note that video games are quite addictive, as they allow for constant progress indicators and achievement markers.

If true, the “progress principle” has profound implications for management. It suggests that removing the small day-to-day obstructions faced by lower-level workers is far more important to organizational success than high-level strategic planning. This is especially important given that the majority of managers, when surveyed in research studies, rate the need to make meaningful progress as wholly insignificant in motivating their subordinates–leading one to suppose that modern management is working at cross purposes to its own aims.

Blunting the impact of this central tenet, the authors throw in two more factors that are said to influence inner work life. These are “events that directly help project work” (catalysts), and “interpersonal events that uplift the people doing the work” (nourishers). Well, folks, no kidding. Projects normally go better when you get help, or you get a slap on the back for your hard effort. Could we just boil this down to a focus on employee happiness?

My concern about how the authors present their message is not be construed as a criticism of their conclusions. I want to believe that being kind to employees is a good for business. It makes sense to me that good management clears roadblocks rather than erecting internal barriers. But a similar message was delivered back in 1982 with the publication of In Search of Excellence. Thirty years later, and managers continue to be advised to view employee effort as a basic commodity to be diced into smaller segments that can be more easily outsourced for greater profitability. Perhaps the voluminous amount of research material collected by the authors (11,637 diaries from 238 individuals in 26 teams across a range of industries) will give this work additional credence. However, I fear this will not be the case, as multi-million dollar bonuses will be hard for top-level executives to justify if they simply ensure “steady progress.”

In real-world situations, I wonder if management can actually support continuous forward progress. Even small wins are sometimes hard to come by when product ideas don’t pan out, or large customers cancel orders, or key suppliers unexpectedly go bankrupt. It is noted that negative results have a far larger detrimental impact on inner work life than the beneficial influence of positive outcomes. This suggests that setbacks are to be feared more than advances are to be desired. I don’t see how a company can successfully navigate in today’s business environment with a overriding fear of failure. One particular manager, who did not maintain forward progress, is described in the book as having “lacked the political savvy and internal credibility to lead such an important project.” I’m sorry, but savvy and credibility are hard things for an individual to change, at least in the short run. Is this the best we can do in defining why some projects succeed and others fail?

A checklist is provided, in a later chapter, so as to allow managers to access their efforts in ensuring forward progress. Each item in the checklist requires self-assessment, rather than a definite action, so I’m skeptical as to its benefit in daily use. It’s just too easy for us to fool ourselves. Additionally, none of the companies described in the book used this checklist. I’ll be more impressed if a follow-up book comes out in three years describing how well businesses have done when they specifically set out to “manage for progress.”

I like the notion of managing for progress. It seems conducive to employee happiness, which is crucial for the success of today’s creative enterprise. I’m just not yet convinced that steady forward progress can be managed. Sometimes it happens, and sometime is doesn’t. However, whether progress is being made or not, my sense is that the following is always true:

People often say, “It’s business, it’s not personal.” But work is personal.

Therefore, to the extent that managers can enhance the “inner work life” of their employees, it appears that they would be well-advised to do so.

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