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Progress equals engagement: How noticing progress drives employee engagement

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to the organisation and its goals resulting in positive action on behalf of the employee to support its reputation and concerns. 

Idea in brief: Small and seemingly inconsequential interactions have a huge impact on how employees experience their work. Noticing progress is critically important to their engagement.

Whilst some of the ROI attributed to engagement may be disputed, there are currently about 32 research studies that show a correlation between engagement and service
  • sales
  • quality
  • safety
  • retention
  • sales, profit and total shareholder returns

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and Steven Kramer, an independent researcher, studied the issue of engagement for their book, “The Progress Principle”.

To gain real-time perspective into everyday work lives, they collected nearly 12,000 electronic diary entries from 238 professionals in seven different companies. The study charted each person’s psychological state each day, and asked respondents to describe one event that stood out during that day.

The headline results were sobering:

  • In one-third of the 12,000 diary entries, the diarist was unhappy, unmotivated or both. In fact, workers often expressed frustration, disdain or disgust.
  • Inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.
  • Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier.
  • Workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do rather than managed very closely.

A clear pattern emerged when they analysed the 64,000 specific workday events reported in the diaries: of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important - by far - is simply making progress in meaningful work.

As long as people experience their work as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work. “This time it looks good! I feel more positive about this project and my work than I’ve felt in a long time,” one programmer wrote after she’d completed a small but difficult task. This kind of rich inner work life improves performance, which further supports inner work life - a positive spiral.

Sadly, most managers don’t know this simple fact. When Amabile and Kramer asked 669 managers from companies around the world nearly 95 percent of these managers failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like salary increases and bonuses.

Idea worth implementing: At the end of each day each ask of your team members ‘What stood out for you?’