Only a few companies, like Google, have achieved the rare distinction of being considered the ‘most admired’’ and the ‘best’ companies to work for. What makes a company successful in the business, and a delight to work for? Based on a recent study, companies that continually make sure their employees are satisfied at work, achieve this rare honour. How do they manage this?
Prof. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer authors of the book The Progress Principle found that work satisfaction (which they term ‘inner work life’) increases when employees feel that they are making progress in what they consider to be meaningful work. Satisfaction increases even when the progress is small, but regular. When work satisfaction grows, so does employee creativity and productivity. Employees feel happy and are more engaged.
Most managers (and organisations) don’t understand the important role making progress can play in increasing work satisfaction, and, ultimately, an organisation’s success. Most managers act as if progress does not matter. Thus, they inadvertently create roadblocks to progress.
Roadblocks to Progress
Organisations and managers often give mixed signals. They espouse lofty goals, while their real behaviour gives the opposite signal. For example, although a company’s corporate vision is to be creative, the real behaviour of the line managers indicates that their focus is on cost control and risk avoidance. This means that when the employees come up with new ideas, they don’t receive funding. These mixed signals kill new ideas and work satisfaction. As a result, meaningful progress is hampered.
Ever Changing Priorities
We see too many managers abandon initiatives before they are completed. They constantly announce new priorities without regard to previous priorities. They don’t allow enough time to discover whether the initiatives are working or not. When priorities change, staff often doesn’t understand why they were changed. As a result, no consistent direction is given to the staff, and they are confused about what is important or meaningful. Again, both progress and satisfaction suffer.
In some organisations, while the overall strategy is understood, execution is poor. Managers are unaware of the difficulties their teams are having in executing the strategy. At times there are overly complex reporting structures and measurement systems that are difficult to execute, and make it hard to see progress. Often the coordination between functions is missing. While the business unit is trying to move quickly, support units such as HR or purchasing are not. Processes for coordinated action and accountability are not in place. Poor execution frustrates employees, as they don’t see meaningful progress.
Some companies set grandiose goals for themselves that have no relevance or meaning to the day-to-day activities of their workers. There are no milestones or markers of progress or guidance on how an employee’s work relates to the attainment of the company goals. Employees don’t understand what is important and where the company is going. The purpose of their work is unclear. This can lead to an increase in cynicism, and result in the initiative plunging.
Importance of Progress in Work
The authors of The Progress Principle found that of all the workday events that can boost a person’s emotions and intrinsic drive to do a great job, the single most important is making progress in “meaningful work”. Meaningful work is the work that matters, the work that is related to the company’s goals.
Progress made in meaningful work increases work satisfaction. Work satisfaction increases engagement and leads to further progress. This is a virtuous cycle. On the other hand, when there is no meaningful progress, satisfaction suffers, engagement declines and further progress reduces.
The virtuous progress loop is what drives high-performance organisations to ever-greater levels of achievement. It produces a win-win for both managers and staff. Consistent daily progress by employees boosts the success of the organisation and employee satisfaction.
How to Achieve Consistent Progress?
So, what would help create regular progress in meaningful work? There are a number of management actions and behaviours that can help, such as clarity in goals, appropriate levels of autonomy, and resources. Without these actions and behaviours, progress is hindered.
Clear and Consistent Goals – Satisfaction increases when people have a clear goal and understand why their work matters. Clear near term and long-term goals give a sense or meaning to work. They provide milestones to measure progress. When people have ever-changing goals, they become unmotivated.
Autonomy – Motivated people need to have a say in their own work. When people have the freedom to decide how they do work, they are more creative. When people know that their decisions will not be overridden, they step up and make decisions. As a result, progress accelerates.
Resources (and Time) – Access to the necessary resources, budget, and tools to do their job is an obvious need for consistent progress to occur. Without the right resources, progress will be difficult. If access to resources is difficult, it saps energy. Impossible deadlines demotivate staff, and deadlines that are too loose show to staff that the work does not matter. The right time pressure maintains staff enthusiasm and performance.
Help When Needed – Doing work is often a team effort. People depend on others for information, approval, collaboration, or ideas. Getting the right sort of help at the right time can do wonders to achieving progress and satisfaction.
Learning from Past Successes and Problems – When problems are ignored, avoided, or worse punished, work life suffers. Whereas, if problems are analysed and met with action plans and used as learning opportunities, engagement improves. Celebrating and learning from even the smallest of successes can improve forward momentum.
Allowing Ideas to Flow – When ideas flow freely within teams or when new ideas are truly listened to by managers, people feel valued. Vigorous debates and diverse perspectives often result in better ideas. This can improve an employee’s perception of their work environment. When ideas are criticised or ignored, the opposite effect occurs.
Everyone craves human connection at work. Work life is enhanced when managers acknowledge good work, provide encouragement and emotional support, or let staff members have fun. The following are broad areas that act as enablers for the regular achievement of progress.
Respect – Respect is conveyed when managers give due consideration to their employees’ ideas and requests. Similarly, when good work is recognised, employees feel valued. While difficult at times, dealing with people honestly also shows respect.
Encouragement – Motivating or encouraging employees is a well-known enabler. When a manager is excited about a goal, expresses confidence, or explains why the work is important, employees are motivated to meet the goal. Work becomes meaningful and progress follows.
Empathy – In the Gallop Engagement Survey, one of the twelve questions asks ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ This question is designed to collect information about the emotional support people receive at work. People feel more connected to each other when they receive emotional support. Workplace frustrations, stubborn technical problems, and challenges in staff members’ personal lives make them emotional at times. When managers demonstrate empathy, this goes a long way to easing staff members’ concerns and allowing them to focus on their work.
Sense of Belonging – When people enjoy their work as well as the human connections with their colleagues, they are highly satisfied. For example, successful sporting teams get fired up and give their best for each other. The work staff members do gains meaning when people enjoy working with their colleagues.
Managers and leaders, who help their staff make meaningful progress at work everyday, create successful outcomes and strong employee engagement. Even if you are not a manager, putting some of these ideas into practice would help you increase the chance that your team members will make consistent progress. This will make you become a contributor to the organisation’s success.