Winning! One step at a time

We all love a good success story. But mainly, we like seeing the results. Think about how popular before and after photos are – whether it’s of someone turning their health and lives around, the glorious renovation of some previously squalid dwelling, or a photo that remakes a moment from the past. We skim over the parts where people toil day in and day out, making small inroads, suffering setbacks, redoubling their efforts, and so on. But so much happens in that glossed-over space. And, it turns out, what transpires there is the key to the quality of the outcome.

In this article the authors describe compelling research about the factors that contribute to productivity and creativity. What they learned is that to stay motivated and be effective, people need to be able to see their progress. While those of us on the outside looking in may just want that glowing “after” photo, those doing the toiling need to see the accumulation of their ongoing effort to stay engaged.

“Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

More specifically, the research shows that the quality of someone’s “inner work life” – their emotions, motivations, and perceptions of their company, leadership, colleagues, and selves – has a significant impact on creativity and productivity. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the people gnashing their teeth or feeling under the gun who get results: the more positive the inner work life, the better the performance outcomes. Further, people who have more positive internal experiences are also more committed and collegial to work with.

What, then, drives inner work life experiences, and what can leaders and managers do to promote positive ones? Making progress. Even small wins – everyday, incremental progress – can cause major boosts to internal experiences. While this may seem intuitive as you read it, if you ask a group of managers what are the most important things they can do to motivate their team, this rarely makes the list. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true – minor frustrations and setbacks strong negative effects on inner work life, and these effects can persist across time.

The authors also describe key factors that support progress and promote positive internal experiences: catalysts (clear goals, autonomy, resources such as time and training) and nourishers (respect, encouragement, and recognition). The opposite of these are inhibitors that lead to setbacks (confusion, constraints) and toxins (disrespect, discouragement, neglect). When managers simultaneously provide freedom, structure, and support and minimize frustrations and negative climate, they create the conditions in which people can make progress and have positive internal work lives.

There is another crucial element to be cognizant of: meaning. While I’ve argued before that individuals have some control and responsibility over making their own meaning at work, it is all too easy to lose sight of in the face of the day to day grind. The wise manager is one who reminds their people of the relevance and importance of their contributions. No one wants to be like Sisyphus, rolling a rock uphill every day just to watch it roll back down. We need to have purpose and we want to see progress. These fuel positive internal states that drive performance and innovation.

It seems intuitive – obvious, even – that progress and meaning and all of the management behaviors that support them are integral to strong performance. But in our day to day lives, they can get obscured. What can you do today to promote the power of small wins?


“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” ― Winston S. Churchill

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt