The Progress Principle

Being at a standstill can be the most frustrating experience for a recovering speedaholic like myself. Although I know there is power in slow, there are moments when setbacks make it feel like the world is going to end.

Apparently, I am not alone in this. According to Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, setbacks are one of the major causes of ennui and disengagement amongst workers.

People need to feel they are moving forward with things, even if it is slow-going.


Collaboration helps. According to the authors, deep engagement and creativity stems from a collaborative work setting in which you don’t feel alone. I know I always feel better when my team is sharing the burden of the work, not just me.

Real progress triggers positive emotions like satisfaction, gladness, even joy. It leads to a sense of accomplishmnet and self-worth as well as positive views of the work and, sometimes, the organization. (page 68)

Poor managers forget the importance of giving meaning to the work people are doing. In fact, most still think people are motivated mostly by extrinsic rewards such as higher pay, bonuses or other benefits. People are actually more accutely motivated by a positive inner work life; that is, when they feel they are contributing to something greater than themselves, feel recognized for it and can have fun while doing it.

The book outlines four ways to negate meaning:

  1. Dismiss a person’s work.
  2. Take away ownership from the person.
  3. Doubt that the work will ever come to fruition.
  4. Menial tasks for which the worker is overqualified.

The progress loop, on the other hand, requires, well, progress, a feeling that you are getting somewhere and that your efforts are meaningful. That fosters a more positive inner work life, which, in turn, contributes to more progress and so on.

Setbacks are the major progress killer, leading to negative emotions and disengagement.

Great leaders are catalysts for positive change or even emotional nourishers.They recognize the human component and its importance in their organization.

Never underestimate the power of sincere acknowledgement. If someone in your life is doing something you appreciate, tell that person. It’s amazing how you will rock their world with your words.

The human connection is so valuable in our lives. If you feel disconnected from your job, consider how you might measure some progress in it. Reach out to a colleague. Exchange ideas. It can take you out of that vicious cycle into a virtuous one with more joy than you can imagine.

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