As a manager, you have probably thought for hours on end on how to motivate, inspire, and drive innovative work in your team.

Most managers think that the most effective ways of doing this include things such as using incentives, such as bonuses, commissions, and other rewards, recognizing your employees for their effort, providing support, and creating a positive, exciting work place (explains why lots of companies are obsessed with adding pool tables, football tables, bean bags, and gyms to their offices).

In one survey, which was published on HBR, researchers talked to over 600 managers from several companies and asked them to rank the impact of five common workplace factors on the impact of employee motivation and emotions.

These five factors are incentives, clear goals, interpersonal support, recognition, and support for making progress. Majority of the managers believed that the most important factor that has an influence on employee motivation and emotions is recognition (either public or private) for good work done.

If you are struggling with employee motivation, you might be inclined to lean towards recognition, as well as other common approaches to motivation, such as giving incentives to your team.

However, if you want to effectively motivate your employees, it might be time to consider other approaches to employee motivation.

One of these approaches – and probably the most effective employee motivation technique – is Amabile and Kramer’s Progress Theory.

This theory is based on research which shows that people’s motivation is greatly influenced by how they complete their work, as well as research on the impact of “small wins” on employee performance and motivation.


Amabile and Kramer’s Progress Theory was put forward by Professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their 2011 book The Progress Principle,” which takes an in-depth look at the impact of progress on performance.

In their research, the two professors had 238 participants who were drawn from seven major organizations and spanned across 26 project teams involved in projects that required creativity – such as solving a Hotel chain’s complex IT problems and inventing kitchen gadgets.

The professors asked the participants to keep an anonymous diary for about four months on average, highlighting their experiences each day.

In particular, the participants were asked to highlight their motivation levels each day, their moods and emotions during the day, their perception of the work environment that day, the tasks they were involved in that day, as well as the things that stood out in their minds that day.

By the end of the study period, the researchers had collected over 12,000 separate diary entries, which they used to perform an analysis of the employees motivation, emotion, and perception levels – which the researchers termed as a person’s inner work life – and the impact of this inner work life on the employees’ performance, and in particular, how it affected an employee’s productivity, creativity, collegiality, and engagement.

The three components of inner work life that affect performance. Source: Bret L. Simmons

Amabile and Kramer found that when the three components of inner work life – motivation, emotions, and perception – improved, they were accompanied by a positive change in the four components of the employee’s workplace performance – productivity, creativity, collegiality, and engagement.

However, this was to be expected. The bigger question was, what factors led to a positive change in the three components of a person’s inner work life?

The answer to this question was astounding! In contrary to common perceptions that the drivers for motivation and workplace success are factors like pressure, fear, or the possibility of reward, the researchers found that the three components of inner work life – and therefore the employees’ workplace performance – was driven by progress.

An analysis of the more than 12,000 diary entries showed that most employees experienced high levels of motivation and positive emotions more frequently on the days that they had made some progress in their work, regardless of the level of progress.

For instance, one information systems professional wrote in one of her daily dairy that on that particular day, she felt happy and relieved because she had finally figured out why something she had been working on hadn’t been working correctly.

The analysis of the dairy entries further showed that on 76% of what the participants considered to be good days (when their moods and emotions were high, and when they had a positive perception of the work environment), they reported having made progress in some aspect of their work.

Conversely, progress only appeared on 25% of what the participants considered to be their worst days.

Progress has the greatest positive impact on inner work life. Source: HBR

In other words, the results of this research show that progress is the greatest motivator of top performance, despite the participants of this survey published on HBR ranking it as the least important motivator of performance.

When workers feel that they are making some forward steps in their work, or when they receive support from others that helps them overcome challenges they were facing with their work, they experience positive moods and emotions, they experience a positive perception about their workplace, and they experience high levels of motivation, which in turn leads to improved performance at work.

The analysis of the 12,000+ diary entries showed that on days when the participants considered themselves to have made some progress in their work, they reported positive emotions such as pride, warmth, and joy.

Progress also led to an improved perception of the work environment, with workers feeling that their interactions with their colleagues and supervisors were more positive, and feeling that their teams were more supportive.

Finally, making headway on something they were working on made workers interested in their work, and made work seem more enjoyable, leading to improved motivation.

These positive changes in emotion, perception and motivation lead to increased productivity, creativity, engagement, and better relationships at work.

Aside from progress, there are two other triggers that were also identified to occur more frequently on what the participants termed as best days.

The first one is catalysts, which refers to actions that directly support work, such as receiving help from a colleague or the team.

The second one is nourishers, which refers to actions that support good relationships with colleagues and supervisors, such as receiving encouragement or being shown respect.

For each of these triggers that were likely to occur on best days, Amabile and Kramer also identified an opposite trigger that was more likely to occur on what the participants considered to be their worst days.

The opposite trigger for progress is setback, which occurs when workers go through something that takes them backwards in their work, such as failing in their work or losing some work they had done.

Amabile and Kramer’s analysis of the 12,000+ diary entries showed that on 67% of what the participants considered to be bad days (when their moods and emotions were low, when they had low levels of motivation, and when they had a negative perception of the work environment), they reported having experienced some setback at work.

Conversely, setback only appeared on 13% of what the participants considered to be good days.

The opposite trigger for catalysts is inhibitors, which refers to actions that actively hinder or fail to support work. Catalysts and inhibitors are typically directed at the project the person is working on.

The opposite trigger for nourishers is toxins, which refers to actions that are meant to undermine or discourage good relationships with colleagues and supervisors.

Nourishers and toxins are typically directed at a person, rather than the project they are working on.

Whenever a worker experiences setbacks, inhibitors, and toxins, it feels like they are spinning their wheels in the same place. They experience negative emotions such as sadness, fear, and frustration.

They feel that the interactions between them and their colleagues and supervisors are negative, and feel that their teams are not being supportive.

This leads to a negative perception of the work environment.

Finally, the fact that they are facing roadblocks in their work and suffering setbacks makes their work unenjoyable, they lose interest in their work, and become disengaged, leading to low levels of motivation.

This negative change to the three components of inner work life leads to decreased performance at work.


Having read that progress is the greatest motivator of performance at work, it is quite easy to assume that only huge breakthroughs and significant milestones are capable of motivating workers and driving performance.

Of course, these big wins are quite effective at boosting a worker’s inner work life and enhancing performance. The only problem is that these big wins are not very frequent. Therefore, they are not a very reliable way of keeping workers motivated.

Fortunately, from their research and analysis of the 12,000+ diary entries, Amabile and Kramer found even the smallest wins can positively change an employee’s emotions, perception and motivation, leading to increased performance.

For instance, in one of the dairy entries, a programmer from a high-tech company recorded that on this day, she experienced positive emotions, perceptions and motivations owing to the fact that she had finally discovered why something was not working as she expected.

She considered it to be a minor milestone for her, yet it had a huge impact on her inner work life.

From their research, the two professors discovered that small wins – events that only had a minor impact on a project – accounted for 28% of the days the participants considered to be good days.

What this means is that small, incremental wins – which usually go unnoticed – shared by many people can lead to a significant increase in performance across the organization, and are therefore very critical to the overall performance of the organization.


Even for those who know the impact of progress on performance, most do not know how to leverage the power of progress to keep their employees motivated.

As a manager, how can you apply Amabile and Kramer’s progress theory to enhance your employees’ motivation and boost their performance?

The key to applying this theory to enhance motivation lies in using catalysts and nourishers to cause a positive change in your employees’ inner work life and increase the chances of making progress, which will in turn lead to improved performance.

The two professors identified six actions that managers can take to increase the chances of their workers making meaningful progress and boosting their inner work life. These six actions are:

1.  Set Clear Goals And Objectives

When people know what they are working towards, they can then set their own milestones and determine events that are critical to the achievement of the overarching goals and objectives.

This makes it easier for them to then identify the small wins, the minor achievements that nonetheless move them closer to the overall goal.

Without clear goals and objectives, workers cannot tell whether tasks they accomplish are wins or not, and therefore, they cannot tap into the power of progress to boost their motivation.

Therefore, as a manager, you need to set SMART goals for your team. These are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Having SMART goals makes it easier for your workers to identify tasks that move them closer to the accomplishment of a goal.

In addition to setting clear goals and objectives for your team, it is also important to explain to your team the connection between their work and the overall goals of the organization. They need to understand the value they are providing.

This is what makes their work meaningful. It is impossible to leverage the power of progress if workers don’t feel that their work has meaning.

In their research, Amabile and Kramer discovered that simply getting tasks done – which can be termed as progress – does not necessarily lead to a positive change in a person’s inner work life.

For instance, imagine someone whose job is to wash plates at a restaurant.

Clearing a mountain of dirty plates can be termed as progress. However, such progress does not lead to any improvement in the person’s inner work life, because they don’t find any meaning in their work. Clearing a mountain of dirty plates only means they can have a small rest before the next mountain is brought in.

Even for people involved in challenging jobs that require creativity, such as the people involved in the study, getting tasks done does not improve their inner work life if they don’t find meaning in their work.

To find meaning in their work, they need to understand the impact and value of the work, which is why it is very important to help your team understand the connection between what they are doing and the organization’s overall goals and objectives.

A good example that shows the importance of meaning at work is the pitch Steve Jobs used to convince John Sculley to take a job as Apple’s CEO. At the time, Sculley was the President of Pepsi, and his career was going greatly.

Apple, on the other hand, was still a startup, and no one knew if it would be around in the next five years or so. Understandably, Sculley was not ready to quit a successful career at Pepsi for a gamble at Apple. Frustrated with Sculley’s reluctance to join Apple, Jobs is reported to have asked Sculley,

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or will you come with me and change the world?”

With that final pitch, Steve Jobs was able to convince John Sculley to ditch Pepsi for Apple.

This is because Jobs leveraged the power of meaningful work. Sculley was willing to gamble with his career for a chance to do something that was more meaningful than what he was doing, despite being wildly successful at what he was doing then.

2.  Allow Autonomy

One of the greatest killers of employee motivation is micromanagement.

No one wants to work with their boss constantly watching over their shoulder.

Therefore, in as much as it is important to set clear goals and objectives for your team, you should give them the autonomy to decide how best to achieve these goals.

Giving workers the autonomy they need to do their work makes them feel trusted and empowered and allows them to unleash their creativity.

It also boosts motivation due to the fact that workers will strive to prove that they can do their jobs excellently without being closely monitored.

Finally, workers are more likely to recognize their small wins and benefit from these small wins when they have achieved these wins by themselves, without being pushed by management.

Micromanagement, on the other hand, acts as an inhibitor and toxin. It annoys employees, prevents them from enjoying their work, and destroys the relationship between management and employees, all of which negatively affect employees’ inner work life.

3.  Provide Adequate Resources

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to do your work when you don’t have access to the resources that are necessary to get the work done.

You end up wasting a lot of time and effort either looking for the resources, or using resources that are not best suited for the kind of work you are doing.

It also leads to the perception that the work you are doing is not very important. Lack of resources acts as an inhibitor, while provision of all necessary resources of acts as catalyst, increasing the chances of workers making progress in their work.

Therefore, before assigning a project to your team, take a moment to determine the tools and resources that you team will require to get the job done and avail them ahead of time.

This includes materials and supplies, knowledge, technology, support, and so on. When employees have all the resources they need to do their work, they feel empowered and valued, which leads to improved motivation.

4.  Give Enough Time

In addition to providing your team with the necessary resources they need, you also need to give them adequate time to get their job done.

If you are constantly giving them short deadlines, your team’s creativity will tank, the quality of their work will drop, their emotions and perception of the work environment will be negatively affected, and ultimately, they will get burnt out.

It’s good to note, however, that getting the timing right is all about achieving a balance.

Just because not giving enough time will negatively affect performance doesn’t mean that you should give your team as much time as they want.

Giving too much time will also affect performance and cause them to drag the project unnecessarily.

Therefore, you need to give them enough time to get the job done, but time that also gives them some level of pressure to focus on their work consistently.

This will allow them keep making consistent progress, which will in turn boost their motivation and performance.

5.  Provide Support And Expertise

One of the things that contributes to a positive inner work life experience is getting support from colleagues and supervisors.

Provision of support and expertise works both as a catalyst and a nourisher.

Therefore, as a manager, you need to make sure that your team is getting the necessary support, not just from you, but also from colleagues, other managers, suppliers, and even outside experts.

This will make your team feel valued and empowered, and will increase the chances of the project moving along more smoothly, which means your team will be experiencing consistent progress.

6.  Learn From Failure

Regardless of how much you plan, prepare, and provide support to your team, it is inevitable that some tasks or projects will fail. How you deal with failure will have a huge impact on your team’s motivation.

Sometimes, failure is caused by someone not doing their work properly, carelessness, and so on. In such cases, you need to take appropriate action to ensure that the same does not happen again.

Sometimes, however, projects and tasks fail despite everyone doing their very best. Dealing punitively with this kind of failure will only make your employees demotivated, disengaged and discourage them from trying new things. They see the failure as wasted time, rather than as an opportunity to learn.

If you want your employees to learn from failure, avoid placing blame for the failure on your employees if it wasn’t their fault.

Instead, appreciate your team for the honest work they did, see what you can learn from the failure, and then figure out how to move forward and grow.


One of the most effective and cost-friendly ways of keeping your employees motivated is to encourage them to make, recognize, and celebrate the small wins they make on a daily basis at work.

Recognizing and celebrating these small wins will improve your workers’ inner work life, which will in turn lead to increased motivation and performance.

Of course, for this approach to work, you need to put in place measures that will allow your employees to make, recognize, and celebrate consistent progress.

This includes setting clear goals and objectives, giving your employees autonomy, providing them with the necessary resources, giving them enough time to work on projects, providing support and expertise, and learning from failure.

Amabile And Kramer's Progress Theory: Using Small Wins To Enhance Motivation

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