The Single Best Way to Motivate Workers: Show Progress

Last Updated Dec 18, 2009 2:47 PM EST

Managers use a variety of methods to motivate employees. Some use fear, others use praise. Still others set "stretch" goals for their employees to meet.

Have you tried progress?

"On days when workers have the sense they're making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest."
Those words come from Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and co-author Steven Kramer in a new HBR article, What Really Motivates Workers (excerpt).

If you ask managers themselves about motivation techniques, you'll get a short list that includes recognition, clear goals and interpersonal support. All are good motivators, surely. But not as good as giving workers the sense they are making headway, conquering obstacles and getting ever so closer to the finish line, according to the researchers.

The single biggest thing managers can do to up the progress quotient, according to the authors, is "scrupulously avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, and holding up resources."

Managers must also refrain from exerting too much time pressure. When people feel they are working under the gun, any little setback is perceived as a crisis instead of a learning opportunity. Setbacks stop progress. A lack of progress demotivates employees.

The takeaway: set your employees up to succeed.

Does your level of work satisfaction rise as your progress increases?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.