I’ve always struggled with this idea. It has always seemed perfectly obvious to me that happy people do better work than unhappy people – so it should matter to us that our people are happy. It was a source of tremendous frustration to me in the 1990s when managers disputed this on the basis that there was no research to prove my assertions! I mean do you really need proof of something that is just logical? Apparently you do. Happily there is now masses of research that backs up this idea.
One of the most compelling for its accessibility and readability is a book by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer called “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work”. Their work involved analysing 12 000 daily email diaries from 238 volunteers (there was nothing in it for them). Most of the questions were numerical ratings about their perceptions, emotions and motivation during the day (which they call the “inner work life”) but the most important question was an open-ended one: “Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind.” This was the gold mine. From these 12 000 reports, they were able to show what many managers are not able to see:
- Inner work life has many aspects to it and is complex;
- Inner work life profoundly influences creativity, productivity, work commitment and collegiality (the vibe in the team, and the extent to which colleagues help and support each other);
- Inner work life is of profound importance to companies because, no matter how brilliant the strategy, it still has to be executed by people – and its execution usually depends on great performance that requires real stretch;
- Our inner work life is profoundly affected by events occurring every day at work – and negative events have a far more powerful effect than positive events;
- Inner work life matters very much to employees.
Their research also revealed 3 types of positive events:
- Progress in meaningful work (work that matters to the employee);
- Catalysts – which are events that help to move a project forward; and
- Nourishers – interpersonal exchanges that uplift people during the course of their work.
They also found three negative influences that undermine inner work life:
- Setbacks in the work;
- Inhibitors - events that create obstacles to getting the work done; and
- Toxins – interpersonal exchanges that undermine people doing the work.
So what does this mean to us? People are most engaged in their work when they can see that they are making steady progress – whether this means that they are achieving their productivity targets, customer service targets, or meeting project milestones. This is why visual management systems are so very powerful – they give people a visual that shows that they are making progress. This is tremendously satisfying – and a sense of satisfaction is just one of the many facets of inner work life. In fact, engagement is happiness in action – it is the joy of being able to see that your efforts make an impact, and that you are moving closer to the achievement of an important goals because of your efforts.
Secondly, a central role of leadership is to get the obstacles out of the way so that people can get on with the job and make progress. Leaders have to take this job very seriously. It means solving problems and giving answers quickly. If your people struggle to get a response from you, or sit with unsolved problems that are yours to address, don’t be surprised if they give up and disengage. If, on the other hand, they see you responding and taking action quickly, they will be encouraged and energised to continue digging deep in order to continue making progress.
Thirdly, make sure that your every interaction with a team member is uplifting and encouraging. Publicly praise and encourage. Any feedback for improvement must be in private and delivered with absolute consideration for its impact on the inner work life of the team member for the rest of the day. Do you want the team member to spend the rest of the day engaged in making progress, or do you want him ruminating on how you treated him? Furthermore, you need to have the leadership courage to insist that everyone in your organisation is spoken of and spoken to with respect. Disrespect and disregard is toxic.
Finally, I repeat – negative events have a far more powerful effect than positive events on the inner work lives of people. Toxic interpersonal exchanges, constant obstacles that prevent one from getting the work done, or the sense that we just can’t get it right are like acid eroding our organisations.
Questions to Consider
- What needs to happen for it to be possible for your people to be able visibly track their progress on projects and track the impact of their efforts on their objectives?
- What can you do to make this happen?
- What visible management systems could you use?