Employee study: Daily progress is what drives motivation the most
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Employee study: Daily progress is what drives motivation the most

Savvy managers are well-acquainted with the tactics that motivate employees — such things as recognition, rewards, access to resources, training and development opportunities, and chances for promotion.

But there’s another employee motivator that you may not have considered, yet may be the most powerful of all: a consistent sense of making progress toward goals and objectives.

The importance of this feeling is illustrated in ground-breaking research conducted by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile.

What makes a ‘best day’

Amabile’s team analyzed the content of 12,000 diary entries made by employees at several companies. Their goal was to learn what made employees happy – and therefore more engaged and productive.

They identified three broad categories of positive events that people commented on at the end of a given day:

  1. Nourishing events: for example, a show of respect or encouragement from a manager that could increase one’s sense of well-being
  2. Catalytic events: for example, being given resources or training that could trigger higher performance, and
  3. Progress events: for example, moving forward on a project or accomplishing something.

So which of these events made people the happiest?

The researchers found that employees’ “best days” were marked by a high incidence of progress events, where they distinctly felt they were getting somewhere. On such days, 76% of employees noted progress events in their diary. By contrast, just 25% noted nourishing events and 43% catalytic events on these “best days.” (Conversely, on employees’ “worst days,” 67% of them reported setbacks that hindered progress.)

These results are surprising. They demonstrate that what makes workers happiest is not getting a new computer or being sent on a high-powered training course. And it’s not hearing they’re doing a “great job.” Those things play a role in motivation, sure, but they’re not as important as the feeling that the person has achieved progress toward a goal.

The manager’s role

You’re probably already getting an idea of how to use this insight into employee psychology.  Essentially, managers can do three things:

Hold people accountable for their goals.

The most fundamental way for employees to get a sense of progress is to actually make progress. You can help that happen by checking in periodically to see how they’re doing.

Don’t praise people only when they hit an overall goal.

Instead, praise them for the progress they make along the way. This bolsters their sense that they’re getting somewhere, which as we saw makes them feel happy and fulfilled.

Watch for setbacks.

By stepping in with encouragement when employees feel stymied, you can get them back on a path where they have a sense of making progress.


This blog entry is adapted from the 6-minute Rapid Learning video module “The Biggest Motivator: Making Progress Toward Goals.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review, 89 (5), 70-80.

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