Employee engagement and the power of progress
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Employee engagement and the power of progress

What makes employees happy and engaged? Leaders have been asking themselves that question for decades, because they know that happy, engaged people do better work than those who are disgruntled and disconnected.

Sometimes leaders think people need more money to be content and engaged. Sometimes they think it’s better working conditions, like a private office. Sometimes they think it’s recognition: telling people “great job” when they’ve performed well.

But behavioral research points in a different direction.

What makes a good day?

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven J. Kramer did a study on employee engagement by analyzing the content of 12,000 diary entries made over time by employees of several companies. They identified three broad categories of “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, or
  3. Progress events: for example, moving forward on a project or accomplishing something.

On what the researchers called “best days” – when workers went home happy – here’s the distribution of reported diary comments in each category: 25% nourishing events, 43% catalytic events, 76% progress events.

These are startling results. They say that what makes workers happiest is not getting a new computer or a better office. And it’s not hearing they’re doing a great job. Those things are not unimportant, but they’re not nearly as powerful as the feeling that the person has achieved progress toward a goal.

“I see you’

So what’s this mean for a manager whose job is to motivate employees and increase their engagement? Here’s a simple three-step recognition model that factors in the key conclusions in this research. Call it the I.C.U. Model.

Identify milestones

All leaders set goals for their people, but not all pay attention to the key milestones on the path to achieving a goal. It’s easy for leaders to say, “Milestones are about process. I only care whether they hit the goal.” But you’re missing an engagement opportunity if you operate this way.

Celebrate incremental success

When an employee hits a milestone, make a big deal about it. Why wouldn’t you want to validate your employees right at the moment when – according to the Amabile/Kramer research – it matters the most to them?

Uplift struggling employees

Amabile and Kramer showed that on their best days employees cited progress events 76% of the time. And on their worst days, employees cited setbacks 67% of the time. So the research says that when employees are making progress they get positive feedback from managers and peers, which increases engagement, and leads to further progress.


But what about those days when employees suffer setbacks? What often happens is that people get into a negative feedback loop that decreases engagement and leads to more setbacks.

If you’re the type of leader who says, “Here’s your goal, now go make it happen,” you won’t even notice when a worker experiences setbacks.

But if you’re an observant leader, you’ll recognize the emotional toll that setbacks cause. You’ll seize an opportunity to break the negative feedback loop by encouraging  the struggling employee. And you’ll get them back on the path to progress by setting a new correctional milestone that can be celebrated at a later date.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning 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 in part on the following article: Amabile, T.M., & Kramer, S.J. The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review, May 2011.

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