Research: The motivating power of small wins
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Research: The motivating power of small wins

Everyone has their ups and downs at work. And some challenges – whether it’s an endless project, a difficult client or a big new responsibility – can feel particularly daunting. Unfortunately, workplace learning can also fall into this category.

Learning requires employees to get out of their comfort zone, risk failure and build new skills – which can be a difficult process. So how do learning organizations keep their learners motivated when the going gets tough?

Recent research reveals there’s a simple motivational tactic that has surprising results – appreciating “small wins.” And harnessing its power can keep your learners on track regardless of the challenge.

The research

Over the course of four months, researchers at Harvard conducted a study of over 200 employees at seven different companies. The study required participants to do one simple thing each day – respond to a survey at the end of their workday. The survey asked about the participants’ mood, motivation level and what they did at work that day. The study resulted in over 12,000 survey responses in total, which were then analyzed by the researchers.

The general takeaway from the survey results was the importance of a person’s mood at work, or what the researchers call your “inner work life.” They found that factors like pressure and fear were not successful on-the-job motivators. Instead, participants were most likely to be motivated and productive when they felt positive and were inspired by their work and colleagues.

One of the most interesting findings came when the researchers looked at the participants’ moods to examine their best and worst days at work during the study period. When looking at participants’ “best day” they found that the most common factor was making progress toward a goal. Conversely, participants’ “worst day” was most commonly brought about by a setback.

For example, making progress toward a goal occurred on 76 percent of the participants’ best days. Another common event on a “best day” was receiving words of encouragement or praise from a colleague. These small accomplishments and positive events not only made participants feel better – it also greatly increased their motivation and engagement in their work. Experiencing setbacks, however, not only made participants feel bad – it crushed their motivation and negated the effect of coworker encouragement.

According to the head researcher, the type of progress that results in high motivation, engagement and positive feelings doesn’t need to be earth shattering. In fact, it often isn’t. “They don’t have to be big breakthroughs or huge successes… small wins can lead people to feel terrific,” she stated.

Why are small wins important?

Other research has shown that making progress toward a goal can increase motivation, boost performance and improve the ability to acquire and retain new skills. But setbacks also have a unique power over our work life.

As the Harvard study suggests, setbacks can ruin a workday. This, in part, is because we are more likely to focus on losses rather than gains. (Researchers think this is probably due to evolution, as our human ancestors who were more fixated on their failures – and avoiding them in the future – were more likely to survive.) Therefore, today’s setback can outweigh yesterday’s progress and sap employees of their motivation.

So how can we overcome a hardwired fixation on failure and restore employees’ motivation? By integrating small wins into the workplace learning process.


Keeping learners motivated is not always easy – especially when they struggle or experience failure. But below are some proven, research-based recommendations for how to help your organization’s learners stay motivated in the face of adversity.

Ask employees to track their small wins.

According to the research, keeping a daily list of accomplishments – or small wins – is one of the most powerful ways to boost productivity and motivation. So ask learners to keep a running list of the small wins and accomplishments they’ve made during the learning process or as a result of their training. How learners track these wins can be up to the individual, but adding to the list throughout the workday or taking a few minutes at the end of the day are both effective.

Tracking small wins harnesses the power of progress and motivates learners in the moment. But it can also be a valuable tool for when setbacks occur. When learners struggle or fail, their “small wins list” can be a motivator and a reminder of how much they’ve accomplished

Get managers involved.

Managers, of course, play a critical role in workplace learning and motivating learners is no exception. One way a manager can be valuable is by helping learners celebrate small wins through recognition. As the Harvard study stated, receiving encouragement from a colleague is also a powerful source of motivation. And if that colleague is a manager, it’s all the more powerful. It doesn’t need to be formal or public recognition – just a private comment acknowledging the learner’s progress will do the trick.

Create a culture of appreciation.

Leaders and managers can also nurture the celebration of small wins by weaving it into the organizational culture. If leadership adopts the norm of recognizing their employees’ progress and accomplishments, it trickles down to everyone in the organization. And when coworkers regularly express their appreciation to each other, that culture of appreciation and encouragement will boost motivation across the workplace.


Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review, 89(5), 70-80.

Higgs, M. M. (2018, December 4). How to accept a compliment — even if it’s from yourself. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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