Most people believe that “numbers drive the business.” There’s no question that businesses are judged based on the numbers they produce. But let’s dig a little deeper: If numbers drive the business, what drives the numbers? The answer is … people. Dig deeper still and ask, “Well, what drives people?”

Beyond the money
Is it a paycheck? Probably not. Plenty of research shows that workers want more from their careers than money. Is it getting the chance to work with top-of-the-line technology and resources every day? Not necessarily.

Factors of engagement
One answer lies in a Harvard study on employee engagement. Researchers analyzed the contents of 12,000 diary entries made by employees in a lengthy research project involving several companies. They identified three broad categories of “events” that people commented on at the end of a given day:

  • Nourishing events: for example, a show of respect or encouragement from a manager that could increase one’s sense of well-being
  • Catalytic events: for example, being given resources or training that could trigger higher performance
  • 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.

The power of progress
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.

For managers, the lesson is clear: Notice when your employees have made progress and celebrate it with them. (A celebration could be just a pat on the back — the point is to recognize and accentuate the person’s feeling of progress.) You’ll be building employees’ happiness and their willingness to invest themselves deeply in their work.

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