Much has been written on the subject of motivation, both the causes and effects. Yet it seems that we are still in search of the Holy Grail – how to keep ourselves or our team motivated. Breakthrough research by Harvard University Professor Teresa Amabile, who surveyed over 12,000 work diaries belonging to employees from seven companies as part of her research, has identified the most emphatic determiner of motivation, the single most motivating factor of all. Watch her insightful video to discover her illuminating findings about motivation, some of which are summarised below.
Highlights from the research
- Of all the factors that enhance motivation, the most important is “progress in meaningful work”.
- When people are frequently able to experience a sense of progress in their work, they are more likely to be creatively productive in the long term.
- Small wins or incremental everyday progress is enough to make the difference between how you feel and how you perform.
- Negative events or setbacks can have a more powerful impact on motivation than positive ones.
- Very few leaders appreciate the importance of progress as a motivator. In a study of managers, very few of the respondents placed employees’ progress as the top motivator.
- Leaders and managers have more influence over their employees’ productivity than they realise. Knowing what boosts and what inhibits performance is the key to engaging people in their work.
- An emphatic driver of creative and productive performance is the substance of a person’s “emotions, motivations and perceptions” around their work, referred to by Amabile as the “inner work life” of an employee. Also important is how they view those around them in their place of work, for example their coworkers and management. These various factors contrive to push them forwards to achieve or demotivate them.
- Amabile’s research revealed that motivated employees had invariably experienced progress and recorded positive impacts on their “emotions, motivations and perceptions”. Specifically, they reported positive emotions, greater interest and enjoyment of their work and the perception of “positive challenge” in their jobs. However, when employees were demotivated, they had usually experienced setbacks.
- Although Amabile’s findings have been corroborated in other research, (one study found that even the illusion of progress is enough to motivate people), she concedes that her findings demonstrate correlation and not causality.
Applying the research
Rather than set yourself abstract, sometime-in-the-future goals, set yourself smaller, achievable milestones instead. Pay attention to your progress; celebrate the small wins you achieve (as we have learned, they are important to your “inner work life”). It is also important that managers and leaders take note of these small wins too because, as Amabile asserts, “they are critical to the overall performance of organizations”. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, refers to these milestones as “keystone” habits, and describes in his book how it is the cultivation of these habits that has led to the success of notable people such as Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer.
There’s one caveat to all of this, which I have already mentioned, but which is worth a reminder. To keep yourself motivated, remember that it’s not only making progress that counts, it’s making progress in work that’s meaningful to you.