Don’t let your lab’s fortunes sink like the Titanic, to borrow the opening simile from The Progress Principle.  Read this book instead and find out how to facilitate daily progress among yourself, your coworkers, and your subordinates, leading to “virtuous loops” of small successes (that add up to big victories) and happier, more creative and productive people.

Authors Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer, respectively a professor of business administration and a developmental psychologist, build their system on the principle that “[b]ecause they spend so much of their lives working, people deserve the dignity of having positive lives at work.”  Their findings, drawn from thousands of daily work diaries at companies of various sizes and industries, indicate that daily progress does more than anything else to influence “inner work life.”  (Don’t scoff at the emphasis on feelings.  The authors explain in footnoted detail exactly why, on a neurobiological level, emotions are vital to good decision-making.)

So how can you help your research assistants and administrators take incremental steps every day?  Amabile and Kramer have several suggestions, ranging from simply ensuring they have the resources (computer, office supplies, student worker help) to do their work, to allowing them real autonomy in how they complete their tasks.  Most importantly, clear as many barriers to progress as possible, because in their research, the authors discovered that setbacks have more than twice the influence than progress on inner work life.  So if the centrifuge isn’t working?  Get it fixed as soon as possible.

The authors describe two other types of actions that promote positive inner work lives: “catalysts” for progress such as clear goals, enough time to actually do the work, and allowing employees to voice ideas; and “nourishers,” or interpersonal support, like acknowledging and empathizing with a frustrating computer program or providing opportunities for coworkers to get acquainted.  Leaders of small teams have an especially strong influence on team members’ inner work lives through these channels, which is detailed in an excellent chart on page 118.

With its clear guidance and illustrative examples drawn from fourteen years of research, this book excels at translating psychological insight into intriguing and transformational methods of management.  Will your ship sink or sail?

The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work
Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer
Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2011

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