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Inner Work Life and the Power of Small Wins Published: Sunday, February 26, 2012 By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Inner work life is the constant stream of emotions, perceptions and motivations that people experience as they react to and make sense of events in their work day. Inner work life is inner because it goes on inside of each person. Although it is central to one’s experience, it is usually imperceptible to others and can go unexamined even by the individual experiencing it. That’s because most organizations have unwritten rules against showing strong emotions or expressing strong opinions, especially if they are negative or contrary to prevailing views. Recent research reveals that the secret of organizational sustainable success lies in creating the conditions for great inner work life: conditions that foster positive emotions, strong motivation and favorable perceptions of colleagues and the work itself.

In their extraordinary book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer elaborate on how inner work life relates to organizational performance. The pair of researchers took a deep dive inside a group of companies, tracking the day-to-day events that moved the inner work lives of their people. What they found is that as inner work life goes, so goes the company. When people enjoy consistently positive inner work lives, they are also more committed to their work and more likely to work well with colleagues. In other words, work related psychological benefits translated into performance benefits for the organization.

All good managers understand the importance of making sure that every member of a team feels personally motivated and necessary throughout the workday, lest their work should stagnate and suffer. But what's the key to igniting creativity, joy, trust, and productivity   among  your  employees? According to the authors’ research, the single most important factor is simply a sense of making progress on meaningful work. Seemingly small signs of progress will induce huge positive effects on employees' psyches. On the other hand, seemingly small setbacks will induce huge negative effects. The catalysts that induce progress include setting clear goals; allowing autonomy; providing resources; giving enough time-but not too much; offering help with the work; learning from both problems and successes; and allowing ideas to flow.

Under the right circumstances the pressure to produce small wins can be a useful element in a change process. When it becomes clear that change efforts will take a long time, urgency levels usually drop. Commitments to produce short-term wins can help keep complacency down and encourage the detailed analytical thinking that can usefully clarify or revise transformational visions.

Why are incremental type wins so critical to the overall success of change efforts and to organizational success? They are very important because they help to:

  • Create many milestones instead of just one final target or goal. Planning for, and achieving, quick wins provides important milestones people can look forward to while achieving the actual wins gives them a chance to pat themselves on the back sooner rather than only later
  • Provide evidence that the sacrifice is worth it
  • Justify the costs involved
  • Give change agents’ credibility
  • Provide opportunities to celebrate and to build morale and motivation, which are needed to keep change efforts moving forward down the long road ahead
  • Fine-tune vision and strategies
  • Give senior management and the guiding coalition concrete data on the viability of their ideas

The fact is that progress and inner work life feed each other: progress enhances inner work life and positive inner work life leads to further progress, creating a virtuous cycle. Just as inner work life and progress improve in tandem, when one goes downhill, so does the other. A feedback loop is also self-reinforcing. Just as a physical object in motion, such as a pendulum in a vacuum, maintains its momentum unless acted on by an outside force, the progress loop continues unless other events interfere. Happily, a vicious cycle can be broken by intervening events, as well. It isn’t easy, but removing obstacles to progress and providing the supports necessary for success can do it.

Surprisingly, catalysts and inhibitors can have an immediate impact on inner work life, even before they could possibly affect the work itself. As soon as people realize that they have clear and meaningful goals, sufficient resources and helpful colleagues, they get an instant boost to their perceptions of the work and the organization, their emotions, and their motivation to do a great job. Support signifies a number of important things to people: that their work is valuable; that their contributions are valuable; that the organization cares about them; and that management really knows how to get things done. But as soon as goals are jumbled, resources denied, or the ball is dropped by a colleague, thoughts, feelings and drives begin to crumble.

There are seven (7) key catalysts that influence inner work life:

  1. Setting clear goals: People have better inner work lives when they know where their work is heading and why it matters. Unambiguous short and long-term goals give teams tangible mileposts that render their progress salient. When people have conflicting priorities or unclear, arbitrarily shifting goals, they become frustrated and demotivated.
  2. Allowing autonomy: To be intrinsically motivated, people need to have some say in their own work. What’s more, when employees have freedom in how to do their work, they are more creative.
  3. Providing resources: Access to necessary equipment, funding and personnel is a must. When employees lack these catalysts, they realize that progress will be difficult or impossible, and their inner work lives dip.
  4. Giving enough time – but not too much. Although people become stressed and unmotivated if they have to work under extreme time pressure for weeks on end, they often feel excited, creative and productive after a single time-pressured day. In general, low-to- moderate time pressure seems optimal for sustaining positive thoughts, feelings and drives.
  5. Helping with the work: In today’s organizations, almost ev- eryone works interdependently; little can get done without any assistance from someone else. ‘Help’ can take many forms, from providing needed information, to brainstorming with a col- league, to collaborating with someone who is struggling. Getting the right sort of help, from the right people at the right time, can give a significant boost to inner work life.
  6. Learning from problems and successes: Problems and failures are inevitable in complex work. Inner work life is much more positive when problems are faced squarely, analyzed, and met with plans to overcome or learn from them. Inner work life falters when problems are ignored, punished, or handled in a haphazard way.
  7. Allowing ideas to flow: The people have some of their best days when ideas about their projects flow freely within their team and across the organization. Ideas tend to flow best when managers truly listen to their workers, encourage vigorous debate of diverse perspectives, and respect constructive critique.

Progress lives in the everyday, not just in quarterly reports, and managers can’t help but influence subordinates’ inner work lives. Whatever your role in an organization – even if you lead only by your work as a great colleague – you bear some responsibility for the inner work lives of those around you. Through your actions you can create and enable catalysts and nourishes and reduce inhibiters and toxins – greatly increasing the probability that everyone in the organization will make progress consistently.


Copyright 2012 QBS, Inc.
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