You know the old proverb about toughness. And if you went to Sunday School, it took the form of "tribulation is good for you," and you will not "suffer more than you are able to handle." This powerful, religious and cultural strain of our Western belief system holds that high performance requires tribulation. It argues that "dissatisfaction, discomfort and distress" actually galvanize performance. And indeed, some research, such as that of George and Jhou from 2007, demonstrates that negative moods signal a problem to be solved, driving the person onward into performance.
But an equally strong thread of conventional wisdom stresses that success comes from enjoying the work. As recently as 2008, Michael Riketta of Aston University in the U.K. found that higher job satisfaction, the enjoyment of your work, predicts better performance.
So how do you make sense of these two conflicting threads? Is either true? or both? Leave it to Teresa Amabile and her husband Steven Kramer, the real experts in the fields of performance and creativity, to answer this question. Harvard's Amabile has researched in this field for years, reporting regularly in the Harvard Business Review, and now in the fine new book, The Progress Principle. What they found is that there's a bit of truth in both threads, but that there's a far better way to go at work and life than either of the two principles actually offers.
In a fabulous piece of comprehensive research, Amabile and Kramer collected diaries from a broad sampling of workers and managers over ten years. Their conclusions were built on the diaries of 238 professionals from 26 project teams over the duration of their projects. Nearly 12,000 entries later, they discovered the dynamics of the "inner work life" of professionals and especially its impact on their performance and the entire organization. They've found that performance is driven by a constant interplay between how a worker sees things happening, his/her emotions and the resulting motivation.
Take, for example, my architectural clients, who find themselves two weeks behind on a major elementary school project. The senior associates have added staff to the project, the members are working side by side, seven days a week, some as much as a 12 to 14 hours straight, all understanding the importance of their success to their own reputation, their jobs and the firm. The boss walks in and to their delight calls a halt for a lunch break. Outside there are stacks of pizza, the grills are going with brats and burgers. Beer and pop are available, and the warmth and support for all the team is on display. A seemingly trivial event causes the project members to perceive their work and themselves as important and valued, adding to their stash of very positive emotions. At the end of the day the team is happy and excited about the project, having leaped to the task and put great effort behind it. It is, as one of the members said, one of the "best days of the month." What got done on that good day? As Amabile and Kramer point out, people perform best when their workday experiences include more positive emotions, passion for their work and the supportive, favorable messages of their leaders. Put simply, employees are "working under the influence" of their inner work lives.
So how can you have a lot more of those great performance experiences?
The key is simple: progress through "small wins." More than two years ago, I wrote about the personal satisfaction, delight and success of small wins in my blog on motivation and small wins. I learned years ago that small wins works because success breeds success. To have success, it's important to make it possible for yourself and your team. Small wins is a calculated, smart effort to break down, to chunk your work and your projects into pieces small enough to achieve on a regular, sometimes even on a daily basis. Chunking makes for a win and motivation, all at the same time. It's serendipity!
When you dig deeper into the process of small wins, what you find is that when people's best days are compared to their worst, the most important difference is being able to make progress in their work. Managers can learn an awful lot from that well-researched principle. Although many of you are fortunate in your managers, that's not always the case. Let's be honest. There are a lot of demeaning creeps out there. Men and women who aren't interested in the work life of their employees. One Gen-Yer said to me that he walked into a session with his boss in a good mood, but always left depressed. She made him hate his job. So rather than go into a funk, he learned the power of small wins for himself, his job, and even his relationship with that asshole boss. The strategy enhanced his feelings of control, made things a little better, and actually chipped away at the power of that dysfunctional culture. He looked out for small but sweet victories that he could win--a tactic that gave him staying power until he was able to successfully transfer out of that sicko group.
Amabile and Kramer have also found that small wins is the secret sauce of high performance. It doesn't make work easier or eliminate frustrations and struggles because most work today is not trivial. But the more small wins, the better able we are to hurdle those really difficult projects.
The Progress Principle spells out the issues in superb fashion for us all.