Much of the work we do aims toward major goals or milestones. Quarterly targets, product launches, or other such major events are of paramount importance, but come along infrequently.
But day in and day out we have opportunities for small wins. And these small wins add up to major accomplishments. Plus, making daily progress on meaningful work boosts motivation, productivity, and creativity.
Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School calls this the “Progress Principle,” which she discovered with researcher Steven J. Kramer. They studied thousands of daily journal entries from knowledge workers tasked with creative projects. Analyzing these entries revealed the crucial importance for people working on complex problems to achieve small wins regularly. These meaningful advances–even when minor–sustain motivation, even in the face of inevitable setbacks. And these small achievements foster creative productivity over the long term.
When I interviewed Amabile for The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership, she described the pluses of small wins:
Small wins can give people an enormous boost emotionally, and can really raise their level of intrinsic motivation for what they’re doing and lead to creativity. So in one of our studies, as we analyzed these data, we found that if people are experiencing progress in their work, they’re much more likely to feel emotionally positive about themselves and about what they’re doing. Under those conditions, they’re more likely to come up with a creative idea.
So, how can leaders leverage the power of small wins to bring meaning to their team’s work, even when things aren’t going smoothly?
Leaders can track incremental progress toward larger milestones and celebrate small accomplishments along the way. This also serves as positive feedback, which assures employees that their contributions have a meaningful impact on the organization’s goals.
To harness the power of small wins, try implementing some of the following practices:
? Make time at group meetings for team members to share their progress and to publicly acknowledge employees’ small wins.
? Create a space–whether a physical space in your office or a dedicated digital channel in your communications–where employees can visually mark their progress. (Project management tools have this built in.) Seeing a reminder of past accomplishments and public expressions of appreciation boosts morale.
? End each week with a small gesture or celebration, whether that be providing refreshments in the office or calling it a day a bit early to treat the team to a drink. This ends the week on a positive note and adds to next week’s motivation reservoir.
? Let your culture shine through–when there is a big win, make a big deal about it. Don’t think about victory celebrations as an unnecessary cost, but an investment in the sustained achievement of your team for their next big win.
By giving recognition for a job well done or offering reassurance that a project is on track, leaders keep their teams motivated. This is particularly valuable for employees who aren’t simply driven by monetary gain, but by a desire to do meaningful or “good” work.
Bottom line: Making even a bit of progress on meaningful work is the single most important factor in having a great day at work. By taking steps to recognize these small wins, leaders can harness the power of intrinsic motivation and keep their teams primed for creative insights and breakthroughs.