Ignite Joy at Work

Given that multiple research studies show only a small fraction of employees are engaged at work, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time talking to people about how leaders can empower employees and unlock their potential. Gary Hamel, co-founder of the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), and I discussed these issues during a Maverick Hangout last year. In this vein, I really enjoyed this TEDx talk from HBS Professor Teresa Amabile who explains how companies can overcome the “crisis of disengagement”:

Professor Amabile studies how everyday corporate life can influence employee performance. The TedX talk is based on a book she co-authored with Steven Kramer, entitled “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.” The book’s Web site provides this summary:

What really sets the best managers above the rest? It’s their power to build a cadre of employees who have great inner work lives – consistently positive emotions; strong motivation; and favorable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues.

The book is based on rigorous analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by hundreds of employees in several different organizations; perhaps the most detailed field study ever done of creative work. Amabile and Kramer explain how managers can improve work satisfaction by understanding two factors:

  • catalysts: workplace events that directly facilitate project work, such as clear goals and autonomy
  • nourishers: interpersonal events that uplift workers, including encouragement and demonstrations of respect and collegiality.

The authors identify seven distinct catalysts that ignite joy at work. To long-time managers, these may seem like common sense but it’s validating to see them reinforced by research:

  1. Set clear goals
  2. Support autonomy
  3. Provide sufficient resources
  4. Give enough time – but not too much
  5. Help with the work
  6. Learn from problems and successes
  7. Allow ideas to flow

Of the seven, I was particularly intrigued by their insights into time pressure. Not surprisingly, when managers regularly set impossibly short time frames or extraordinarily high workloads, employees become stressed, unhappy, and unmotivated. However, occasional periods of time pressure for short durations were viewed positively – even exhilarating. In addition, environments with very low time pressure, although rare in the research, were also perceived negatively. In the authors’ words, “people hate being bored” (my earlier take on this here).

These catalysts should not be orchestrated or controlled but rather part of the everyday behaviors of the workplace. The more leaders are engaged, the more likely employees will be too.

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