Saturday, September 7, 2013

Making Big Progress with Small Progress

Teresa Ambile and her colleague, Steven Kramer, found that when inner work life - perceptions, emotions and motivations vis-a-vis their work - was positive, staff members performed better.  Making progress, even on a small problem, was the single most important factor in engendering a positive inner work life.  

So to harness the progress principle, staff members ought to (a) reflect on the work they do (i.e., without distractions) and (b) keep track of their small wins.  In turn, managers can provide them (a) catalysts, such as clear goals and reasons; (b) autonomy in deciding how to meet those goals; (c) resources and information necessary in this effort; and (d) genuine support to make sure they feel respected and valued.

Jebel Hafeet

I was an active road cyclist, when I lived in Dubai, and Jebel Hafeet was one of our toughest but most exhilarating rides.  Situated in another emirate (city) called Al Ain, Jebel Hafeet is a mountain that rises about 3000 meters above sea level.  As with mountain roadways in Europe, this one winds to the top, sometimes in switchbacks.

My body is meant more for the flats, as I have strong legs, and I can out-sprint a lot of riders.  But these strong legs apparently aren't geared for work that requires slow twitch muscles, which are necessary for grinding out kilometers up a mountain.

But I loved a challenge, so up I rode.  It was a grueling 13 kilometers to the top, and my mental strategy - algorithm - I came to tagline as think big, act small.  Early on in that climb, I realized that thinking in terms of one kilometer at a time was too much psychologically to put on my legs.  So I dialed my focus down to tenths of a kilometer (i.e., .10, .20, .30 and so forth).  I knew I could easily ride .10 kilometer, and do another one, and then another one.  

This small-segment focus worked out very well for me.  As the ride wore on, though, and my legs burned more and the oxygen was thinner, I focused on maintaining good form and rhythm on each pedal stroke.  So I acted even smaller, yet.  

There was a hotel at about the 10-kilometer mark, and I thought I take a short break.  Unfortunately my hamstrings locked up, and I couldn't get back on the bike to finish the climb.  But I was thrilled at having climbed the distance I had climbed.

In the Tour de France, the most grueling 2000+ miles of riding for professional cyclists, sprint specialists in the team just strive to survive the Alps and Pyrenees, which must be tenfold in difficult to Jebel Hafeet.  They (and their team) are ecstatic and relieved, when they do.  

I can therefore vouch personally for the outcomes and insights that Amabile and Kramer found in their research.  They elaborated The Power of Small Wins in Harvard Business Review.  The following are points I highlight and comment on (emphasis, as added):

Inner Work Life and Performance
In a dramatic rebuttal to the commonplace claim that high pressure and fear spur achievement, we found that, at least in the realm of knowledge work, people are more creative and productive when their inner work lives are positive—when they feel happy, are intrinsically motivated by the work itself, and have positive perceptions of their colleagues and the organization. Moreover, in those positive states, people are more committed to the work and more collegial toward those around them. Inner work life, we saw, can fluctuate from one day to the next—sometimes wildly—and performance along with it. A person’s inner work life on a given day fuels his or her performance for the day and can even affect performance the next day.
It goes without saying that what happens inside of us figures in what we do outside of us.  In turn, incidents or events affect our psychology.  Mind and body are integrated, and inside and outside are inviolably linked as yin-and-yang.  Also, that positive trumps negative goes without saying.  

Yet, the caveat to their superb research is this:  Check to see what truly works for you, as a staff member.  As a manager, check to see what works best for your staff group.  Some degree of pressure may be necessary, as is some optimal level of anxiety.  What that degree or level is depends for each of us.  

In general, for example, I am confident and motivated, but as I said I love a challenge and I can respond well to the right push.  More specifically, telling me "You can do it, you can do it," as some motivational trainers do, becomes more annoying than helpful, because I already know I can do it.  However, remarking "You can't do it, you just can't do it" spurs me on.  

I am fortunate perhaps to have a constitutionally positive (i.e., can-do) inner work life.

The Power of Progress
To be sure, our analyses establish correlations but do not prove causality. Were these changes in inner work life the result of progress and setbacks, or was the effect the other way around? The numbers alone cannot answer that. However, we do know, from reading thousands of diary entries, that more-positive perceptions, a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness, and even elation often followed progress. Here’s a typical post-progress entry, from a programmer: “I smashed that bug that’s been frustrating me for almost a calendar week. That may not be an event to you, but I live a very drab life, so I’m all hyped.” 
Likewise, we saw that deteriorating perceptions, frustration, sadness, and even disgust often followed setbacks. As another participant, a product marketer, wrote, “We spent a lot of time updating the Cost Reduction project list, and after tallying all the numbers, we are still coming up short of our goal. It is discouraging to not be able to hit it after all the time spent and hard work.” 
Almost certainly, the causality goes both ways, and managers can use this feedback loop between progress and inner work life to support both.
Scientists are cautious as a rule, and perhaps even to a fault.  The point about causality is a crucial, practical one in the workplace.  Managers have to know how best to influence, encourage and drive performance in their staff.  So if they press, so to speaks, buttons A, B and C, will they get D, E and F among their staff.  It's a simple linear equation that is useful for purpose of illustration.  

In fact, the workplace is better conceived as an ecosystem, where different elements act, interact and react in a myriad of ways.  At minimum, the pathway for causality is curvilinear.  But in reality, it's multi-curvilinear.  What this means is what I mentioned earlier:  because our mind and body are integrated, they both figure in each other's "activities."  Likewise, inner work life and outer work environment are linked, and affect each other in a symbiotic relationship.  We must keep in mind that that outer work environment also comprises of other people, who altogether make for a complex, and therefore intriguing, ecosystem.

The bottomline:  Managers are the afforded the authority and opportunity to engender positivity in the ecosystems they manage.

Progress in Meaningful Work
In 1983, Steve Jobs was trying to entice John Sculley to leave a wildly successful career at PepsiCo to become Apple’s new CEO. Jobs reportedly asked him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” In making his pitch, Jobs leveraged a potent psychological force: the deep-seated human desire to do meaningful work. 
Fortunately, to feel meaningful, work doesn’t have to involve putting the first personal computers in the hands of ordinary people, or alleviating poverty, or helping to cure cancer. Work with less profound importance to society can matter if it contributes value to something or someone important to the worker. Meaning can be as simple as making a useful and high-quality product for a customer or providing a genuine service for a community. It can be supporting a colleague or boosting an organization’s profits by reducing inefficiencies in a production process. Whether the goals are lofty or modest, as long as they are meaningful to the worker and it is clear how his or her efforts contribute to them, progress toward them can galvanize inner work life.
I was conducting a training program for middle-level managers on coaching and developing others.  I emphasized the importance of knowing what in particular motivated their staff.  One blurted out, something to effect of, "How am I supposed to know what motivates my people?"  

I must have chuckled initially, but stopped myself when I realized he was genuinely befuddled.  I replied, "You ask your people.  You find out from them."

He must've have rebutted my advice, or at least tried to, because I remember having said in a more pronounced manner "You're the manager!"

It was clear that a good number of managers needed guidance and support on the basics of interacting and conversing with their staff and thereby getting to know them and finding out what makes them tick.  So knowing what is truly meaningful for your staff, in light of Amabile and Kramer's research, is founded on the age-old, most fundamental aspects of relationship and communication:  Show that you care and respect.  Ask and find out.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

No comments:

Post a Comment