How to Stop Killing Employee Ability and Desire to Do the Work

Recognize This! – Years of detailed study prove managers have tremendous influence over employee productivity and engagement, simply by impeding progress.

Are you killing your employees’ desire to work? I don’t mean, are you giving them too much work? Often, that’s a challenge employees can rise to. No, I mean are you actively killing their desire – no, strike that – their ability – to do the work you need them to do?

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have been justly receiving a good deal of press during the last many months for their book The Progress Principle.  For the book, published by Harvard Business Press, Amabile and Kramer “collected confidential electronic diaries from 238 professionals in seven companies, each day for several months. All told, those diaries described nearly 12,000 days – how people felt, and the events that stood out in their minds.”

From that, they learned (as reported in The Washington Post) “How to Completely, Utterly Destroy an Employee’s Work Life,” finding:

“In fact, on one-third of those 12,000 days, the person writing the diary was either unhappy at work, demotivated by the work, or both. That’s pretty efficient work-life demolition, but it leaves room for improvement.

Step 1: Never allow pride of accomplishment. …

Step 2: Miss no opportunity to block progress on employees’ projects. …

Step 3: Give yourself some credit. …

Step 4: Kill the messengers. …”

Then, in the McKinsey Quarterly, Amabile and Kramer discussed, “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work,” highlighting four traps:

“To better understand the role of upper-level managers, we recently dug back into our data: nearly 12,000 daily electronic diaries from dozens of professionals working on important innovation projects at seven North American companies. We selected those entries in which diarists mentioned upper- or top-level managers—868 narratives in all. … In short, our survey showed that most executives don’t understand the power of progress in meaningful work.5 And the traps revealed by the diaries suggest that most executives don’t act as though progress matters.

Trap 1: Mediocrity signals

Trap 2: Strategic ‘attention deficit disorder’

Trap 3: Corporate Keystone Kops

Trap 4: Misbegotten ‘big, hairy, audacious goals’”

The Importance of Meaningful Work

Between the two articles, Amabile and Kramer speak well to advice I and several others have given time and again – the importance of meaningful work. The closing statement from the McKinsey Quarterly says it all:

“As an executive, you are in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within your organization. Make that purpose real, support its achievement through consistent everyday actions, and you will create the meaning that motivates people toward greatness. Along the way, you may find greater meaning in your own work as a leader.”

I would add one bit of clarity on the “consistent everyday actions” – recognize, praise and appreciate people for their efforts and actions that support your organization’s purpose. That makes it real to employees, giving them the sense of meaning they need.

Have you ever been caught in one of the four traps? Have you ever felt your boss following any of the four steps to make you miserable at work?

Derek Irvine

About Derek Irvine

The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and "Winning with a Culture of Recognition," he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.

11 Responses

  1. […] cite experts from each of those fields on the power of recognition, but the bottom line is clear: Employees need to know their work is noticed and appreciated. Giving that recognition leads to direct business […]

  2. […] cite experts from each of those fields on the power of recognition, but the bottom line is clear: Employees need to know their work is noticed and appreciated. Giving that recognition leads to direct business […]

  3. […] helping employees realize progress in their work (the number factor of employee motivation, too, according to recent research). Mr. Tietzen speaks to how he helps his employees feel that […]

  4. […] ignoring progress is a major part of the disconnect reflected in the chart above. Factor in the Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer research showing making progress as the number one (by far) employee motivator and managers cannot deny the […]

  5. Karen M says:

    Well said! Look for any and all small steps of progress that can be acknowledged. It is the driver that continues to put ‘gas in the car’. When there is an over abundance of criticism, no matter how well intended, there is nothing but water in the gas tank, and over time, employees get really tired of pushing the car uphill.

  6. […] ignoring progress is a major part of the disconnect reflected in the chart above. Factor in the Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer research showing making progress as the number one (by far) employee motivator and managers cannot deny the […]

  7. […] lies in translating that for employees to personal, meaningful work, which has been identified through rigorous research as the primary motivator in the workplace, by […]

  8. […] lies in translating that for employees to personal, meaningful work, which has been identified through rigorous research as the primary motivator in the workplace, by […]

  9. […] – when they demonstrate your values in contribution to achieving your strategic objectives. Recognise them when they make progress in their work, not just when they achieve the major goal at the […]

  10. […] Employees need to make progress in meaningful work. But meaningful work isn’t enough. Employees also need to know they are getting somewhere. Good managers cast a vision for the future and help employees see where they are on the path to achieving that vision. Help employees see forward progress toward big goals by recognizing them for smaller achievements along the way. […]

  11. […] possible for celebration and acknowledgement of success to happen in line with the daily work, stop killing employee desire to do the work, and see motivation […]

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