Sorry to drag out this old cliche, but: “If you only read one business book this year…” make it “The Progress Principle” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.
The principle goes like this: The inner work life of an employee influences their performance, and the most powerful positive influence on inner work life is progress in meaningful work.
My experience has been that it’s hard to overstate this principle. Behind every call for a more robust communications environment in companies lies a hope that, if we can just pour more high-quality content on people, morale and engagement and performance will improve, once and for all. But these two researchers offer compelling evidence that what matters more than websites or videos or email blasts or break-room parties—way more—is believing your efforts are productive on important tasks on a daily basis.
And they reframe the definition of a successful manager to mean someone who can enable that progress for their people. The book gives a great checklist of ways managers can get that done.
So far, I have yet to work for a business that makes that skill a core focus of managerial training and development, or a systematic criteria for promotion. For the moment, companies marvel when they see it and say something like, “Clone him!”
My boss Carol* was one of those people who just got it and did it, over and over. Rather than say, “Don’t bring me problems, only solutions,” she expected me to bring forward problems she could actually help resolve as part of her role, and then she actually resolved them. She stayed involved without micromanaging—”checking in without checking up,” in the lingo of the book. She’d fight and defend upwards for our team’s ideas when they were sound. She gave us a bye on administrivia when it threatened a greater good, including down time or time with our families.
In terms of communication, she was transparent, pertinent, clear, and empathic. She did not create communications channels to do this, and her modeling of it enabled us to do this for each other as team members and for others outside the team. The primary test of effective business communications has got to be whether it enables employees’ progress in meaningful work.
This is why, in consulting with businesses, I start out with an analysis of how teams are functioning and communicating among themselves at present, before deploying any specific tactics. When I know that teams are already clear on A and B, but what they need is a C, then providing C is useful and creates credibility. And when teams are struggling with the basics—trust, clarity, focus, resources—I suggest pausing elaborate communications vehicles until the basics can be meaningfully addressed. Because happy-talk communications in a toxic environment can actually be money spent widening the credibility gap between employees and leadership.
* As it happens, I’ve worked for several Carols—even one Carole—and they all exhibited these qualities. Maybe there actually is some cloning going on . . .
How have you seen the Progress Principle at work in your business or team?