The Progress Principle

"When we surveyed hundreds of managers around the world...95 percent of these leaders fundamentally misunderstood the most important source of motivation...the conventional rules miss the fundamental act of good management: managing for progress."

- The Progress Principle, pages 3 & 10

The husband-and-wife team of Amabile and Kramer have studied creativity for more than 35 years. Along the way, they have challenged some long-held assumptions about how we work, how we create.

During a year-long study involving over 120,000 work events reported as they happened, they noticed a pattern: what mattered most in any work environment, no matter the worker’s basic personality or position in the company, progress, however small, was the greatest indicator of their happiness and performance.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Making Progress, However Small, is the Greatest Indicator of Performance and Satisfaction

"[O]ur research is unambiguous. As inner work life rises and falls, so does performance...making progress in meaningful work is the most powerful stimulant to great inner work life."
- The Progress Principle, pages 45 & 74

Ask any manager what motivates their top workers, what would turn their laggards around, and they’ll comment on carrots and sticks. Extrinsic rewards and punishment are the average manager’s first (and often last) resort.

It turns out that’s wrong. Studying data collected in real time from dozens of employees at seven companies, progress was the outstanding causative factor. Whether the company was floundering or flying, whether their manager was a saint or a jerk, it was the daily small wins which motivated people to try harder, to come up with more creative solutions, and to be happier while doing more.

The Progress Principle states that progress contributes to positive inner work life, which contributes to progress, creating an upward spiral of creativity, engagement, and performance.

Inner work life is defined as “the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday.” It is inner because it is invisible to others, including supervisors. It relates to work because that’s where it takes place, and that’s what it affects. And it is life because it is ongoing, growing and changing, and affects life outside work.

Whether it’s employees, partners, co-workers, or our own children, fostering positive inner work life creates happiness while motivating greater performance. insight #1 describes some ways to do this. insight #2 highlights a critical warning about the asymmetry of good and bad events.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Support Progress with Catalysts and People with Nourishment

"[C]atalysts are triggers directed at the project, nourishers are interpersonal triggers, directed at the person."
- The Progress Principle, page 82

Catalysts, actions which affect work, and nourishers, events which affect people, are powerful because while they contribute to progress, even before that, they contribute to positive inner work life. The effects of catalysts and nourishers are immediate.

These are actions all of us can take to contribute to progress and positive inner work life in others.

The 7 Major Catalysts:

  • Setting clear goals — knowing where you’re going, and why
  • Allowing autonomy — self-direction creates drive
  • Providing resources — having the proper tools makes any task more efficient and enjoyable
  • Giving enough time—but not too much — constant time pressure is destructive, and low time pressure contributes to boredom
  • Help with the work — sometimes we all need information or skills we don’t have
  • Learning from problems and successes — shining a non-judgmental light on failure in order to learn from it contributes to psychological safety
  • Allowing ideas to flow — good communication without negativity

The 4 Major Nourishers:

  • Respect — recognition, honesty, civility
  • Encouragement — enthusiasm, expressions of confidence
  • Emotional support — people feel more connected when their emotions are validated by empathy
  • Affiliation — actions which develop trust, appreciation, and affection

Catalysts have opposites: inhibitors. Nourishers have opposites: toxins. The research confirmed the findings of a 2001 study: bad events carry more weight than their positive counterparts.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Bad is Stronger Than Good

"The power of setbacks to increase frustration is more than three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration."
- The Progress Principle, page 92

Humans are risk-averse, loss-averse. If you lose $10 you need to gain $20 to make up the emotional loss. Most people won’t gamble unless they’re likely to win at least twice what they’re risking.

Inner work life is affected by the same rule: setbacks diminish happiness more than twice as much as progress boosts it, and increase frustration more than three times as much as progress decreases it.

The message is clear: a manager’s greatest risk is allowing inhibitors and toxins in the workplace. Smoothing the path, then, becomes a manager’s most important task. Pete Drucker said the goal was “to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.”

These days most work is intrinsically meaningful. There are four mechanisms which can negate that meaning, damaging inner work life:

  • having work or ideas dismissed
  • losing ownership of one’s work
  • knowing your work will never be used
  • grunt work; work we’re greatly overqualified for.

Besides avoiding these inhibiting toxic behaviors, engage in these four catalyzing nourishing behaviors:

  • set the climate, one event at a time — habitually behave in a way which creates a positive trusting climate
  • stay attuned every day — without accurate current information you cannot provide the nourishers and catalysts to promote positive inner work life
  • target support — vague generalities don’t nourish
  • checking in, not checking up — others know the difference between checking in to see how we can help those we trust and checking up on those we don’t to catch their mistakes.


Emphasizing the power of small wins, The Progress Principle shows that baby steps are cumulative, not just practically, but emotionally. Progress, however small, contributes to joy, engagement, and creativity.

Note that no special tools or circumstances are needed. Managing for progress has far more to do with your attitude than your finances or equipment. Help everyone on the team make small wins every day. Smooth the path to avoid the amplified negativity of work inhibitors and personal toxins.

Whether you’re managing a team or monitoring your own inner work life, habitually engaging in the positive behaviors of the progress loop will increase joy, engagement, and creativity, contributing directly to happiness.

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Joel D Canfield

ABOUT Joel D Canfield

I'm a creative who works mostly with words, sometimes accompanied by music. I write because I have to, and I have very little patience with money and its attendant issues...
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