For any business to succeed, executives and senior managers know employees must take ownership of their work and care about the end product to improve productivity and workplace satisfaction. However, getting employee buy-in and inspiring an emotional connection to a workplace may be difficult in certain circumstances.
Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer determined that the most important factor in inspiring employees is helping them see meaning in their work. The researchers found that when workers perceive significance in their tasks, they have a more positive perception of the environment and their colleagues.
“So, what we found here is an important and powerful tool that managers can use to help people do better in their work and have more positive inner work life experiences,” Amabile said in The Science of Success podcast.
Indeed, employee engagement is among the many business leadership traits that professionals need as they advance in their careers. Learning leadership traits in business is integral to the Executive MBA Online (EMBA) program curriculum at Washington State University.
Encouraging Employee Buy-In
After examining nearly 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees in 7 companies, Amabile and Kramer found that employees were happier when they could see progress in their work. Amabile and Kramer coined the phrase “Progress Principle” as a foundation for their extensive research into employee engagement.
Even though the research was initially published in 2011, the information is still widely considered essential for managers and leaders today. In a 2019 article on the American Management Association website, Amabile and Kramer said learning leadership traits is vital to managing progress rather than people.
“When an executive does this, he or she builds a cadre of employees who have satisfying inner work lives, consistently positive emotions, strong motivation, and favorable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues,” they said in “The Worth of Small Wins: Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer on The Progress Principle.”
Through their research, Amabile and Kramer identified four factors that deter or contribute to progress:
- Factors that hinder progress:
- Inhibitors – Events that cause setbacks
- Toxins – Interpersonal interactions that bring employees down
- Factors that support progress:
- Catalysts – Events that propel projects forward
- Nourishers – Interpersonal interactions that lift employees’ spirits
According to the researchers, seven catalysts promote positive workplace environments and progress:
- Setting clear goals
Employees want to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Make sure the goals are realistic and attainable within a specified time frame.
For example, instead of setting a goal of curing cancer, set a goal that promotes small wins such as understanding the mechanism that can block specific types of cancer.
Constantly shifting goals would be an inhibitor.
- Allowing autonomy
Employees need to know they will not be micromanaged while trying to perform their tasks. By eliminating autonomy, leaders effectively shut down an employee’s creative-thinking process, losing the employee’s talents and expertise with it.
- Supplying resources
Employees need tools to do their jobs well, particularly when they are working on significant projects. Amabile and Kramer said employers should make an investment in materials and personnel to promote creativity.
- Providing enough time to complete a project
Deadlines are vital to completing a project, but only if the employee understands how the deadline benefits the end goal. Too many short deadlines and employees will feel as if they’re on a continuous path to nowhere. Extreme pressure is bad for creativity, but low to moderate pressure is helpful, Amabile said.
- Offering to help
Employees will feel more supported if they don’t have to ask for help or if they are readily supplied with the necessary information to complete a project.
- Learning from successes and setbacks
By taking a setback and turning it into a learning experience, employers can make employees feel valued. Instead of ridiculing or punishing employees for failures, employers should discuss what went wrong. Employers can take setbacks and use them as talking points for progress.
- Allowing for ideas and creativity
Great managers allow employees to express their ideas and creativity.
Through their research, Amabile and Kramer also identified concepts that support a healthy work life: respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional support, and affiliation (or any action that helps develop trust and cooperation among coworkers).
Amabile told Harvard Business Review that financial constraints might impede some employers from implementing the catalysts, but knowledgeable and creative leaders can make them work.
“You don’t need a lot of resources to do any of those things,” she told Harvard Business Review in “How Small Wins Unleash Creativity.” “We’re not talking about hiring fancy comics to perform at lunchtime. You just need to make people feel supported as people. And it’s worth it. People are more creative, productive, collegial, and committed to their work when they have a positive inner work life.”
Since the Amabile and Kramer research, business professionals have presented their interpretation of improving employee buy-in. In the Harvard Business Review, Natalia Peart, Ph.D., said effective leaders must create a workplace that decreases stress while building employee engagement.
Reducing Workplace Stress and Improving the Employee Experience
Peart, a clinical psychologist, said a workplace with unreasonable deadlines, unclear expectations, and a hectic workspace could increase stress, impeding productivity.
To reduce stress, employers should encourage regular breaks, allow for flexible work schedules, and set clear guidelines for work hours, among other things, Peart said in “Making Work Less Stressful and More Engaging for Your Employees.” To build employee engagement, Peart suggested:
- Being transparent
Employees thrive when they understand their purpose. Ensure that they know the big picture and their role in it.
- Fitting the right people in the right jobs
Ensure that employee strengths and talents align with their roles. Match projects to an employee’s interests and goals.
- Allowing for autonomy
Let employees run their projects independently of stringent oversight. Ask for periodic updates to provide feedback.
- Committing to employee growth and progress
Provide opportunities for growth and learning through internal mobility.
- Recognizing good work
Publicly recognize employee contributions to a project and communicate appreciation for a job well done.
- Instilling a sense of purpose
By connecting their work to the real world, employees can find meaning in their jobs.
“Decades of data have confirmed that higher employee engagement, or the strength of the mental and emotional connection an employee feels toward their workplace, has many positive benefits — including reduced stress, improved health and job satisfaction, as well as increased productivity, job retention, and profitability,” Peart said.
At the same time, the coming years in a post-COVID-19 work environment will provide even more interesting data to measure employee engagement.
Ariana Roy Kewalramani, an analyst with Deloitte, said companies have learned indelible lessons during the 2020 pandemic.
Inspiring Employees—Lessons from the Coronavirus Pandemic
Kewalramani said when businesses shuttered operations during the lockdown in March 2020, commonly held assumptions about how business is done were thrown out the window. Instead, leaders and managers found new ways to engage with employees.
“The onus is on management to introduce work methods and policies that nurture the emotional connections between employees and their workplaces and motivate them to remain committed to the company for the long term,” Kewalramani said in “What has COVID-19 Taught Us About Employee Engagement?”
Kewalramani suggested these strategies for improving employee engagement in a post-COVID world:
- Adopt a supportive position
Companies that were not accustomed (or prepared) for remote working quickly learned to pivot. Commonly used methods to support employee engagement were team check-ins and micro goal setting.
“Commitment from the top, to adopt such a supportive management approach, has proven to be beneficial to all,” Kewalramani said.
- Create a positive work environment
After seeing employees working remotely for months, employers realized that workers could balance work and personal needs. Employers should continue the flexibility to give employees the chance to juggle home and career.
“When employees feel that their personal needs are valued by management, their emotional connection to the organization is strengthened,” she said.
- Encourage trust in leadership
During the COVID lockdown period, employees placed trust in company leadership to pave a path for their future. Continue to encourage confidence in leadership by maintaining transparency and offering room for advancement.
Kewalramani also said leaders should continue to invest in learning and development to encourage employee engagement further.
“Although many organizations have faced challenges in adjusting their management styles during COVID-19, lessons learned about employee engagement will bring about positive changes in employee mindsets,” Kewalramani said. “The development of emotional connections between employees and their place of work, post-COVID, will lead to lower employee turnover, improved productivity and motivation. Fostering these connections requires a commitment from senior management and the C-suite to adopt the above styles and rethink their current working culture.”
Senior managers and directors looking to understand leadership traits in business to further and improve employee engagement are increasingly turning to online executive MBA programs. At Washington State University, EMBA students take coursework that helps develop executive-level expertise.
About WSU’s Executive Master of Business Administration Online Program
Washington State University’s Carson College of Business prepares graduates to become influential leaders in whatever business ventures they pursue. The curriculum equips students with the strategies, knowledge, and skills used by high-profile business leaders and focuses on developing executive-level proficiency.
For more information, visit WSU’s Executive MBA Online website.
Seven Catalysts To Creating Progress and Becoming A More Effective Leader with Dr. Teresa Amabile: The Science of Success
Teresa Amabile: The Progress Principle
The Worth of Small Wins: Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer on The Progress Principle: American Management Association
How Small Wins Unleash Creativity: Harvard Business School
Making Work Less Stressful and More Engaging for Your Employees: Harvard Business Review
What has COVID-19 taught us about employee engagement?: Deloitte