The Power of Small Wins in Our Inner Work Lives

Do you ever wonder if all the work you’re putting in is making a difference? I know I do. We envy the “stars” in our professions. But they got to where they are with a succession of small wins that add up to major progress and their huge success.

In her book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, co-author and Harvard professor Teresa Amabile describes how even small, incremental wins can have a major positive influence on what she terms an employee’s “inner work life.”

Finding Meaningful Work

Perceptions, emotions and motivations influence inner work life, but the single most important factor “is simply making progress on work they find meaningful.” Even the most trivial wins can affect performance. On the flip side, a trivial negative experience can have two to three times the impact as a positive experience.

Amabile says that when individuals focus on work that is most meaningful to them it will also benefit the organization. Keeping track of our small wins will motivate us to continue making progress.

Managers Can Be Catalysts

In this video, she describes how a manager can be the catalyst for improving the inner work lives of employees and their positive performance by:

  • Giving employees clear goals in their work so they understand why it is important
  • Allowing them autonomy to reach their goals
  • Giving them the sufficient resources to get the work done
  • Helping them to access the materials they need
  • Clearing away the obstacles
  • Treating employees as human beings, respected and recognized for their value in the organization

While these tips may be self-evident, it is amazing that so many organizations don’t do them. My personal view is that one of the biggest obstacles to success is an employee not knowing what’s expected of him. What is my job? Another one is giving someone the responsibility, but not the authority, to do her job. “OK, bring that product to market. By the way, I have to approve every penny you spend.” Sound familiar?

Here is more of what Amabile had to say.

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  1. All TOO familiar from both sides: former employee and former manager. As an employee I was always in sales so – progress was easy to see. In those days, we had QUOTAs, like goals. Knowing how you were progressing was usually evaluated by the smaller events as mentioned in the video – number of contacts, number of appointments, number of presentations. Those LITTLE things lead to sales results. As a manager, I think sometimes I created obstacles that didn’t need to be there although I was doing my best to keep people FOCUSED. One to one meetings usually made it easier to get this progress principle in action starting with – those goals.

    Great ideas here Jeannette – thanks. Back to my OWN progress!

    • Thanks, Pat. I like to approach projects using the “chip-away” process. Keep chipping away by taking a chunk at a time, getting it done and moving on to the next chunk. I think we get intimidated when we look at the end goal because there is so much you need to do to get there. But small wins, a chunk at a time, keep you going.

  2. Great post, Jeannette.

    I agree that it’s imperative that we take time out to acknowledge our small accomplishments in between the larger ones. Sometimes it takes longer than we’d like to achieve larger goals, so we’ve got to recognize our smaller achievements as significant.

    What I’ve found to be helpful is to have a “Success Journal” to keep track of accomplishments, large and small. Take a look at mine here:

    Good luck with yours,

    • Doreen – I just read your post about your “Success Journal.” Great idea to keep a written record, especially for those days when you ask yourself, “what have I accomplished?” I think a lot of us are very hard on ourselves so the Journal is a constant reminder. Lot is full of ups and downs, so good to keep track of the ups! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great post, Jeannette. How I wish more managers would realize on just how much responsibility they have when it comes to the overall performance of the employees under them. It’s so sad that despite all of the things written and blogged about when it comes to management, there are still a handful that completely disregard it.

    • Thanks for visiting, Adeline. You make a good point that a manager has a great deal of responsibility in ensuring the good performance of his or her employees. Not only responsibility, but a real desire to see the employees succeed.

  4. Hi Jeannette. Nice post. Very interesting. I find your posts make me think which is a good thing since I can be easily distracted!! I am a big believer in treating people right-with kindness and compassion- especially at work. I think hard-assed never did work and I am happy that more people and companies are realizing that you can get a whole lot more from a carrot than a stick.

    • Mike — I’m glad my posts make you think! Personally, I have never responded well to negative reinforcement. A CEO I once worked told me that he felt the most important function of a leader is to feel compassion for his employees.

  5. Hi Jeannette,

    While you can’t always give total autonomy. I am a big believer in getting out of the way for those who display initiative and they rarely let you down. In many cases it is a collaborative approach as they know their ideas etc. are welcomed and the small wins are celebrated.

    I also think many managers micro mange because they are not entirely comfortable in their own skin and ability.

    • Susan — I like the idea of “getting out of the way” and letting people run with their ideas. With a manager’s support, an employee can accomplish wonderful things — small successes and big ones, too!

  6. Love this post Jeannette. Funny thing I noticed immediately – your catalyst list for managers applies to parenting too. Want an exemplary employee? That catalyst list will bring out the best in those who want to give their best. Sadly, there are some managers who operate from a power and control stance out of fear. Fear of losing their jobs, fear of looking “less than” when someone below them makes inroads…. They don’t change because they can’t and those below them suffer or quit.

    • Catherine — the old power and control model is defunct. It doesn’t work anymore. Instilling fear in your employees will bring out the worst — and not the best — work from them.

  7. Jeannette,

    These are some great tips on motivating employees. I agree that it is the role of managers to act as leaders and be catalysts. I have found that one of the best ways to motivate and inspire employees is through team building. When I was in corporate management, I lead several teams including my department. One of the best tools that managers have available to them is regular department meetings where everyone is encouraged to speak. It empowers your employees while bringing to light any issues that need to be dealt with. By fostering an environment where everyone has the right to speak and no idea is a “bad” one, you will be amazed at how cohesive your team can become. Weekly meetings don’t have to be long and they shouldn’t become a chore. They can be extremely effective when they’re lead and not managed.

  8. Jeannette,

    Great article and wouldn’t it nice if companies valued their employees? Unfortunately many managers micromanage due to fear or having to remain in control. I have to say that when I was working in corporate America I was lucky to not have managers who micromanaged, but the office politics was more than a notion.

    Now that I work for myself I have to find ways that motivate me and make me feel good. I enjoy helping others which makes me feel good, I also try to reward myself when I complete goals that I set for myself. It really helps to break the goals down and give myself small rewards along the way. I like gifts even if I have to give them to myself.

    Thanks for the great post,
    Happy blogging,