The Progress Principle Approach

There are many ways to encourage people in work. One approach is to learn from the lessons outlined by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their book The Progress Principle.

This is a key principle that affects people’s wellbeing. They need to feel they are making progress – whatever that means to them. People are more likely to feel good about their work when they are doing the following things.

They are working towards meaningful goals.

They work in a supportive environment that is based on encouragement, practical support and respect.

They have a sense of autonomy and can use their talents to achieve daily wins on the way towards achieving the meaningful goals.

The Progress Principle provides a detailed description of what people need to flourish in their work. Below are excerpts from the website that describes the book and also from an article written for the Harvard Business Review. You can discover more via the following links.


The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation.

What really sets the best managers above the rest? It’s their power to build a cadre of employees who have great inner work lives -consistently positive emotions; strong motivation; and favorable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues. The worst managers undermine inner work life, often unwittingly.

As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain in The Progress Principle, seemingly mundane workday events can make or break employees’ inner work lives. But it’s forward momentum in meaningful work-progress that creates the best inner work lives.  

Through rigorous analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in 7 companies, the authors explain how managers can foster progress and enhance inner work life every day.  

The book shows how to remove obstacles to progress, including meaningless tasks and toxic relationships. It also explains how to activate two forces that enable progress – catalysts and nourishers.


Catalysts are actions that support work. They include setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing sufficient resources and time, helping with the work, openly learning from problems and successes, and allowing a free exchange of ideas.

Their opposites, inhibitors, include failing to provide support and actively interfering with the work.  


Nourishers are acts of interpersonal support, such as respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional comfort, and opportunities for affiliation.  

Toxins, their opposites, include disrespect, discouragement, disregard for emotions, and interpersonal conflict. For good and for ill, nourishers and toxins affect inner work life directly and immediately. 

Catalysts and nourishers – and their opposites – can alter the meaningfulness of work by shifting people’s perceptions of their jobs and even themselves.

The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress – even a small win – can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

A person’s inner work life on a given day fuels his or her performance for the day and can even affect performance the next day.

Managers needn’t fret about trying to read the psyches of their workers, or manipulate complicated incentive schemes, to ensure that employees are motivated and happy. As long as they show basic respect and consideration, they can focus on supporting the work itself. 

You won’t have to figure out how to x-ray the inner work lives of subordinates; if you facilitate their steady progress in meaningful work, make that progress salient to them, and treat them well, they will experience the emotions, motivations, and perceptions necessary for great performance.

Their superior work will contribute to organizational success. And here’s the beauty of it: They will love their jobs.

Teresa and Steven describe the questions that people can ask each day to develop a sense of progress in their work. Here are some of these questions.


Different managers will use different methods for helping their people to experience a sense of progress. One leader I worked with took the following approach.

Delivering The Scorecard and
Doing Stimulating Projects

People who thrive in organisations often get the right blend between delivering the scorecard and doing stimulating projects. Such projects need to benefit the organisation and produce success stories.

Every organisation has its own version of a scorecard. This describes the mandatory things that, for example, each team must deliver. But it is also important for people to do activities in which they feel they are developing.

The leader I mentioned explained her approach in the following way.

“We deliver the scorecard to keep the centre off our backs. This means delivering the agreed targets under the usual headings of Profits, Products – including customer satisfaction – and People. The latter includes morale and culture.

“Our company is in an evolving market, however, so this calls for developing fresh approaches to business. At the same time, people also want to grow.

“We therefore go for win-wins. I invite each person to do what for them would be stimulating projects. Such projects should benefit the customers or the business.

“Sometimes we publish these projects as success stories. This approach helps both the individuals and the company to develop.”


Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, what can you do to feel that you are progressing in your life or work? How can you translate these plans into action? How can you get some early successes?

Looking around, what can you can do help other people to feel they are progressing? Certainly they must take responsibility for their own development. There may be things you can do to help them, however, in your role as a parent, friend, colleague, coach or leader.

Bearing this in mind, what can you do to help a person or group of people to develop? How can you encourage and enable them to get quick successes?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on the theme of the progress principle. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to feel that you are progressing. 

Describe the specific things you can do to help other people – a person or a group of people – to feel that they are progressing.




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2 comments to The Progress Principle Approach

  • Thank you for this article. I was researching the idea of the Progress Principle and it makes sense as to what drives or motivates people, it is because they feel they are contributing or making small wins.

  • Andreas

    Thank you, Mike,

    it seems to me that what is often overlooked is to take the time to ask the question you pose at the very end: Asking ourselves, what specific things will make us – on a very personal level – feel that we are progressing?

    Having clear goals to begin with helps, while these can be “cold” like “increase profit by x%” or softer, like “establish a robust procedure to handle customer enquiries quicker”.

    Certain people might be more motivated by progressing on turnover / profit or other hard number, others might be more motiveated by progressing on building better systems / infrastructure and procedures.

    Another important aspect is then to find good ways to measure the progress. Daily questions above help, and with a clear goal, there are likely to be other milestones and metrics to track progress.

    Then, of course, it is important to celebrate milestones and also surface the progress within the organisation and with respective management. In the daily rat race it can sometimes be easier to quickly move on to the next task, rather than take a moment to recognise and be proud of the progress, success and accomplishment.

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