Incremental Wins, Exponential Impact


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White paper detailing the link between an employee's perception that he or she is making progress at work and that employee's level of engagement. Progress at Work is a valuable new metric that builds on existing engagement measures.

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Incremental Wins, Exponential Impact

  1. 1. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 1 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedIncremental Wins – Exponential ImpactHow Employee ProgressDrives Employee EngagementBy Matt EvansSenior ConsultantHumanR, Inc.Executive SummaryIn a Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Small Wins,” Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer(2011) highlight how important it is for workers to feel as though they are making ‘progress’ on afrequent basis, noting that progress in meaningful work is a key driver of organizational performance1.Using Amabile’s and Kramer’s work as a foundation, HumanR sought to explore two questions:1. What is the link between employee progress and employee engagement?2. How should managers target their efforts to promote employee progress?In 2011, HumanR conducted a survey of sixteen professional services organizations to better understandemployee engagement. In addition to asking typical engagement questions about compensation,supervision, and recognition, we asked respondents how often they make progress and how often theyencounter obstacles to better understand the link between engagement and progress.Based on the data from 6,000 respondents, we found a strong link between employee perceptions of theirdaily progress at work and their level of engagement. The data also revealed key drivers of workplaceprogress as well as barriers inhibiting employees from making greater progress.Finally, the data provided clear insights on actions that managers can take to better facilitate employeeprogress and ultimately improve engagement and performance.1Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review May 2011: 71-80.
  2. 2. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 2 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedIntroductionThe impact of employee engagement on organizations is both well documented and striking. From lessunplanned leave to greater profitability2, a highly-engaged cadre of employees delivers quantifiably betterresults to organizations of all types. Conversely, a disengaged workforce yields the opposite results.While compensation, buy-in to the organization’s mission, and other organization-level drivers are oftenthe result of high-level, organization-wide actions, the individual manager is pivotal to the level ofengagement of his or her employees.As a result of their research, Amabile and Kramer (2011) were able to ferret out the difference between a“good day” and a “bad day” at work. “Good days” are days in which people “feel happy, are intrinsicallymotivated by the work itself, and have positive perceptions of their colleagues and the organization.”“Bad days” are characterized by “frustration, fear, and sadness.” Not surprisingly, Amabile and Kramerfound that people are more likely to be creative and productive on good days than bad days.Amabile and Kramer also found the single largest predictor of a good day is whether or not employeesmade progress in their work – that is, they took steps forward in either their own work or in their team’swork. In fact, in 76% of days in which workers report leaving work in a good mood, they report thatprogress was made. However, on 67% of bad days, employees reported experiencing setbacks orobstacles. The researchers further argue that “knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress –and what does the opposite – turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work.”In our research we found a strong link between employees’ perceived level of progress and their level ofengagement. Additionally, we identified key drivers and barriers to employee progress. Based on ourfindings, we make suggestions for managers to facilitate an engaging environment by enabling andsupporting employee progress.2“Motivating Employees to Go the Extra Mile: The Manager’s Role in Engagement,” Tom Davenport and StevenHarding, Towers Watson, 2010.
  3. 3. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 3 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedMethodologyAs a part of HumanR’s ongoing engagement research, we surveyed sixteen organizations with over 6,000respondents to further understand factors that influence employees’ engagement levels. HumanR askedemployees to respond to items in several categories, including My Job, My Immediate Supervisor,Organization-Wide Leadership and Direction, Compensation and Benefits, etc. To examine thecontribution ‘progress’ plays in employee engagement, the survey asked employees to respond to itemson barriers to productivity, and two questions related to progress and obstacles. Those questions were:In a typical two-week period, I leave work feeling I have made progress on the following numberof days (Employees could select any number from 0 through 10).In a typical two-week period, I encounter obstacles to making progress on the following numberof days (Employees could select any number from 0 through 10).The HumanR Engagement IndexHumanR has studied employee engagement throughout the last decade, resulting in a proprietaryEmployee Engagement Index. The index yields an engagement score for each survey participant andallows us to group respondents as Highly Engaged, Engaged, or Disengaged:Highly Engaged Employees demonstrate an emotional commitment to the organization. Theytend to be self-starters, to take on work that is not necessarily a part of their job, and to be loyal.Engaged Employees demonstrate a rational approach to the value of their job, continuing tocommit for so long as it appears to be in their best interest.Disengaged Employees are neither happy nor productive, but find it harder to leave their job thanto stay; they tend to be cynical and to be harmful to morale.This survey sample resulted in the following engagement distribution, which fit within our existingnormative data3:45 percent (n=2,758) were Highly Engaged,39 percent (n=2,375) were Engaged, and17 percent (n=1,022) were Disengaged.3HumanR’s historical normative ranges for engagement levels are: Disengaged: 6%-22%; Engaged: 32%-53%;Highly Engaged: 32%-61%
  4. 4. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 4 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedFindingsLinking Progress and EngagementAs expected, the results indicate a strong relationship between engagement level and progress. The moredays out of ten an individual reports making progress, the more likely he or she is to be highly engaged.Conversely, the more days out of ten an individual reports encountering obstacles, the more likely s/he isto score lower on engagement.We also combined progress and obstacles into a single measure, referred to hereafter as “Net Progress.”Net Progress is the difference between the number of days the survey respondent reports making progressand the number of days the survey respondent reports encountering obstacles. Figure 1 demonstrates therelationship between Net Progress and level of engagement.Figure 1At the high end of Net Progress, i.e. +5 days or more, the number of employees who are highly engagedovertakes and passes the number of employees who are engaged. Managers, therefore, may wish toconsider +5 Net Progress as a target.Approximately half of the survey population reports +5 Net Progress or greater, which indicates that inaddition to being quantifiable and meaningful, this target is also attainable.Driving Net ProgressAs seen above, a relationship between Net Progress and engagement clearly exists. Delving deeper intothe survey data, we found relationships between individual items and Net Progress. The five items mosthighly correlated to Net Progress are listed below:1. At work my ideas and views seem to count.2. The organization does a good job of setting customer expectations at the outset of an assignment.3. I am able to maintain an effective balance between my personal life and my work life.020040060080010001200140016001800-5 and Less(n=246)-4 to +4(n=2909)+5 and Greater(n=2774)#ofRespondentsNet Progress RangeNet Progress and Engagement LevelDisengagedEngagedHighly Engaged
  5. 5. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 5 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibited4. I am satisfied with the level of teamwork provided by others in the organization outside of myimmediate workgroup/department.5. Within the scope of my job I have the appropriate level of freedom to use my own judgment andtake action.To better understand the relationship between ratings of these items and progress, consider theseresponses from five separate survey respondents who rated them a “5” (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is thehighest rating). Note their verbatim responses and how they positively might affect one’s perception ofprogress.Table 1: Key Drivers and Representative Positive CommentsItemItem Rating(1 to 5)Net Progress(-10 to 10)Verbatim Comment: What do you like bestabout working at your organization?Individual AAt work my ideasand views seemto count.5 6Willingness to listen to new ideas and aculture that promotes innovation inprocesses working smarter, not harder.’Individual BThe organizationdoes a good jobof settingcustomerexpectations atthe outset of anassignment.5 9The work is challenging and enjoyable. Mysupervisor is excellent to work for andensures I have the tools I need to succeed.My customer has placed a high priority ongetting the job done, but is reasonable intheir expectations. At this point, I amenjoying my job tremendously and dontexpect anything to change in terms of myfeelings with regard to this situation.Individual CI am able tomaintain aneffective balancebetween mypersonal life andmy work life.5 6I had a work-life balance issue emerge thisyear that required me to adjust my scheduleand responsibilities and I have been fullysupported in this. I have never had a hint ofworry that if I ask for more flexibility I wouldput my employment in jeopardy. This hasmotivated me to make sure I work extrahard so that the company knows that thisdecision to support me was a good one.Individual DI am satisfiedwith the level ofteamworkprovided byothers in theorganizationoutside of myimmediateworkgroup/department.5 6I enjoy the collaboration between theproject managers, instructional designers,artists, programmers, and QA specialists. Ialso like the relaxed work environment andhow we pitch in when other artists areswamped with work.
  6. 6. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 6 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedItemItem Rating(1 to 5)Net Progress(-10 to 10)Verbatim Comment: What do you like bestabout working at your organization?Individual EWithin the scopeof my job I havethe appropriatelevel of freedomto use my ownjudgment andtake action.5 9The autonomy to do my job and the supportI receive to provide excellent service to ourclient units. I feel my supervisors beliefs arein line with mine in regards to providingassistance beyond our sample datacollection mission. For instance, I am freeand encouraged to provide expertise toclients that not only makes our servicesmore valuable but also improves the unit.Note how other individuals’ negative responses to these items might negatively affect their perception ofprogress.Table 2: Key Drivers and Representative Negative CommentsItemItem Rating(1 to 5)Net Progress(-10 to 10)Verbatim Comment: What can be done tomake the organization an even betterplace to work?Individual VAt work my ideasand views seem tocount.2 -4Address concerns and desires that areidentified by the employee . . . overall, thisorganization has become the single mostdissatisfying, disheartening, anddemotivating workplace that I have everexperienced.Individual WThe organizationdoes a good job ofsetting customerexpectations at theoutset of anassignment.2 -2In my experience the management of myorganization promises many things to theclient and then does not provide theresources or managerial support to getthem done, which means that we arealways behind schedule and under budgetand cutting corners. This leads to a highstress work environment.Individual XI am able tomaintain aneffective balancebetween mypersonal life and mywork life.2 -6People do not take ownership of theirresponsibilities, thus making others take onmore than they should. Some people get togo home on time, the rest struggle to keepthe boat afloat for the good of all.Managements role in trying to geteverything done well at once results innothing done well.
  7. 7. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 7 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedItemItem Rating(1 to 5)Net Progress(-10 to 10)Verbatim Comment: What can be done tomake the organization an even betterplace to work?Individual YI am satisfied withthe level ofteamwork providedby others in theorganization outsideof my immediateworkgroup/department.1 -9This year . . . has brought disrespect to ourbusiness unit as well as outrightinflammatory language andfrustration/defensiveness on collectiveconference calls etc. Corporate financeoffice has lack of knowledge of theiraccounting software and doesnt takeadvice from my 8 years of experience.Customer requests are being ignored,showing lack of responsiveness as well asoutright disrespect for deadlines.Individual ZWithin the scope ofmy job I have theappropriate level offreedom to use myown judgment andtake action.1 -8The bureaucracy is a constant obstacle tomeeting customer needs - the workers aremade to support the bureaucrats ratherthan the other way around. Among otherthings, this results in us having aridiculously high overhead multiplier, whichmakes us cost-uncompetitive.Barriers to Making ProgressWe noted earlier the importance of +5 days of Net Progress, the point at which high engagement becomesmost prevalent. We asked respondents to select five barriers from a list of 25 that have the largest impacton their productivity. We then compared the results of individuals with less than 5 days of Net Progresswith individuals with greater than 5 days of Net Progress. The following table shows those barriers thatpresent the largest gap between each set of individuals.Table 3: Key Barriers Preventing +5 Net ProgressPercentage of Respondents Mentioning Barrier as an IssueNet Progress = +5 Days or More(n=2778)Net Progress = Less Than +5 Days(n=3161)GapResponding to crises 9.5% 20.2% 10.7%Lack of clear priorities/goals 5.9% 16.5% 10.6%Miscommunication amongwork groups/departments9.2% 18.1% 8.9%Continual need to seekdecisions or approval fromhigher authority6.3% 15.0% 8.7%Lack of information 11.7% 20.3% 8.6%
  8. 8. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 8 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedConsider the impact that these barriers impose on employees as they attempt to make progress in theirwork and the high frequency in which they occur for individuals in our survey who make less than +5days of Net Progress. To move employees into a Net Progress range where they are most likely to behighly engaged, managers can focus on these barriers which impede desired levels of progress.The DisengagedAs stated previously, disengaged employees are difficult to motivate and can be harmful to morale. Anadditional item of interest from the data shows the effect of increased perception of progress on thedisengaged population. Our findings show that regardless of their level of progress, the disengagedpopulation remains disengaged.Figure 2As seen in the previous chart, no clear link exists between progress and disengagement. We actually seemore disengaged employees at +9 days of Net Progress than at -9 days of Net Progress. Disengagedemployees report dissatisfaction across a variety of factors, where our research has shown that this isoften due to poor person/job fit. Because progress likely has little effect on disengaged employees,managers should instead focus on facilitating the progress of individuals who are already engaged.050100150200250-10 -9 -8 -7 -6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10NumberofEmployeesNet ProgressDisengaged Population
  9. 9. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 9 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedImplications for ManagersAmabile and Kramer state that a positive inner work life drives performance, that performance isdependent on making progress in meaningful work, which in turn, yields a positive inner work life. Theyrefer to this as the progress loop. According to Amabile and Kramer, one of the goals of managers increating a high performance work environment is to facilitate the progress loop.Implications From Our ResearchOur findings lead to some practical implications for managers to help them facilitate progress.Ask employees about progress and obstacles. But, as Amabile and Kramer note, check “in” onthem, do not check “up” on them. Be seen as a facilitator of success, not a micromanager.Manage customer expectations. As noted in the findings, setting customer expectationscorrelates with Net Progress. A poorly written set of requirements, an underwhelming servicelevel agreement, or an inability to hold customers to what was agreed to at the outset of a projectcan result in rework, overwork, and a seemingly infinite cycle of frustration.Make work meaningful and rewarding to the employee. Work to match employee career androle expectations to work they are performing. Most people accept job offers based on theirexpectations of what the job will entail. When people find themselves in roles other than theyexpect, they may find the work less meaningful than the work they originally intended to pursue.This disconnect between expectations and roles can lead employees toward the perception thatthey are not making meaningful progress.Maximize autonomy whenever possible. Ensure employees feel they can make decisions thatallow them to move forward without a burdensome approval process. Amabile and Kramer notethat their model manager “checks in with,” and does not “check up on” his or her team. Oursurvey findings reveal, in both barriers and item ratings, the importance of empowerment as itrelates to progress. From an employee perceiving that he or she must waste time while awaitingapproval to an employee feeling demotivated by a perceived lack of responsibility, a lack ofemployee empowerment can stall progress.Promote teamwork among departments. Particularly in large, complex projects, teamworkamong departments is crucial for moving forward effectively. Missed deadlines, overburdenedteam members, and a perception of inequitable workload are consequences of poor teamwork.Managers should advocate for their team and work with other departments’ management toensure accountability and an equitable distribution of workload.Focus on what has been achieved. Managers who are “engaging” focus on positive outcomesrather than negatives. Focus on what has been done more than what has not been done to createan atmosphere conducive to rewarding progress.Set short term goals that are achievable. Think in terms of ten day increments. Long-termprojects can seem interminable, and progress can seem nonexistent. Ensure employees canidentify when they have made progress by setting frequent, reachable targets.Ensure adequate resources to achieve goals. It is the manager’s responsibility to ensure thattime, money, equipment, and social and political capital are appropriately managed in a way thatfacilitates progress.
  10. 10. 1031 Sterling Road, Suite 203, Herndon VA 20170Page 10 of 10 Phone: (703) 435-5911 Fax: (703) 435-9380© 2012, HumanR – Reproduction without permission is prohibitedRemember that some people will remain unsatisfied, regardless of progress. The disengagedwill generally remain disengaged, regardless of a manager’s efforts to facilitate progress. Insteadof spending resources to facilitate their progress, concentrate on helping those individuals whoare already engaged become more highly engaged.ConclusionHumanR’s research establishes a strong link between progress and engagement. To improve employeeengagement, managers should focus on creating an environment where each employee has theopportunity to make progress in the work s/he finds meaningful. The goal is to build a progress-orientedenvironment which results in higher levels of engagement, and ultimately, higher levels of performance.-------------------------About HumanRFounded in 1975, HumanR is a management consulting firm with a focus on organizational development.Our goal is to help organizational leaders connect their people to their business results – to connect thedots between data and people, and between people and organizational performance.Since 1996 we have had a presence on the web, performing employee engagement surveys and providingcustomized 360s for leadership development. Over this period we have enhanced our services bydeveloping a variety of unique value adds, including our proprietary engagement index, our normativedatabases, and our extensive selection of leadership and management trainings.In 2009 HumanR was named the Woman Owned Small Business of the Year by the USDA’s Food andNutrition Service for our work in conducting 360 feedback and coaching.If you have any questions, please contact one of the following individuals:Burgess Levin Mary Saily Matt EvansSenior Executive Consultant Executive Consultatnt & CEO Senior 435-5911 x102 (703) 435-5911 x104 (703) 435-5911 x114