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Incremental Wins Exponential Impact
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Incremental Wins Exponential Impact
1. Incremental Wins – Exponential Impact How Employee Progress Drives Employee EngagementExecutive 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 performance 1.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 an engagement survey of sixteen organizations to better understandemployee engagement. In addition to asking typical engagement questions on compensation,supervision, and recognition, we asked questions both on how often the employee makes progress andhow often the employee encounters obstacles to better understand the link between engagement andprogress.Based on the data from 6000 respondents, we found a strong link between employee perceptions oftheir daily progress at work and their level of engagement. The data also revealed key drivers ofworkplace progress as well as barriers inhibiting employees from making greater progress.Finally, the data also provided clear insights on actions that managers can take to better facilitateemployee progress and ultimately improve engagement and performance.IntroductionThe impact of employee engagement on an organization is both well documented and striking. Fromless unplanned leave to greater profitability2, a highly-engaged cadre of employees delivers quantifiablybetter results to organizations of all types. Conversely, a disengaged workforce yields the oppositeresults.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 betweena “good day” and a “bad day” at work. “Good days” are days in which people “feel happy, are1 Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review May 2011: 71-80.2 “Motivating Employees to Go the Extra Mile: The Manager’s Role in Engagement,” Tom Davenport and StevenHarding, Towers Watson, 2010.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 1
intrinsically motivated by the work itself, and have positive perceptions of their colleagues and theorganization.” “Bad days” are those days when they experience “frustration, fear, and sadness.” Notsurprisingly, Amabile and Kramer found 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. They further argue that “knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress – and whatdoes the opposite – turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work.”In our research we found a strong link between the employee’s perceived level of progress and theemployee’s level of engagement. Additionally, we identified key drivers and barriers to employeeprogress. Based on our findings, we make suggestions for managers to facilitate an engagingenvironment by enabling and supporting employee progress.MethodologyAs a part of HumanR’s ongoing engagement research, we surveyed sixteen organizations with over6,000 respondents to further understand factors that influence employees’ engagement levels.HumanR asked employees to respond to items in several categories, including My Job, My ImmediateSupervisor, Organization-Wide Leadership and Direction, Compensation and Benefits, etc. To examinehow the contribution ‘progress’ plays in employee engagement, the survey asked employees to respondto items on barriers to productivity, and two questions related to progress and obstacles. Thosequestions were: In a typical two-week period, I leave work feeling I have made progress on the following number of 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 number of 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 - they tend 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 to commit for so long as it appears to be in their best interest.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 2
Disengaged - Employees are neither happy nor productive – but find it harder to leave their job than to 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, and 17 percent (n=1,022) were Disengaged.FindingsLinking Progress and EngagementAs expected, the results indicate a strong relationship between engagement level and progress. Themore days out of ten an individual reports making progress, the more likely he or she is to be highlyengaged. Conversely, the more days out of ten an individual reports encountering obstacles, the morelikely s/he is to 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 makingprogress and the number of days the survey respondent reports encountering obstacles. Figure 1demonstrates the relationship between net progress and level of engagement. Figure 1 Net Progress and Engagement Level 1800 1600 1400 # of Respondents 1200 1000 800 Disengaged 600 Engaged 400 200 Highly Engaged 0 -5 and Less -4 to +4 +5 and Greater (n=246) (n=2909) (n=2774) Net Progress Range3 HumanR’s historical normative ranges for engagement levels are: Disengaged: 6%-22%; Engaged: 32%-53%;Highly Engaged: 32%-61%.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 3
At 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. 4. I am satisfied with the level of teamwork provided by others in the organization outside of my immediate workgroup/department. 5. Within the scope of my job I have the appropriate level of freedom to use my own judgment and take action.To better understand how these items might positively affect progress, consider these responses fromfive separate survey respondents who rated these items high. Note their verbatim responses and howthey positively might affect one’s perception of progress. Table 1: Key Drivers and Representative Positive Comments Item Item Rating Net Progress Verbatim Comment: What can be done to (1 to 5) (-10 to 10) make the organization an even better place to work? At work my ideas Willingness to listen to new ideas and a cultureIndividual A and views seem to 5 6 that promotes innovation in processes working count. smarter, not harder.’ The work is challenging and enjoyable. My The organization supervisor is excellent to work for and ensures I does a good job of have the tools I need to succeed. My customer setting customer has placed a high priority on getting the jobIndividual B 5 9 done, but is reasonable in their expectations. At expectations at the outset of an this point, I am enjoying my job tremendously assignment. and dont expect anything to change in terms of my feelings with regard to this situation. I had a work-life balance issue emerge this year I am able to that required me to adjust my schedule and maintain an responsibilities and I have been fully supported in this. I have never had a hint of worry that if I effective balanceIndividual C 5 6 ask for more flexibility I would put my between my employment in jeopardy. This has motivated me personal life and my to make sure I work extra hard so that the work life. company knows that this decision to support me was a good one.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 4
Item Item Rating Net Progress Verbatim Comment: What can be done to (1 to 5) (-10 to 10) make the organization an even better place to work? I am satisfied with the level of teamwork provided I enjoy the collaboration between the project managers, instructional designers, artists, by others in theIndividual D 5 6 programmers, and QA specialists. I also like the organization outside relaxed work environment and how we pitch in of my immediate when other artists are swamped with work. workgroup/ department. The autonomy to do my job and the support I Within the scope of receive to provide excellent service to our client my job I have the units. I feel my supervisors beliefs are in line with mine in regards to providing assistance appropriate level ofIndividual E 5 9 beyond our sample data collection mission. For freedom to use my instance, I am free and encouraged to provide own judgment and expertise to clients that not only makes our take action. services more valuable but also improves the unit.Now, consider the negative effect these items can have on progress. Note how these individuals’negative responses related to these items might negatively affect their perception of their progress. Table 2: Key Drivers and Representative Negative Comments Item Item Rating Net Progress Verbatim Comment: What can be done to (1 to 5) (-10 to 10) make the organization an even better place to work? Address concerns and desires that are identified At work my ideas by the employee . . . overall, this organizationIndividual V and views seem to 2 -4 has become the single most dissatisfying, count. disheartening, and demotivating workplace that I have ever experienced. The organization In my experience the management of my does a good job of organization promises many things to the client and then does not provide the resources or setting customerIndividual W 2 -2 managerial support to get them done, which expectations at the means that we are always behind schedule and outset of an under budget and cutting corners. This leads to assignment. a high stress work environment. I am able to People do not take ownership of their maintain an responsibilities, thus making others take on more than they should. Some people get to go effective balanceIndividual X 2 -6 home on time, the rest struggle to keep the boat between my afloat for the good of all. Managements role in personal life and my trying to get everything done well at once work life. results in nothing done well.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 5
Item Item Rating Net Progress Verbatim Comment: What can be done to (1 to 5) (-10 to 10) make the organization an even better place to work? This year . . . has brought disrespect to our I am satisfied with business unit as well as outright inflammatory the level of language and frustration/defensiveness on teamwork provided collective conference calls etc. Corporate by others in the finance office has lack of knowledge of theirIndividual Y 1 -9 organization outside accounting software and doesnt take advice of my immediate from my 8 years of experience. Customer workgroup/ requests are being ignored, showing lack of responsiveness as well as outright disrespect for department. deadlines. Within the scope of The bureaucracy is a constant obstacle to my job I have the meeting customer needs - the workers are made appropriate level of to support the bureaucrats rather than the otherIndividual Z 1 -8 freedom to use my way around. Among other things, this results in own judgment and us having a ridiculously high overhead take action. multiplier, which makes us cost-uncompetitive.Barriers to Making ProgressWe noted earlier the importance of +5 days of net progress, the point at which high engagementbecomes most prevalent among the engagement levels. We asked respondents to select five barriersfrom a list of 25 that have the largest impact on their productivity. We then compared the results ofindividuals with less than 5 days of net progress with individuals with greater than 5 days of netprogress. The following table shows those barriers that present the largest gap between each set ofindividuals. Table 3: Key Barriers Preventing +5 Net Progress % of Respondents Mentioning Barrier as an Issue Net Progress = +5 Days or More Net Progress = Less Than +5 Days Gap (n=2778) (n=3161)Responding to crises 9.5% 20.2% 10.7%Lack of clear priorities/goals 5.9% 16.5% 10.6%Miscommunication among 9.2% 18.1% 8.9%work groups/departmentsContinual need to seekdecisions or approval from 6.3% 15.0% 8.7%higher authorityLack of information 11.7% 20.3% 8.6%Consider 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.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 6
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 2 Disengaged Population 250 Number of Employees 200 150 100 50 0 -10 -9 -8 -7 -6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Net ProgressAs seen in the chart above, 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, and 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.Implications 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” on them, 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 expectations correlates with net progress. A poorly written set of requirements, an underwhelming service© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 7
level agreement, or an inability to hold customers to what was agreed to at the outset of a project can result in rework, overwork, and a seemingly infinite cycle of frustration. Make work meaningful and rewarding to the employee. Work to match employee career and role expectations to work they are performing. Most people accept job offers based on their expectations of what the job will entail. When people find themselves in roles other than they expect, they may find the work less meaningful than that which they originally intended to pursue. This disconnect between expectations and roles can lead employees toward the perception that they are not making meaningful progress. Maximize autonomy whenever possible. Ensure employees feel they can make decisions that allow them to move forward without a burdensome approval process. Amabile and Kramer note that their model manager “checks in with,” and does not “check up on” his or her team. Our survey findings reveal, in both barriers and item ratings, the importance of empowerment as it relates to progress. From an employee perceiving that he or she must waste time while awaiting approval to an employee feeling demotivated by a perceived lack of responsibility, a lack of employee empowerment can stall progress. Promote teamwork among departments. Particularly in large, complex projects, teamwork among departments is crucial for moving forward effectively. Missed deadlines, overburdened team members, and a perception of inequitable workload are consequences of poor teamwork. Managers should advocate for their team and work with other departments’ management to ensure accountability and an equitable distribution of workload. Focus on what has been achieved. Engaging managers focus on positive outcomes rather than negatives. Focus on what has been done more than what has not been done to create an atmosphere conducive to rewarding progress. Set short term goals that are achievable. Think in terms of ten day increments. Long term projects can seem interminable, and progress can seem nonexistent. Ensure employees can identify when they have made progress by setting frequent, reachable targets. Ensure adequate resources to achieve goals. It is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the time, money, equipment, and social and political capital are appropriately managed in a way that facilitates progress. Remember that some people will remain unsatisfied, regardless of progress. The disengaged will generally remain disengaged, regardless of a manager’s efforts to facilitate progress. Instead of spending resources to facilitate their progress, concentrate on those individuals who are already 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 he or she finds meaningful. The goal is to build a progress-oriented environment which results in higher levels of engagement, and ultimately, higher levels ofperformance.© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 8
About HumanRFounded in 1975, HumanR is a management consulting firm with a focus on organizationaldevelopment. Our goal is to help organizational leaders connect their people to their results – toconnect the dots between data and people, and between people and organizational performance.Since 1996 we have had a presence on the web, performing employee engagement surveys andproviding customized 360s for leadership development. Over this period we have enhanced our servicesby developing a variety of unique value adds, including our proprietary engagement index, ournormative databases, 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 about this white paper, please contact either:Burgess Levin Mike McDermott, PhD Matt EvansSenior Executive Consultant Managing Principal, Talent Development Senior ConsultantBlevin@humanr.com email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org(703) 435-5911 x102 (703)435-5911 x118 (703) 435-5911 x114© 2012, HumanR 1031 Sterling Road, STE 203, Herndon, VA 20170 Page 9
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