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The Motivating Power of Progress

March 29, 2017

Work In Progress

The Problem

Seventy percent of workers are disengaged from their work employer. Leaders everywhere are looking for an answer to the question: “what makes employees engaged with and motivated to do more work.” there is a lot of research around this question. Five workplace factors regularly pop up as having an impact on employee motivation. They are recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress, and clear goals. Managers regularly rank “Recognition for good work (either public or private)” as the number one way to motivate employees to do more activities at work.

According to Harvard Business Review those managers are wrong.

Walk a Mile in an Employee’s Shoes

Harvard researchers conducted a “multiyear study tracking the day-to-day activities, emotions, and motivation levels of hundreds of knowledge workers in a wide variety of settings”. They wanted to answer the question from an employees perspective. They found that the top motivator of performance was progress. 

Employees want to leave their job at the end of a day knowing they achieved something. They relish knowing they have advanced towards a target, overcome challenges and helped the company achieve its business goals. This is when their drive to be successful is at its highest. Motivation is at its lowest when they feel they cannot make more steps towards their goals, they are stopped by red tape or other obstacles and they have no idea how the company is progressing.

How this Research Helps Managers

There is clearly a difference in what managers think is important for motivation and what employees want to happen in their work day. Both views sit within the five key factors for motivation. Better than this is that the key to motivation is within a manager’s control. Best of all motivation is not dependent on elaborate and costly incentive plans.

So there are some Do’s and Dont’s around how managers can facilitate or hinder their employees progress.

Managerial Motivational Do’s

  • provide meaningful goals, that are clear, concise and help define purpose for their role within the company
  • allocate enough resources to get a project or a task done
  • be generous with encouraging individuals and teams so they feel supported to undertake and complete the activity,
  • remove obstacles so they can perform at their peak level, and
  • most of all, protect them from unnecessary distractions to their time and work effort.

Managerial Motivational Don’ts

  • change goals so that staff are unclear of what they should try and achieve
  • re-prioritize tasks so that employees find it difficult to develop proficiency in certain areas
  • focus on the negatives. Employees will go the extra mile for a manager who helps them develop their skills and offers praise for a job well done.

How to Show Progress

Leaderboards are an effective way to show an individual employees progress against a business activity. The progress can show as a percentage on a progress bar as well as a raw score for activities completed, be they lead activities such as phone calls or lag indicators of success such as sales or deals won. The leaderboard can also highlight employees who are doing great work by singling them out from the pack and highlighting their good work. Leaderboards can be set up to celebrate milestones and achievements along the way, so that individuals and the team feel good about what they are doing.

Displaying this information on a TV in the office enables all company stakeholders to be included in the progress of business results and to celebrate with the team.


As a manager you are responsible for the engagement and motivation of your employees. You are accountable for their task completion inline with business goals and objectives. Understanding where they get their motivation is part of your role as a manager. Enabling their progress is also part of your role as a manager. Ensure the time for the task matched the effort required so people do not feel under pressure. Also be prepared to be a doer as well as a manager and pitch in to help the individual or the team on some occasions.

What about recognition? Managers thought was the prime motivation factor. It is in fact very important. Managers should celebrate progress, even the small milestones along the way to a bigger target. Engage, Motivate and Excite your team.

Put those insights into practice.

Set your team up for success by improving their performance through gamification.

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