The Power of the Attaboy

Workers like work.

In my consulting and education work with police, I do a lot of listening.  One theme I hear over and over again from working cops is that their preferred reward for doing good work is to be allowed to do better and more interesting work.

Workers like to work and they want to feel they are making a difference.  This point seems elusive in the programs of recognition and reward that many organizations conduct.  It is important to recognize heroic acts with proportionate pomp and circumstance.  Everyone likes to receive tokens such as plaques and written accounts heralding their work and the esteem in which they are held by the group.  But such programs require time and attention that often wane. How often do you see an officer of the year/month plaque in a department lobby where the most recent brass name plate was added two years ago.  The worst of these programs get poisoned with organizational politics and favoritism and have negative consequences for all.  They are a high-protein supplement for the cynics.

Leaders can do more good by recognizing the small wins, the ones that occur most frequently.  Chiefs and other leaders only have to be a little imaginative to come up with many ways to offer the performers meaningful rewards, from the well-timed attaboy to the short-term specialized assignments, to the advanced training these officers seek.  Simply giving officers feedback about the progress they are making is equally powerful. That’s how we can get some more performers as well.

There are no financial costs to this line of thinking and practice.  As the leader you will have to invest some time and candlepower.  The dividend to investment ration is huge.

Read more in the following Idea in Brief from the Harvard Business Review.

The Power of Small Wins
by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer

The Idea in Brief

What could be more important for managers than increasing their teams’ productivity? Yet most managers labor under misconceptions about what motivates employees—particularly knowledge workers—to do their best work.

On the basis of more than a decade of research, which included a deep analysis of daily diaries kept by teammates on creative projects, the authors clarify the matter once and for all: What motivates people on a day-to-day basis is the sense that they are making progress.

Managers who take this finding to heart will easily see the corollary: The best thing they can do for their people is provide the catalysts and nourishers that allow projects to move forward while removing the obstacles and toxins that result in setbacks. That is easily said, but for most managers it will require a new perspective and new behaviors. A simple checklist, consulted daily, can help make those habitual.

What is the best way to drive innovative work inside organizations? Important clues hide in the stories of world-renowned creators. It turns out that ordinary scientists, marketers, programmers, and other unsung knowledge workers, whose jobs require creative productivity every day, have more in common with famous innovators than most managers realize. The workday events that ignite their emotions, fuel their motivation, and trigger their perceptions are fundamentally the same.

The Double Helix, James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA, describes the roller coaster of emotions he and Francis Crick experienced through the progress and setbacks of the work that eventually earned them the Nobel Prize. After the excitement of their first attempt to build a DNA model, Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. According to Watson, “Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.” Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.” But when they showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues, they found that their model would not work. Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed. When the duo finally had their bona fide breakthrough, and their colleagues found no fault with it, Watson wrote, “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.” Watson and Crick were so driven by this success that they practically lived in the lab, trying to complete the work.

Throughout these episodes, Watson and Crick’s progress—or lack thereof—ruled their reactions. In our recent research on creative work inside businesses, we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And 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.

The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation. In fact, work motivation has been a subject of long-standing debate. In a survey asking about the keys to motivating workers, we found that some managers ranked recognition for good work as most important, while others put more stock in tangible incentives. Some focused on the value of interpersonal support, while still others thought clear goals were the answer. Interestingly, very few of our surveyed managers ranked progress first.

A Surprise for Managers
In a 1968 issue of HBR, Frederick Herzberg published a now-classic article titled “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” Our findings are consistent with his message: People are most satisfied with their jobs (and therefore most motivated) when those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement.

The diary research we describe in this article—in which we microscopically examined the events of thousands of workdays, in real time—uncovered the mechanism underlying the sense of achievement: making consistent, meaningful progress.

But managers seem not to have taken Herzberg’s lesson to heart. To assess contemporary awareness of the importance of daily work progress, we recently administered a survey to 669 managers of varying levels from dozens of companies around the world. We asked about the managerial tools that can affect employees’ motivation and emotions. The respondents ranked five tools—support for making progress in the work, recognition for good work, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals—in order of importance.

Fully 95% of the managers who took our survey would probably be surprised to learn that supporting progress is the primary way to elevate motivation—because that’s the percentage that failed to rank progress number one. In fact, only 35 managers ranked progress as the number one motivator—a mere 5%. The vast majority of respondents ranked support for making progress dead last as a motivator and third as an influence on emotion. They ranked “recognition for good work (either public or private)” as the most important factor in motivating workers and making them happy. In our diary study, recognition certainly did boost inner work life. But it wasn’t nearly as prominent as progress. Besides, without work achievements, there is little to recognize.

If you are a manager, the progress principle holds clear implications for where to focus your efforts. It suggests that you have more influence than you may realize over employees’ well-being, motivation, and creative output. 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 this article, we share what we have learned about the power of progress and how managers can leverage it. We spell out how a focus on progress translates into concrete managerial actions and provide a checklist to help make such behaviors habitual. But to clarify why those actions are so potent, we first describe our research and what the knowledge workers’ diaries revealed about their inner work lives.

Teresa M. Amabile ( is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the author of Creativity in Context (Westview Press, 1996).

Steven J. Kramer ( is an independent researcher, writer, and consultant in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is a coauthor of “Creativity Under the Gun” (HBR August 2002) and “Inner Work Life” (HBR May 2007). Their book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work is forthcoming from Harvard Business Review Press.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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