Book Review: The Progress Principle

October 19, 2011

I first heard of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins To Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer at Bob Sutton’s blog, where he called it “a masterpiece every manager should own.” I got my copy of the book free from the publicist. I don’t think it is a masterpiece, but I do think it is the most important evidence-based management book I’ve read this year; consequently, I do think every manager should strongly consider moving this book to the top of their reading list.

The book focuses on something the authors call the inner work life effect: “people do better work when they are happy, have positive views of the organization and its people, and are motivated primarily by the work itself.” (p, 47). They go so far as to claim their research shows “as inner work life goes, so goes the company.” (p. 3). That’s a bold claim that I’m not sure is supported by the data in their one study; however, I do believe it is supported numerous related studies on employee attitudes, emotions, motivation, and performance published in leading peer-reviewed journals over the last 30 years.

The book also highlights the power of events that are part of every workday. The power of events is great news for us as managers, because we can take planned, systemic action to control events that impact the inner work lives of our employees. Here are the main points that the book explains in detail (pp 8-9):

1. The types of events – what we call the key three – stand out as particularly potent forces supporting inner work life, in this order: progress in meaningful work; catalysts (events that directly help people work); and nourishers (interpersonal events that uplift people doing the work).

2. The primacy of progress among the key three influences on inner work life is that we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work.

3. The negative forms – or absence of – the key three events powerfully undermine inner work life: setbacks in the work, inhibitors (events that directly hinder project work); and toxins (interpersonal events that undermine the people doing the work).

4. Negative events are more powerful than positive events, all else being equal.

5. Even seemingly mundane events – such as small wins and minor setbacks – can exert potent influence on inner work life.

The authors admit that their research does not establish causality – which is very difficult to accomplish. “Were all of these inner work life changes caused by daily progress and setbacks, or might some of them have caused progress or setbacks in the first place? There is no way of knowing from the numerical data alone.” (p. 79).

I love the concept of catalysts: events that support progress and positive inner work life. The authors identified seven consistently effective catalysts (pp 104-105): 1) Set clear goals; 2) Allow autonomy; 3) Provide resources; 4) Give enough time, but not too much; 5) Help with the work; 6) Learn from problems and successes; and 7) Allow ideas to flow. Please note these ideas are not new they can be found in one form or another in most contemporary approaches to leadership and are evidence-based.

The book also provides a very helpful daily progress checklist that you can use to review your daily managerial actions and plan for the next day. I think it is brilliant. I concur with the authors when they state:

The aim of the checklist is managing for meaningful progress, because that is your real job inside the organization. This may require a significant mind-shift. Business schools, business books, and managers themselves usually conceptualize management as managing organizations or managing people. But if you focus on daily progress in meaningful work, managing people and the entire organization will become much more feasible. (pp. 174-175).

This book is packed with both sound philosophy and evidence-based advice. Anyone and everyone can benefit by reading this book, because “whatever your level in your organization, even if you lead only by your work as a good colleague, you bear some responsibility for the inner work lives of the people around you…you can become a better contributor to the climate and success of your organization. (p. 181).

Related Posts:

Evidence For The Causes And Consequences Of Work Engagement

Meaningful Work: The Role Of Servant Leadership

Empowering Work Relationships

About the Author:

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Chris Ziomek says:

    Hi Bret. I appreciate the book recommendation and will give it a read. As you note, much of may not be new but it is always good to be reminded of best practices. I especially like the comment: “you bear some responsibility for the inner work lives of the people around you…you can become a better contributor to the climate and success of your organization.” We all need to keep this in mind. Everyone affects the culture of an organization.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    A great point, Chris, we often do need to be reminded of what we might already know. We all have more power than we think. Our behavior affects those around us, and that can affect the organization. Thanks! Bret

  2. Evergreen says:


    I’m not sure if you’ve seen this viral episode of a young man quitting his job with the celebratory band in the background
    (see details in description) or not, but this post mentions negative events are powerful. Is there room in the research and book that include negative public events, such as Joey’s, which can generate progress?



    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Have not seen that video, thanks for sharing! In the course of daily work, negative events are usually, well, negative. But pain can be a necessary source of growth. Thanks! Bret

  3. Argancel says:

    Wow. I just subscribed to your RSS several days ago, and now you have posted a review on the book I just bought. 🙂

    This book reminds me of another book i have read called “mood mapping”, where the author is also looking for what causes a good mood(which in turns gives good productivity and creativity), this time in the private life.

    Did you also notice the mood mapping trend in the personal development field ?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Argancel, and thanks for following my blog. I’ve not heard of mood mapping. Hope you enjoy reading The Progress Principle! Bret