What's the Key to Job Satisfaction? Making Progress

Think quick: What did you accomplish today? If cutting through layers of bureaucracy, attending a handful of unnecessary meetings and sorting through piles of email top your list, chances are you’re not basking in job satisfaction right now — no matter how big your paycheck.

This is likely how your employees are thinking, too. Turns out, stock options, telecommuting or even a company car may not mean much to employees if they feel like they’re not able to accomplish things. In fact, making progress is at the heart of employee satisfaction, according to research by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, who wrote The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press). They collected confidential stories from more than 200 white-collar workers in various industries who logged diary entries during the course of their projects. 

'Making progress'

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Amabile said, “We found that of all the events that characterized the best inner work life days, by far the most prominent was making progress. And of all the events that characterized the worst days, by far the most prominent was setbacks — feeling like you've lost ground on a project.”

As managers, it’s easy to believe that financial incentives, perks and bonuses are the supreme carrot, inspiring employees to perform at their best. But, really, more than anything, employees just want to make a difference. 

A few years ago, when I read about this study, it changed the way I manage people. I paid closer attention to providing timely feedback and eliminating bottlenecks. I spent more time describing the big picture. I started celebrating project milestones, big and small. 

Know what's important

And, yet, when you’re busy, it’s easy for good intentions to slip by the wayside. The feedback loop becomes longer, emails aren’t responded to and projects that might make everyone’s life a little easier get placed on the back burner. 

That’s why I revisit The Progress Principle every once in a while — it’s a good reminder of what’s important. As a manager, you’re like the host at a cocktail party: If you make sure the ice bucket is full, the hors d’oeuvres are circulating and the conversation is flowing, everyone will have a good time. And, better yet, progress will be made. 

What are your top barriers to progress on the job? Provide them in the comments section below.