Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Principle of Progress

Initially, I started this blog partly as a way to vent about the things that I didn't like about my bosses. For a number of reasons, mostly because no one wants to read whiney rants about people they don't know, I stopped blogging and moved on for a few years. Now that I've moved on from that organization--and grown up a little--I am starting this blog back up again as a way to share my thoughts on nonprofit management, relevant ideas on nonprofit management and just generally things that I find interesting.

A note about the name: At the time, I had a boss and a co-worker that earned the nicknames Yoda and the Weed Whacker. Yoda, because he spoke in cryptic terms that sounded intelligent but were ultimately meaningless. The Weed Whacker because he was like a weed whacker going full speed, knocking things down and moving on. The two worked together to form a rather difficult team for other employees to work with since, well, nothing got done except a lot of damage.

Which brings me to my first post about progress in the workplace. In their book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer show how it is the little things in the workplace that can have the biggest impact on employee performance. After surveying 238 employees in 7 companies (for a total of 12,000 cumulative days), Amabile and Kramer found out:
1)      That inner work life is dynamic and very complex;
2)      "Inner work life influences people's performance on four dimensions: creativity, productivity, work commitment and collegiality."
3)      A company's strategy is deeply impacted by the performance of the employee's executing it
4)      Inner work life is influenced by the day to day experience of an employee
5)      "Inner work life matters deeply to employees."

Their research led them to three main conclusions:
1)      There are three types of events that matter most to employees: progress; catalysts, and nourishers.
2)      Progress is the most powerful influencer of people's inner work life;
3)      That the negative forms of the events are equally powerful: setbacks, inhibitors and toxins ("interpersonal events that undermine the people doing the work.")

The Progress Principal is a powerful influencer of people's work, so much so that it can make or break a company, project and employee retention. Their findings lead them to believe that most of the things that managers think motivate people to do their best work are at best minimally influential and at their worst harmful to employee performance.

For most of the employees surveyed, it was the small wins that made the most difference in determining whether they are making progress rather the big wins where their contribution can get lost. But that is not to say that people don't like making big wins, only that it is the accumulation of small wins that makes the biggest difference.

What this means for nonprofit managers:

Because nonprofits are inherently more cost conscious with tight budgets, inability to pay high salaries and low to no bonuses, the other factors that motivate people to top performance are even more important. Promoting inner work life, supporting progress through small wins, can be the main driver for satisfied employees and high productivity. In fact, high pay is of little or not use to most employees in determining their satisfaction and productivity at work.

This is extremely important on the development side of the organization. Anecdotally the average tenure for a development professional is just 18 months, even though it can take up to 18 months just to get up to speed. Why is that? In my experience, few managers truly understand what is that the development office does, how they do it and what motivates to keep working to achieve their goals. It isn't simply getting the money that motivates gift officers to strive for more money to fund the operation's mission. It is the small wins that can make all of the difference but which are rarely celebrated or encouraged.

For instance, in human services organizations, it can be extremely difficult to get donors to make meetings so that gift officers and senior leaders can get to know their donors better. Donor's are generally "happy with the work, but [I] don't need a meeting. Just glad to support your mission." But very few managers celebrate the small win appropriately whether directly or indirectly. Often the gift officer is constantly pushed to make an unreasonable amount of meetings, never get told "no" for any reason and always ask for outrageous amounts of money without proper cultivation. Instead of encouraging gift officers to continually keep learning (this will be a whole other post) when they face setbacks or difficulties, managers often just see failure and lose confidence in their gift officer's ability to perform.

For years, I was baffled that only big gifts were celebrated, but the small gifts that totaled a larger number were just ignored or shrugged off as just "$1,000." I can't tell you how many times I've been told, "Just $1,000? But we asked for $10,000!" Rather than celebrating the win (that $1,000 might have taken just as much work as the $10,000 gift) mangers can intentionally or unintentionally  put down the gift officer's work. When the majority of gifts are smaller, even though the larger gifts make up more of the revenues, putting down the smaller wins is extremely discouraging to your gift managers. Managers might not realize that they put down 995 gifts and only celebrate the 5 larger gifts, but from the gift officer's perspective it's 995 discouraging events.

It's no wonder that they leave! Always searching for that one manager who gets it. That one organization that rewards the small wins AND the big ones when goals are met.

This applies equally to operations and program staff as much as the development staff. Whether it's always harping on the clients we can't help, or the events that ran smoothly but could have used a little tweaking, managers have to pay attention to reinforcing the small wins and minimizing the small losses.

In further posts I will continue to review the Progress Principle for ways that managers can promote the small wins and learn how to help employees get through the difficulties they face.