3 Ways to Tap Into the Power of Progress

April 18, 2019 Jason Lauritsen

I have coached my sons in basketball for years. 

Trying to teach young kids to play together in a way that resembles basketball is no easy feat.

Getting six- and seven-year-old boys to pay attention and focus on the task at hand is the first challenge. So I’ve always tried new things in attempts to find drills or exercises that seemed to motivate the kids to focus and learn. 

One of the most successful experiments I remember trying was a passing drill. I lined the boys up in two lines facing each other. Their task was to pass the ball back and forth in a zigzag pattern from one end of the line to the other without dropping it. I challenged them to do it as fast as they could. 

When I first introduced the drill, the boys didn’t take it too seriously. Some kids would pass the ball so hard the other player couldn’t catch it. Others thought it was funny to throw a pass that the other player couldn’t catch.

But then I added the element of time. I took out a stopwatch and told them that I was going to time how fast they could complete the drill. Suddenly, their little faces showed some signs of determination.

The next time through, they got the ball from one end to the other successfully. We all cheered and celebrated how much better they had done.

After telling them their time, I challenged them to go faster. We ran the drill again and they went faster the next time. We celebrated and did it a few more times.

Every time they set a new record, they were so excited. They were motivated by something that drives us all.

Progress.

Dan Pink’s fantastic book, “Drive,” distilled much of the most current research about intrinsic motivation at work into a three-word model. He argued that once we make enough money to take it off the table as a primary concern, we are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

We all desire more agency in how we do our work (autonomy). It also feels good to become proficient at skills that matter to us (mastery). And when we know that our work matters, we do better work (purpose).

Much has been written about these three motivators. But I would argue that there is one powerful motivator missing. It’s what I accidentally tapped into with basketball boys – our desire to make progress.

In his book, “Intrinsic Motivation at Work,” Kenneth Thomas highlights how his research revealed “sense of progress” as a motivator. He describes it this way:

You are encouraged that your efforts are really accomplishing something. You feel that your work is on track and moving in the right direction. You see convincing signs that things are working out, giving you confidence in the choices you have made and confidence in the future.

We are driven by the desire to move forward, to mark and experience progress towards a desired future state.

When designing work and programs to unlock employee motivation, don’t overlook the potential of recognizing progress. Here are a few ideas to consider.

  1. Celebrate incremental improvements. It’s common to become so focused on our annual goals that we fail to recognize when small progress is made. I think about my boys’ basketball team and how motivated they were to simply go a little bit faster than they had before. If you have a recognition program, does it have a mechanism for celebrating progress? How can you recognize someone for being better than they were yesterday or last week? If the answers to these questions aren’t clear, then you probably have an opportunity to cultivate more progress-driven motivation at work.
  2. Make progress visual. Many years ago, my employer participated in a corporate challenge against other companies to see which company could donate the most food to the local food bank. One of the tools used to track progress was an image drawn on a poster board that looked like a thermometer. It started at zero and had an audacious goal at the top. Each day, the “bar” in the center of the image would be colored in to show how many more donations had come in. The bar slowly climbed upward towards the goal. The team became obsessed with watching that bar climb and it motivated people to be both very creative and generous in securing donations. What I remember about this experience is the power of actually “seeing” progress happen. Goals at work, particularly big ones, can feel very abstract and unattainable. Showing progress in a visual way through technology (i.e. % of goal completion on a progress bar) or good old-fashioned poster board can help provide that acknowledgement of progress that motivates you to keep going. 
  3. Ditch the “all or nothing” bonus and rewards programs. I started my career in sales. To this day, I can still remember how demotivating and demoralizing it was to come up just a few dollars short of quota knowing that no commission was coming my way as a result. Ninety-nine percent of the work, zero percent of the reward. I certainly didn’t feel motivated on these days. If you are committed to having incentive-based compensation programs, think about how to use the design of the program to reward progress, not just the ends. You may discover that by incenting progress over a destination, your people may perform well beyond what you expect.

Bottomline, as you look at your programs designed to motivate and reward employees, make sure you aren’t missing out on the power of progress. You might be leaving a lot of potential on the table if you are. 

About the Author

Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen is a global speaker, consultant, and advisor on employee engagement, workplace culture, and performance management.

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