Why Managing For Progress is So Important

In 2011, a team of researchers from Stanford and Harvard led by Teresa Amabile collected daily work journals from more than 250 people at large and small companies in a variety of roles. In each journal entry, an employee described one work event that stood out that day. Over the course of a few months, the study received more than 12,000 responses. From all this data, the team revealed a critical ingredient to be a great manager: managing for progress.

To be happy and be fulfilled at work, people want to feel they are advancing, getting things done, and making an impact. But it’s not enough to simply to receive a pat on the back and a word of encouragement. Rather, we respond much more positively to feedback from the work itself. When we have achieved a goal like closing a sale, writing code that passes the test harness and is pushed to production, releasing a new feature that a million users touch every day, our happiness at work blooms.

The best managers craft roles and assign projects that position their teammates to see and feel the result of their work directly. Without this direct or near-direct feedback, it’s easy to feel like we’re all cogs in a machine, and the work we complete disappears into the ether. Even if these are small wins, these tasks create a sense of momentum, progress and fulfillment.

Of course, every person in every company will face setbacks. The ratio of wins to setbacks governs how happy and consequently, how productive team members are. Understanding the impact of loss aversion at work is important to maximizing employee happiness.

Loss aversion, a theory proposed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, shows losing $100 decreases happiness more than a $100 gift increases happiness. Similarly, a setback at work diminishes employee happiness more than twice as much as a win increases it. To feel great at work, the authors argue employees need twice as many wins as losses, even if those wins are very small. I bet the precise ratio doesn’t matter all that much, it’s more the general feeling of more wins than losses.

The research opened my eyes to the importance in crafting a role in the right way and also underscoring the importance of managing employee’s win vs setback rate to make sure teams are performing well. After all, progress is the antidote to burnout.

Published 2015-02-06 in Management 


Tomasz Tunguz is partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


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