What motivates us? Autonomy Mastery Purpose

A discussion of intrinsic motivation is incomplete without mention of progress based on the work of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer described in their book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

Bar graph showing clear goals as the best workplace motivator
Amabile and Kramer asked managers around the world to rank the most powerful employee motivator. Only 5% of managers ranked the choice, “support for making progress,” in first place. When answering the same question, NDR managers placed “support for making progress” on par with “recognition for good work” in second place after “clear goals.”

The authors introduce an important concept called “Inner-work life” (IWL) which is comprised of an employee’s unique perceptions, emotions, and motivations that help them navigate the workday and make sense of what happens around them. Normally invisible to others including supervisors, inner-work life could also be described as moment-to-moment employee engagement. Employees with positive IWL pay attention, engage in team projects, and hold fast to the goal of doing a good job. Positive IWL drives creativity, productivity, collegiality, and commitment in an upward spiral.

After analyzing over 12,000 daily diary entries of 238 employees at 7 companies, Amabile and Kramer discovered what they named the "Progress Principle," that is, the most significant driver of positive inner work life is making progress in meaningful work. Their analysis revealed that it was not incentives, interpersonal support, recognition, or clear goals that most motivate employees. Employees’ best days were characterized by progress in meaningful work. The reverse was also true. Bad days were laden with setbacks, situations where progress was blocked or the work moved backward in some way.

In addition to progress on meaningful work, Amabile and Kramer posit that managers can improve their employees’ IWL by supporting their work with “catalysts” and creating positive interpersonal events with “nourishers.” (The opposites are “inhibitors” which negatively affect work/projects and “toxins” which negatively affect people.) Many of these catalysts and nourishers will look familiar to those who have been following along with the intrinsic motivation series.

Catalysts to Support the Work: Setting clear goals; allowing autonomy; providing resources; providing sufficient time; helping with the work; learning from problems and successes; and allowing ideas to flow.

Nourishments to Support the Person: Respect; encouragement; emotional support; and affiliation.

Best practices for encouraging progress

  • Set better goals: smaller, more specific goals will allow you and your employees to track and celebrate progress.
  • Point out the progress—however small—when you see it and don’t devalue progress that has been made. Progress will beget more progress.
  • Ask the right questions when coaching employees:
    • What can I do to help?
    • Where would you like your work on this project to be at the end of the week?
    • What is already working that we can build on?
    • What do you see beyond this immediate hurdle? How can I help you to get there?

Resources to support progress


If you have questions or ideas for additional resources in this playbook, please contact the Director of Finance and Administration