As a startup CEO, your interpersonal skills are only a small part of what is needed to manage and motivate your team. Providing recognition, incentives, and clear goals are not enough. A key component of employee satisfaction and motivation is visible forward progress and the completion of meaningful work. Sometimes you have to manage progress, not people.
“Busy work” and “grunt work” are deadly terms in a startup environment. So are setbacks, project cancellations, and frequent changes of direction that make people doubt that the work they are doing will ever see the light of day. These points are illustrated in detail in “The Progress Principle,” a new book from the Harvard Business School, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.
They explain that work progress and setbacks matter so much because one of the most basic human drives is toward a person’s belief that he or she is individually capable of planning and executing the tasks required to achieve desired goals (self-efficacy).
Negative events cause uncertainty, doubt, or confusion in people’s sense of themselves, and lowers their motivation for the work. In fact, an analysis of thousands of detailed logs from employees show that setbacks have more power to sway work satisfaction than progress:
- The effect of setbacks on emotions is stronger than the effect of progress. The power of setbacks to diminish happiness appears to be more than twice as strong as the power of progress to boost happiness. The power of setbacks to increase frustration is more than three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration.
- Small losses can overwhelm small wins. The asymmetry between the power of setbacks and progress events appears to apply even to relatively minor triggers. Similarly, small everyday hassles hold more sway than small everyday assists. Any manager’s job description should start with facilitating subordinates progress every day.
- Negative leader behaviors affect work satisfaction for everyone. Managers should avoid actions that negate the value of work in progress. One way is dismissing a team member’s work, or changing priorities arbitrarily, or inadequate communication. Don’t assign people who are clearly unqualified, or over-qualified, to a task.
- Failure to facilitate progress and remove obstacles. Consistent daily progress by individual employees fuels both the success of the organization and the quality of those employees inner work lives. This progress principle should be the driving force and the number one objective of every leader.
- Other types of negative events – not just setbacks – are more powerful than their mirror-image positive events. Based on employee logs, the connection between mood and negative events is about five times stronger than the connection between mood and positive events. Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive actions.
People often say, “it’s business, it’s not personal.” But work is personal. If people feel capable, then they see difficult problems as positive challenges and opportunities to succeed. Put another way, they develop a “sense of empowerment.” This need grows throughout their career as people compare their achievement with those of their peers as well as their own “personal best.”
As an example, entrepreneurs often have great difficulty relinquishing top leadership positions when their companies have grown beyond their own management capacities, because they have invested so much of their personal identities in what they have built.
In many cases, only you as the founder can remove barriers to progress, such as meaningless tasks and toxic relationships, before they disrupt employee motivation and productivity. Only you can activate the positive forces that enable progress, including “catalysts” and “nourishers.” Start today in your own startup, to eliminate the negatives, as well as accentuate the positive.