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The Ultimate Guide to Putting the Progress Principle in Action

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Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

Management can be fuzzy. Be a good coach. Give actionable feedback. Communicate a clear strategy. Drive results. What are you supposed to do with that? What about applying the Progress Principle? In her TED talk Professor Teresa Amabile states: 

Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The theory is that boosting inner work life improves engagement which leads to higher performance and job satisfaction. That sounds great, but how exactly do you do that? Below are 50+ specific actions that managers can take to apply the Progress Principle. Some will focus on progress, others on meaningful work, and some on both. They’re organized by management activities to help you find actions for a specific context.

How to use this guide

The goal was to provide tons of content; you’ll probably find yourself skimming and that’s okay! I suggest skimming to see if anything catches your eye and using this as a reference the next time you’re planning your next 1-1, team meeting, or looking for ways to support your team.

Actions for 1-1 meetings

1-1 meetings allow managers to have deep and personal conversations with each member of their team. These conversations offer great opportunities to apply the Progress Principle.

  • Have a career conversation related to career progress.
    • Where do they stand with regards to their next role? What are the gaps they need to close to get there?
    • What kind of career progress are they looking for? Are they more interested in rockstar or superstar growth?
    • How important is promotion to the next role for them?
    • What are their career goals?
    • What are their personal and mastery goals?
    • What work are they most interested in right now?
    • What are they most interested in learning right now?
  • Have a conversation related to recognition.
    • How do they prefer to be recognized?
    • When was the last time they felt appreciated at work? What made them feel that way?
  • Ask questions related to progress and small wins.
    • How can we make more progress on their goals?
    • What are they doing when they feel they’re making the most progress?
    • What have they been doing to keep track of progress?
    • What small wins have they had since the last meeting?
    • What small win has been the most rewarding recently?
    • When was the last time they felt stuck? What did they do to get unstuck?
    • What helps them feel a sense of progress?
  • Ask questions to gather and share feedback.
    • Who has been doing great work lately?
    • If you had to recognize one person for their recent work, who would it be? What made you pick them?
  • Ask them to give others direct feedback.
    • When they share feedback for others, ask them if they would be opposed to sharing the feedback with the person directly.
    • What’s a piece of feedback you have for someone else on the team? How do you feel about sharing it with them?
  • Ask questions to coach people on giving feedback.
    • What did it sound/feel like the last time you gave someone feedback?
    • What do you think makes feedback effective and actionable?
    • What’s a recent piece of feedback that you didn’t share? What kept you from sharing it?
  • Have a coaching conversation on one of these topics:
    • Tracking work and accomplishments.
    • Creating short-term goals (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly) and tracking progress.
    • Proactively seeking feedback on progress.
    • Building a habit of reflection and appreciation for the work accomplished.
    • Celebrating small wins.
  • Ask questions to appreciate work.
    • What recent work are you most proud of?
    • What strength/skill do you feel you recently demonstrated?
    • What was the best day you’ve had at work recently? What was it like?
    • What’s your favorite thing about being on this team?
  • Ask questions about what makes work meaningful to them:
    • What did you like most about working on that project?
    • When have you felt the most energized or in flow? What were you working on?
    • What would you like to learn right now?
    • What makes work meaningful to you?
    • What motivates you to come to work every day?
    • When was the last time you felt unmotivated? What made you feel that way?
    • What are some of your personal goals outside of work?
    • What is something outside of work that you’re passionate about?
    • What do you like to do for fun?
    • If you could wave a magic wand and work on anything, what would it be?
    • On a scale of 1-10, how meaningful is the work you’ve done lately? What would have to change for that number to be higher?
    • What recent project have you enjoyed working on the most? What did you enjoy about it?
  • Ask questions to learn more about their values and world view.
    • What do you think would be a good value for our team/company? What makes you say that?
    • What’s an event from your childhood or education that had a profound impact on you?
    • Which one of our corporate values resonates the most with you? What about it resonates with you?
  • Ask for feedback for yourself and the team.
    • What’s one thing I could do better?
    • If you were in my shoes what would you do differently?
    • What’s one thing you think our team should do differently?
    • How can we improve our team performance?
  • Ask questions to frame work as a learning problem
    • What did we learn from that?
    • How could we improve this in the future?
    • How can we set this up as an experiment?
  • Check-in on their current career goals and development plan.
    • Update them or get updates on progress.
    • Coach them on committing to a next step to make progress.

Actions for communication that can happen outside of 1-1 meetings

As great as 1-1 meetings are, managers should try to infuse progress and meaning into as many conversations and communications as possible. While some of these are still better in a 1-1 conversation (e.g. giving redirecting feedback), they don’t have to be confined to your scheduled 1-1 meetings. Also, look for opportunities to apply the Progress Principle in your written communication, whether it’s chat, email, or a document.

  • Discuss projects and opportunities that are happening throughout the team and organization.
  • Give feedback on how they’re progressing toward their goals.
  • Give feedback when you see them at their best or energized.
    • Follow up to learn more about what they were doing at the time.
  • Communicate the meaning of their work
    • Talk about the impact on the business and how it relates to corporate and/or department goals.
    • Share performance metrics (e.g. number of users, views, downloads, reviews, etc.)
    • Point out what experience/skills they will get from this work.
    • Share the challenge the team is tackling, not just the work that needs to be done.
    • Set up a meeting to meet the people that will benefit from their work.
    • Share feedback from users.
  • Communicate common goals that the team is working towards.
  • Build rapport with each of your team members.
    • Meaningful relationships make work more meaningful. Here’s an article with suggestions on how to build rapport.
  • Open up to your team
    • Share vulnerability
      • It doesn’t have to be your deepest secrets. You can share some of your challenges, admit mistakes, apologize, ask for help, or admit that you’re unsure.
      • Talk about your family and your hobbies. Even if it’s high level, knowing the names of your family, pets, or a favorite hobby makes a difference!
    • Share your own goals and why work is meaningful to you.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate a recent small win. Even a quick word or two can go a long way.
    • If appropriate, connect the small win to a goal or career progress.
  • Point out project progress, even when it’s slow.
    • Being stuck is the opposite of progress. Slow progress can be less apparent. Use your context and experience to point it out.   

Actions for team meetings and team communication

Team meetings and communications are great for communicating progress and conveying meaning to the entire team. The Progress Principle can be more effective if it’s applied at both the individual and group level.   

  • Dedicate a portion of a team meeting to sharing and celebrating small wins.
  • Create a ritual for people to share small wins (e.g. share small wins in a dedicated Slack channel, track small wins on a board, or create a small wins report).
  • Share feedback in team meetings
    • Share individual praise/shout-outs and team criticism. Keep the individual criticism for 1-1 conversations.
  • Communicate why feedback is important.
  • Ask for feedback.
    • What are we doing well?
    • What could we be doing better?
  • Share feedback that you’ve received and what you plan to do about it.
  • Send a survey to gather feedback for yourself and the team.
    • Discuss the results and how to turn them into action.
  • Use sprint or project retrospectives to gather feedback.
    • How meaningful is the current work?
    • How much progress has been made?
    • What could be done better?
    • What wins should be celebrated?
  • Celebrate completed work.
  • Share reports/dashboards that display progress towards goals.
  • Update the team on the progress of projects and other initiatives.

Actions related to assigning work

The simple advice is to assign meaningful work. That’s vague and can seem daunting if you’re looking at a pile of TPS reports. We can apply the Progress Principle by being thoughtful about how we communicate, choose, and structure work.

  • Delegate work that provides an opportunity for career growth (e.g. allows them to work on a skill they need to improve, reach a particular milestone, or acquire knowledge and experience they need).
  • Point out the impact on their career progress when delegating additional responsibility. This may sound like:
    • “I’d like you to help out mentoring an intern this summer. This will allow you to work on technical mentoring skills which are needed for the next role.”
    • “You’ve made progress on your delivery skills which is why we think you’re ready to lead this project.”
  • Break down tasks and goals into a series of smaller goals/milestones.
    • Aim for a steady rhythm of starting and completing tasks to better convey progress.
  • Build telemetry into your products
    • Collect usage and performance data.
    • Build reports and dashboards to display metrics.
  • Assign a task or project that is meaningful to them. Examples of what to look for:
    • A milestone helpful for their next promotion.
    • A project with impact that has meaning to them.
    • A new technology or skill they’re interested in.
    • A project that allows them to expand their network or collaborate with a friend or a mentor.
    • A project with high visibility.
    • A project that they came up with.
    • A project that gives them new responsibility.
  • Write down all the tasks currently on your plate and look for ones that you can delegate.
  • Assign non-project tasks that are meaningful to them such as:
    • Recruiting.
    • Mentoring.
    • Team building.
    • Leading meetings.
    • Volunteering.
    • Training.
    • Presenting.
  • Increase autonomy
    • Let them choose what to work on.
    • Ask them what they think the team should work on next.
    • Define what success looks like and give them the freedom to do it how they want.
    • Involve them in decisions regarding their work, the earlier the better.

Actions for proactive management

Management can feel like you’re jumping from one fire to another and always fighting to catch your breath. One of the best ways to stay on top of it is to spend time each week in proactive management activities.

  • Schedule time on your calendar (1-4 hours a week) to proactively manage your team.
  • Create a development plan for each team member to close the gaps to their next role.
  • Talk to your manager and your network to look for growth opportunities for your team.
    • Ask about new projects/initiatives that are starting up.
    • Ask about any projects that match a growth opportunity for one of your team members.
  • Set a goal for your team, one of your team members, or yourself.
    • Use a framework like SMART goals or OKRs to make the goals measurable.
    • Aim for shorter, more frequent goals.
  • Look through your team’s current goals.
    • Update how they’re progressing.
    • Decide on next steps to make progress.
    • Plan conversations to discuss the goals.
  • Setup skip level meetings to increase the flow of feedback and build relationships.
  • Ask for 360 feedback for yourself or your team members.
  • Plan a survey to gather feedback.
  • Set learning goals associated with an execution task.
    • Look at your current deliverables and come up with at least one learning goal for each of them.
  • Look through your 1-1 meeting notes
    • Follow up on your action items.
    • Look for opportunities to convey progress or meaning in your next meeting.
  • Prep for your upcoming 1-1 meetings
    • What questions can you ask that support the Progress Principle?
    • What feedback can you share to convey progress?
  • Build connection and relatedness
    • Organize a team event
      • These can be in person or virtual.
    • Set up peer 1-1s for people to get to know each other better.
      • A few prompts to get people started with peer 1-1s:
        • Get to know each other as humans. Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun?
        • Get to know what the other does at work. What is their day to day like? What is their current top priority?
        • Explore current challenges. What are some of your current challenges? How will you make progress? How have you approached something like this in the past?
    • Organize an event with another team or teams.
    • Make an introduction to someone in your network.

Parting Thoughts

Progress: Forward or onward movement towards a destination.

Meaning: Important or worthwhile quality; purpose

The Progress Principle is all about infusing progress and meaning into daily work. It’s about keeping progress and meaning top of mind and taking action. I hope this reference guide is helpful. I’m sure it’s incomplete, if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

Further reading:

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