What We're Into: Inner Work Life and Meaningful Progress

"It's not personal; it's business." Traditional workplaces are built around this belief that emotions and personal details have no place in a "professional" setting (whether it's said out loud or not). It's often assumed that people work best under pressure, and that hiding genuine reactions and concerns is necessary to maintain favor and get ahead.
 
But work is personal. It's part of life. We spend most of our days focused on it, and it involves relationships and mental challenges and rewards and disappointments. What's going on inside someone's head directly affects how they perform and interact at work. Leaders' ability to create positive environments for their employees isn't just respectful to the individuals; it's essential for the company to succeed long-term.
 
People's personal reactions to work situations represent what researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer call "inner work life." Amabile and Kramer wrote the 2011 book The Progress Principle based on an extensive study, including soliciting daily personal narratives from participants about their work. The book defines inner work life as a combination of emotions, perceptions, and motivation, all of which influence how people feel about their jobs and how well they perform at work.
 
In the previous "What We're Into" post, we discussed the idea that today's workplace has to allow people to be self-driven, because employees are most creative and productive when they're intrinsically motivated. That's the thesis of Daniel Pink's book Drive
 
Pink says that personal motivation is fueled by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. People must have the freedom to make their own decisions, have opportunities to learn and improve their skills, and be able to connect to a cause larger than themselves. Amabile and Kramer's central idea is similar: They conclude that people's inner work life  which includes motivation and directly affects performance  depends on their ability to make progress in meaningful work.
 
"Meaningful" doesn't mean that the work has to save lives or change the world. Work is meaningful if employees feel that it benefits someone (including their family or coworkers) and that they're contributing to a larger whole. In the personal narratives written as part of Amabile and Kramer's research, employees expressed excitement and fulfillment when they cracked a tough problem, collaborated with a team to achieve a major goal, or helped develop a new product. When their work was belittled or blocked by obstacles, it took a grim toll on their inner work life. Simply being able to move forward reinforces people's confidence in their own abilities and helps them persevere through challenges.
 
Taken together, the findings analyzed in Drive and The Progress Principle make clear that the process of work is essential to creativity and productivity. People work best when they find joy and fulfillment in the task itself. And they work best when they are making tangible progress toward a goal. 
 
To open up and highlight the way that successful thinkers make progress in their work, the rest of this month's posts on Connect the Grey will share research, resources, and conversations about the creative process. Later in July, we invite you to join us as our Explorations series looks at the behind-the-scenes process at craft breweries: Modist Brewing in Minneapolis on July 21 and Oswald Brewing in Blue Earth, MN on July 27
 
For more on The Progress Principle and the concept of inner work life, visit Teresa Amabile's website!