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Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer: An interview by Bob Morris

Teresa Amabile

Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Originally educated as a chemist, Teresa received her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. She studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. Teresa’s research encompasses creativity, productivity, innovation, and inner work life – the confluence of emotions, perceptions, and motivation that people experience as they react to events at work.

Steven Kramer

Steven Kramer is an independent researcher and writer in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is also co- author of The Progress Principle. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from UCLA, and his doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Virginia. Steve’s current research interests include adult development, the meaning of work in human life, and the subjective experience of everyday events inside organizations (inner work life). Previously, he researched the perceptual and cognitive development of infants and young children.

Morris: Before discussing The Progress Principle, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Amabile: My undergraduate mentors at Canisius College were extremely important in my personal growth. Let me describe one of several. Professor Frank Dinan, a chemist and my research supervisor for several years, helped me think through my love of science, my growing interest in psychology, and implications for my career choices. More than that, he was a model of a principled, intrinsically motivated professional – someone who obviously loved his work, cared about his profession, and nurtured the people around him.

Kramer: It is hard to choose one person. I would have to say that it was a group of women who did volunteer work at a school for children with behavior problems where I worked when I was in my twenties. From them I learned the value of doing meaningful work and the joy and satisfaction that it can bring. And I also learned much about myself and my own value through the contribution that I helped to make in the lives of those children.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Kramer: Another tough one. There are so many, but I will limit it to two people – Studs Terkel and Peter Drucker. Although I wasn’t able to meet either one of them, their work has had a profound effect on my thinking and my feelings about work. Both of them viewed work as something that could and should help to fulfill people’s lives. And they saw the nobility in work of all kinds. My hope is that our work, in its own small way, can build onto the foundation that they built.

Amabile: I think that would be my graduate mentors at Stanford University – psychology professors Mark Lepper (who got me interested in studying motivation, and supported my early explorations of creativity), Lee Ross (who introduced me to the excitement of experimental research on causal attribution), Phil Zimbardo (who helped me learn to teach), and Daryl and Sandy Bem (who modeled passion for their work, superb writing, and balancing family life with professional work).

Morris: Here are two questions for Teresa. First, When and why did you first become so interested in the creative process?

Amabile: As a child, I overheard my kindergarten teacher tell my mother that I showed great potential for artistic creativity. When I failed to show any achievement in art by the end of elementary school, I wondered why. Years later, when I began studying intrinsic motivation at Stanford, it occurred to me that motivational state could be terribly important for creativity – and might depend on the social environment as much as on natural talent. I began to read the creativity literature… and the rest is (my) history.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about creativity?

Amabile: A few myths crop up frequently: creativity is only possible in certain professions (like art or science); creativity depends primarily on talent; creativity thrives under pressure or unhappiness.

Morris: Now three questions for for Steve: In 1924, 3M’s then chairman and CEO, William L. McKnight observed: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” Here’s the first part of the question: What must supervisors do to accommodate both an organization’s need for structure and constraints and its workers’ need for “the room they need”?

Kramer: Supervisors must provide the overall direction for the organization and clearly communicate it their people. But they should do so with input from below. The workers in the trenches are much closer to the customers than management and they have more intimate knowledge of the practical constraints in meeting those goals. The direction of the organization must also be accompanied by a purpose or meaning, since it is meaningful work that engages people in the work. By meaningful work, we simply mean that the work has some meaning or value to the person doing it. It can be a lofty goal like curing cancer, but it can also be as mundane is providing a quality product or a useful service to your customer.

Once supervisors have provided workers with clear goals, they must do two things. First, support them in meeting those goals. Give them the resources and help that they need to succeed for the organization and for themselves. Second, give them the autonomy to use their talents, skills and knowledge in meeting those goals. In other words, check in with your people and find out what they need and, to the extent possible, give it to them. But do not look over their shoulders and tell them how to do their job. This is the difference between “checking-in” and “checking-up.”

Morris: If the results of recent research studies are to be believed, on average, less than 30% of a workforce in the U.S. are positively and productively engaged; the other employees are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively engaged in undermining the company. How do you explain this?

Kramer: There are obviously many reasons for this. But we think that a critical reason is that people are not making steady progress on work that they find meaningful. We found that of all the things that make people happily engaged in their work, the single most important one is simply making progress in meaningful work. We call this discovery the progress principle. Unfortunately, when we surveyed nearly 700 managers from around the world, we found that few understood how important meaningful work is to motivation.

And this problem has been exacerbated by the economic turn down. Companies are cutting back on people and resources, and this is making it much more difficult for people to move forward. Of course, management often has real concerns about costs. But people simply cannot be expected to succeed if they are not given what they need, and this will inevitably hurt both the organization and the people doing the work.

Morris: Opinions are divided – sometimes sharply divided – about 360º feedback. Some favor anonymity, others transparency, and still others want absolutely nothing to do with it. What are your own thoughts about 360º feedback?

Kramer: I think opinions are sharply divided on this because there are both positive and negative aspects to 360º feedback. In organizations where there is a high level of trust and respect, and where 360º feedback is used primarily as a learning tool, it can have a very positive effect. However, when that trust is not there, and where it is used solely to judge people, it will be very negative.

But even when it is used well, it is most often too infrequent. Annual reviews are of little help in fostering the kind of daily progress that fuels engagement in the work. Rather, there needs to be a constant flow of communication moving up and down the organization, where all ideas are listened to and respected – and where people get the support they need.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Progress Principle. When and why did you decide to write it, and write it together?

Amabile: The Progress Principle arose out of a multi-year research program that looked at what really goes on inside the hearts and minds of people at work, and how this affects performance. To study that, we asked 238 professionals working on creative teams to email us a diary form each work day for the length of a project. The form included a number of scale-rated questions about participants’ progress, creativity, moods and perceptions on the day. But the most important data was an open-ended question asking them to describe one event that happened that day that was related in some way to the work. When we were done, we had almost 12,000 of these diaries.

When we analyzed this data, two related findings rose to the top. First, was the inner work life effect. Inner work life is our term for the constant flow of emotions, perceptions and motivations that people experience as they react to and try to make sense of the events that occur throughout the work day. The inner work life effect is the strong influence that inner work life has on performance: creativity, productivity, commitment to the work, and collegiality. The second was the progress principle. These are reciprocal – positive inner work life leads to higher performance, and progress leads to better inner work life.

Kramer: I became involved in the research organically. Teresa and I would talk about her research over dinner and during walks. Soon, I found myself helping with the design and the data analysis, and then coauthoring articles. As we began to see what we had in the data, it became clear to us that we needed to write a book. First, the data were so rich and complex, that the only way we could truly understand the whole picture ourselves was to write a book. And second, it became clear that we had discovered something that could not only make the lives of people within organizations better, it could help to improve the performance of those organizations.

Morris: Who brought what to the collaboration?

Kramer: I think we were complementary, both intellectually and temperamentally. Teresa is more careful and detail oriented, while I am more spontaneous and tend focus on the big picture. I am more technologically inclined and more sophisticated regarding statistics and data analyses. Teresa certainly has a better grasp of business and management theory than I do, and is a more talented writer. As a developmental psychologist, I probably help out most when we need to understand some of the more childish behavior described in our diaries!

Amabile: Steve’s description is quite accurate. Our skills our quite complementary, and so are our styles – when they aren’t clashing! Overall, I feel that our appreciation for each other has deepened through this experience. Our marriage is still strong and highly enjoyable!

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Amabile and Kramer cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

For more about The Progress Principle, please click here.

There is also a video (about four minutes in length) offering a portion of an interview during which Teresa Amabile discusses The Progress Principle.  To watch the video, please click here.

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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