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Beware of the power of negative events at work

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Teresa Amabile is Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She researches what makes people creative, productive, happy and motivated at work. Steven Kramer is a psychologist and independent researcher. They are co-authors of “The Progress Principle.” The following is an excerpt from their book, which published in 2011.

If you want the people doing your company’s most innovative projects to operate at the highest levels of creative productivity, ensure that they have good inner work lives — positive emotions, favorable perceptions of the organization, and strong intrinsic motivation to dig deeply into the work. We researched inner work life, what affects it, and how it influences performance, in a study of 238 professionals working on 26 creative projects in seven companies in three industries. Our results may surprise you.

When we analyzed the nearly 12,000 daily diaries we had collected from these people during their projects, we made two key discoveries. First, when people have better inner work lives, they are more creative and productive. Second, of all the events that can boost inner work life, the single most important is making progress on meaningful work — even if that progress is an incremental “small win.” We call this the progress principle, and it has a dark side: Of all the events that can dampen inner work life, the single most important is having setbacks in the work. Interestingly, the dark side may provide your best entrée to applying the progress principle in your organization.

To foster great inner work life, focus first on eliminating the obstacles that cause setbacks. Why? Because one setback has more power to sway inner work life than one progress incident. Some surprising evidence comes from our diary study, as well as the work of other researchers:

  • The effect of setbacks on emotions is stronger than the effect of progress. Although progress increases happiness and decreases frustration, the effect of setbacks is not only opposite on both types of emotions — it is greater. The power of setbacks to diminish happiness is 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 at work hold more sway than small everyday supports.
  • Negative team leader behaviors affect inner work life more broadly than do positive team leader behaviors.
  • The fact that people write longer diary narratives about negative events of all kinds — not just setbacks — compared with neutral or positive events hints that people may expend more cognitive and emotional energy on bad events than good ones.
  • Other types of negative events — not just setbacks — are more powerful than their mirror-image positive events.
  • The connection between mood and negative work events is about five times stronger than the connection between mood and positive events.
  • Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive actions, and they recall the negative actions more intensely and in more detail than the positive ones.

Precisely because they are less powerful in affecting inner work life, try to ensure that good events at work outnumber the bad. In particular, try to reduce daily hassles. This means that even your small actions to remove obstacles impeding the progress of individuals and teams can make a big difference for inner work life — and, thus, for overall performance. And be sure that you aren’t the source of obstacles. Because negative triggers can have such a disproportionate effect on inner work life, you might do well to adopt the physician’s creed: First, do no harm.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.” Copyright Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer. All rights reserved.