To get yourself and your team off to a good start for the new year, focus on progress. Our research discovered that fostering progress in meaningful work is the most important way to keep people highly engaged at work — even if that progress is a "small win."
We call this phenomenon the progress principle; it works because people want to feel that they are contributing to something that matters. The new year presents a great opportunity for managers to put the progress principle into action.
First, note the progress made by your team or organization over the past year — the major accomplishments and the small wins, too. And communicate the list broadly. All too often, progress gets ignored as people move from one task or project to another. Simply noting what was accomplished and how it contributed to the goals of the organization can have a big impact on how people feel about themselves, the organization, and the work they do. Wesley, a researcher at a chemicals firm that participated in our study, made clear how much it meant to him when his VP did this at a holiday celebration: "We had a wonderful Christmas celebration, during which time our VP and Director of R&D; reflected on our terrific achievements over the year."
Don't stop with enumerating the year's accomplishments. Celebrate that progress and recognize all those who contributed to it. People who work hard deserve the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice in what they have accomplished. It nourishes them psychologically and motivates them to accomplish even more in the coming year. And don't recognize only the people directly responsible for a particular achievement. Recognize everyone who contributed across the organization, including support staff. For people to give their best in the future, they must feel that their hard work really matters. They benefit, through satisfying engagement in their work. And the organization benefits, too. When employees are more engaged in their work, their performance improves — contributing to the bottom line.
Map out goals for progress in the upcoming year and say why that progress matters. Be sure to include both broad, aspirational goals and smaller, interim milestones. For people to be fully engaged, they must feel that they are making steady progress, not just slogging away in hopes of a major breakthrough. And be sure to articulate why those goals matter — why they are meaningful to the organization, customers, and/or society. Making progress on meaningless work doesn't boost engagement; people must feel that they are contributing to something they value. Great leaders at every level of an organization are able to communicate not only what needs to be done, but why it is important. This means communicating the mission and values of the organization, and ensuring that all employees understand how their own work contributes to the mission.
Finally, resolve to support people's progress each day in the coming year. For the progress principle to work, people should experience progress more often than setbacks. Give them the goals, resources, and time they need to succeed, and remove or reduce any obstacles to progress. And insist that people across the organization support each other as much as possible. Create a climate of attention to progress, where everyone is looking for opportunities, every day, to help colleagues move forward on meaningful work.
These actions are not difficult or costly, but they can have a real impact on employee engagement and performance. Make it your pre-New Year's resolution to give your people meaningful work to do and to support, recognize, and celebrate their contributions now and throughout the coming year.