Inner Work Life: understanding the subtext of business performance
- PMID: 17494252
Anyone in management knows that employees have their good days and their bad days–and that, for the most part, the reasons for their ups and downs are unknown. Most managers simply shrug their shoulders at this fact of work life. But does it matter, in terms of performance, if people have more good days than bad days? Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s new stream of research, based on more than 12,000 diary entries logged by knowledge workers over three years, reveals the dramatic impact of employees’ inner work lives–their perceptions, emotions, and motivation levels–on several dimensions of performance. People perform better when their workday experiences include more positive emotions, stronger intrinsic motivation (passion for the work), and more favorable perceptions of their work, their team, their leaders, and their organization. What the authors also found was that managers’ behavior dramatically affects the tenor of employees’ inner work lives. So what makes a difference to inner work life? When the authors compared the study participants’ best days to their worst days, they found that the single most important differentiator was their sense of being able to make progress in their work. The authors also observed interpersonal events working in tandem with progress events. Praise without real work progress, or at least solid efforts toward progress, had little positive impact on people’s inner work lives and could even arouse cynicism. On the other hand, good work progress without any recognition–or, worse, with criticism about trivial issues–could engender anger and sadness. Far and away, the best boosts to inner work life were episodes in which people knew they had done good work and their managers appropriately recognized that work.
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if your organization demands knowledge work from its people, then you undoubtedly appreciate the importance of sheer brainpower. You probably recruit high-intellect people and ensure they have access to good information. You probably also respect the power of incentives and use formal compensation systems to channel that intellectual energy down one path or another. But you might be overlooking another crucial driver of a knowledge worker’s performance—that person’s inner work life. People experience a constant stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations as they react to and make sense of the events of the workday. As people arrive at their workplaces they don’t check their hearts and minds at the door. Unfortunately, because inner work life is seldom openly expressed in modern organizations, it’s all too easy for managers to pretend that private thoughts and feelings don’t matter.
As psychologists, we became fascinated a decade ago with day-to-day work life. But our research into inner work life goes well beyond intellectual curiosity about the complex operations of emotions, perceptions, and motivations. It addresses the very pragmatic managerial question of how these dynamics affect work performance. To examine this question, we constructed a research project that would give us a window into the inner work lives of a broad population of knowledge workers. Specifically, we recruited 238 professionals from 26 project teams and had them complete daily diary entries, in a standard format, for the duration of their projects. Nearly 12,000 diary entries later, we have discovered the dynamics of inner work life and the significant effect it can have on the performance of your people—and, by implication, your entire organization.
It may stun you, if you are a manager, to learn what power you hold. Your behavior as a manager dramatically shapes your employees’ inner work lives. But the key levers in your hands for driving motivation and performance may not be the ones you’d suspect…
Manage with a human touch.
None of this emphasis on the managerial behaviors that influence progress diminishes the importance of the interpersonal managerial events that we mentioned earlier—events in which people are or are not treated decently as human beings. Although such events weren’t quite as important in distinguishing the best days from the worst days, they were a close second. We frequently observed interpersonal events working in tandem with progress events. Praise without real work progress, or at least solid efforts toward progress, had little positive impact on people’s inner work lives and could even arouse cynicism. On the other hand, good work progress without any recognition—or, worse, with criticism about trivial issues—could engender anger and sadness. Far and away, the best boosts to inner work life were episodes in which people knew they had done good work and managers appropriately recognized that work.
Peter Drucker once wrote, “So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to do work.” The truth of this has struck us as our ongoing analyses reveal more of the negative managerial behaviors that affect inner work life. But we have also been struck by the wealth of managerial opportunities for improving inner work life. Managers’ day-to-day (and moment-to-moment) behaviors matter not just because they directly facilitate or impede the work of the organization. They’re also important because they affect people’s inner work lives, creating ripple effects on organizational performance. When people are blocked from doing good, constructive work day by day, for instance, they form negative impressions of the organization, their coworkers, their managers, their work, and themselves; they feel frustrated and unhappy; and they become demotivated in their work. Performance suffers in the short run, and in the longer run, too. But when managers facilitate progress, every aspect of people’s inner work lives are enhanced, which leads to even greater progress. This positive spiral benefits the individual workers—and the entire organization. Because every employee’s inner work life system is constantly operating, its effects are inescapable.
Because every employee’s inner work life system is constantly operating, its effects are inescapable.
Discovering how inner work life affects organizational performance is clearly valuable. But as researchers we hope we have also made progress on another front. Inner work lives matter deeply to the people living them. Studies of the modern workweek show that knowledge workers today, as compared with workers of past eras, spend more time in the office and more time focused on work issues while outside the office. As the proportion of time that is claimed by work rises, inner work life becomes a bigger component of life itself. People deserve happiness. They deserve dignity and respect. When we act on that realization, it is not only good for business. It affirms our value as human beings.