On Making Career Progress

progress“You’re making progress”.  That phrase sounds like something your elementary school teacher told you when you were first learning to read, write, or do arithmetic. It may sound unexciting, but to some of the best-known researchers in the management field, “making progress” is vital to your career.

In their recent book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain that what many of us want at work, and what motivates us, are “small wins” in our progress toward achieving something. And we also want managers who help us achieve them.

Amabile and Kramer asked over 238 employees to keep daily journals about how they felt at work.  They ended up with over 12,000 journal entries.   Then they analyzed the entries so they could understand how people experience their work on a daily basis. In the process, they came up with something they call “the progress principle”.

Simply stated, here’s “the progress principle”: when people make progress on work they find meaningful, they feel better at work. They are more creative, more productive, and more committed to the work itself.  In the researchers’ terms, their “inner work life” improves.

What does this mean for you and your career?

Find meaningful work.  That’s basic.  You want your work, whether inside or outside your family’s business, to be interesting, to tap your talents, and to feel worthwhile.

MAKE it meaningful. If you’re just learning the family business, and helping out where you can, your work may not feel meaningful. You may end up feeling frustrated or bored.  But if you view your current job as a step along the path to a more fulfilling role, you may find that the work itself becomes more meaningful. With this mindset, learning to operate a machine in the business, while maybe not your life’s work, can make you feel proud. It’s a small win (maybe not so small!) along the way to taking on a different role later on.

Pay attention. Of course, if you’re bored to tears and can’t see another role for yourself in the family business, and no one else there can either, pay attention. That’s important information. Your “inner work life” may be telling you that it may be time to work somewhere else or find a new career.

Be a “progressive” team member:  You’re probably working as part of a team.  If the team is stuck, ask about the small wins that might help “reset” the team’s work.  Propose that the team suggest the tasks or activities that might lead to those wins.

There are other ideas in The Progress Principle you may find interesting as well.  Along with the idea of “small wins”, the authors talk about the power of negative events.  It turns out that one negative event, a setback of some kind, a difficult situation that you find frustrating, or a strong disagreement with a sibling or parent, can affect you even more than small wins.

This is important.  If you’re working closely with family members, your emotions may take over more than they would in other settings, in ways you may not realize. In fact, you may be even more vulnerable to the impact of negative events.  Your “bad day at work” can have far reaching effects, not only on you, but on your family as well.

In a family business, getting along with your family IS the work, right up there with whatever position you have. Taking the time to identify the small steps that can help you build strong relationships with your family at the same time as you develop your professional skills is vital.  Even taking your brother or sister out to lunch to ask for help about a business issue can be a small step that makes a difference.

My suggestion?  Read The Progress Principle.  It has some great ideas and checklists that will help you figure out how to find the small wins and how to recover from the setbacks, whether you end up with a career in your family’s business or not.

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