How much damage is caused by small, irritating, daily problems like pointless meetings, ambiguous communication, and frustrating fire drills? A few months ago, my friend Matt May interviewed Teresa Amabile, author of the new book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. According to Amabile, those little problems can be surprisingly toxic:
Of all the things that can cause people to have lousy inner work lives, the single most important is experiencing setbacks – feeling stalled or blocked in the work, or having a sense of moving backward. Amazingly, the negative effect of setbacks on emotions, perceptions and motivation can be 2-3 times greater than the positive impact of progress. This means it’s especially important for business owners and managers to reduce or eliminate forces that inhibit people’s ability to feel like they are getting somewhere on something that matters. Inhibitors can be very mundane – like a goal that isn’t sufficiently clear, or a person in the organization who hoards information – but they can be deadly.
What's really striking about Amabile's claim (and it's backed up by considerable research) is that people probably don't even notice the inhibitors, because "that's just the way it works around here." They're small and commonplace, and yet they exert a powerfully baleful influence on people's inner work lives, their creativity, and their passion for their work.
As an example, the executive team at one of my clients subscribes to a variety of market research reports. These monthly and quarterly reports are really impressive -- huge 3-ring binders that contain sales data that's been sliced and diced better than a pastrami at a kosher deli. The problem is that management hasn't defined standard metrics, so if they dig long enough, they can find anything they want in the data. Consequently, every few months there's a full-scale executive fire drill when someone on the team finds a bit of data that seems to indicate they're losing ground to a competitor. Panicked, the president will call the exec team, along with several members of marketing and sales, into the conference room for a 90 minute analysis and debate about how they should respond.
The people in marketing and sales who end up with an extra day or two of work re-analyzing the reports roll their eyes when I ask about this. They're frustrated by the lack of a consistent data dashboard to guide them, and they hate the havoc and pointless extra work it causes. As Amibile would point out, although these fire drills constitute a relatively small "inhibitor" to their ability to make progress on their work, they're soul-sucking experiences for all involved.
Sadly, the president doesn't realize this, because the data fire drills don't affect his ability to get his work done.
Take a look at the niggling annoyances in your office -- or better yet, ask people what annoyances they deal with. What pointless meetings do they have to attend? What forms are difficult to use? What goals are ambiguous? What non-value added work are they forced to do?
Amabile's theory about the importance of "small wins" ties in beautifully to the small improvements that lie at the heart of kaizen. Improvements don't have to be earth-shatteringly large to have a significant impact on the creativity, happiness, and engagement of your staff.