Inner Work Life

What makes people happy and motivated at work, why it matters, and what to do about it.

Work Is Personal

Don’t let them tell you that it’s only business.

By Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., and Steven Kramer, Ph.D.

People in corporations often say, "It's business, it's not personal." But this simply isn't true. What happens inside companies can have deep psychological impact on employees. Just listen to what this software engineer told us about her thoughts and feelings on the job:

It is very hard to work and get anything done around here today. 39 people lost their jobs [ . . . ] and it seems like this is just the beginning. They will get rid of people from the project managers' level next and then they will move on to us; they even came out with a letter saying as much! I feel like an abused spouse that will not leave the abuser. I keep giving them another chance and they keep socking us in the face. I'm ashamed at my own inability to just get up and walk away with a little dignity. Instead, I sit here and wait for them to decide my fate. [Marsha]

And this is from one of Marsha's project team colleagues, on a very different day:

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Our customer [ . . . ] told me how wonderful I was, and said she'd buy me lunch to show her appreciation! I was blown away by her kind thoughts. It made me want to work harder to get the job done [ . . . ] and I feel I did get more work done [ . . . ] than I usually do. [Helen]

These are just two of nearly 12,000 electronic "work diary" entries that we collected for our research on the psychology of everyday work life. As part of that research, we recruited 238 people in 26 creative project teams in 7 companies. Each day over the course of their project, we asked them to describe one event that stood out in their mind from that work day. The responses to that question formed a diary of their experiences working on the project - a diary that, on average, spanned over four months. We also collected data on various aspects of each participant's performance, including creativity and productivity, and we had participants provide scale ratings of their emotions and motivations each day.

As Marsha's and Helen's diary entries demonstrate, work was extremely personal for these people. Even though we did not specifically ask our participants to describe their feelings, they often did. And along with those feelings, they told us about their motivations as well as their perceptions of their work, their colleagues, their bosses, and the organizations they worked for. We refer to the sum of these psychological states as inner work life - the continuous flow of emotions, perceptions and motivations that people experience as they react to and make sense of events in their work day. Whether the events are as major as layoffs or as minor as a compliment, they matter a great deal to the people living them.

Inner work life is "inner" because it is usually unobserved by others. In fact, workplace culture often frowns on people openly expressing their feelings at work. But organizations ignore inner work life at their peril. For at least two reasons, managers need to pay very careful attention to the everyday events that can lift or dampen inner work life. First, poor inner work life resulting from stress leads to increases in physical illness and absenteeism. Second, inner work life influences performance. We found that people are more creative, productive, committed to the work, and collegial when they have positive inner work lives. In fact, we found that people are not only more creative on days when their overall moods are more positive, they are actually more creative the next day, too. Of course, there is a flip side: Poor inner work life undermines performance. As employees suffer, so does the bottom line.

In our diary examples, Helen and Marsha state very clearly how their inner work lives affect their performance. Marsha tells us that she can hardly do anything because she is so preoccupied with the layoffs, her perceptions of the organization, and her own shame. But Helen feels great about herself and about the customer who complimented her work. Not only that, but she is also more committed to doing great work for that customer - and, in fact, she does get more done than usual. Work events rule inner work life, and inner work life rules performance.

We found stories of the deep personal impact of "business" repeatedly in the work diaries. We'd love to hear from you. Can you describe a day on which your inner work life was strongly affected by events unfolding at work? What happened? How did it make you feel? Did it affect your work?

Steven Kramer is a psychologist and independent researcher. He is the co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

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