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What ‘Angry Birds’ Tells About Our Motivation at Work

What video games can teach us about work motivation

Why will people happily spend hours playing video games, but lack motivation when it comes to their jobs? Millions of people get "addicted" to games like Angry Birds, but it is quite rare for people to become "addicted" to their jobs.

A recent study of employee motivation by psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, discovered that the strongest source of motivation for many workers is the idea of "small wins" - making positive progress in your job. Making progress did more to enhance day-to-day work motivation than did extrinsic incentives like bonuses or other rewards.

In their new book, "The Progress Principle," Amabile and Kramer studied dozens of workers in a variety of companies, asking them to fill out daily surveys that asked them to describe one event from the day that stood out in their minds. They also assessed employees' attitudes about their jobs, their motivation, and performance. An analysis of more than 12,000 daily surveys found that small events, such as making progress in your job, solving a vexing work-related problem, or getting positive recognition from a supervisor or colleague increased motivation and satisfaction at work. On the other hand, a setback to making progress was de-motivating.

The authors recognize that they identified the progress principle that video game designers had stumbled upon long ago: people are motivated to make progress - to reach that next level, to advance to the next tier. Just as in games, people are happy and motivated by accomplishments.

Interestingly, Amabile and Kramer found that top-level leaders and managers were unaware of the important role of progress in motivating workers - ranking it near the bottom of motivational techniques.

How can leaders use this newfound "progress principle" to best advantage?

Here are the keys:

Become a Catalyst for Progress. Keep employees moving forward, recognize the small wins, and confront problems and setbacks directly. A leader's job is to remove the roadblocks to progress and success.

Provide Support. The leader's task is to support the team and make it easier for individuals and teams to be successful.

Monitor Progress and Provide Feedback. Amabile and Kramer studied the best practices of leaders who support progress and provide managers with a checklist for encouraging daily progress.


Amabile, Teresa & Kramer, Steven. (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

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