Inner Work Life: The Engine of Performance

By Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

Workers around the world are becoming increasingly disengaged from their jobs. AON Hewitt found a global drop of four percent in engagement levels in 2010 – the largest single-year drop in 15 years. And Gallup recently reported that the majority of U.S. workers are not engaged in their work. Moreover, Gallup found that highly educated, middle-aged workers were among the least engaged. This is especially troubling, because these are the very workers who should be most productively, creatively involved in their work. The cost of employee disengagement is staggering. Gallup estimates that, in the U.S. alone, disengagement costs businesses over $300 billion annually in lost productivity.

Over the past 15 years, we have studied engagement by looking deeply into what makes people happy, motivated, creative, and productive at work. To do this, we asked 238 members of creative teams to keep a work diary; by filling out a confidential electronic questionnaire we sent them each work day over the course of a project their team was doing. We selected participants from 26 teams in 7 companies across 3 industries. The daily questionnaire contained a number of scale-rated questions that asked about the participants’ feelings, thoughts, and drive at work that day. In addition, it asked them to describe one event that happened that day that stood out in their mind as relevant to their work or the project. In the end, we had nearly 12,000 daily reports. These diaries allowed us to examine what we call inner work life – the constant flow of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that people experience as they go through their work days. In essence, inner work life is day-by-day engagement at work.

Inner work life – the constant flow of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that people experience as they go through their work days – is critical to people’s performance.

Inner work life is critical to people’s performance. Neuroscience shows that there are direct connections between the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions and those involved in problem solving and decision-making. For instance, when people are anxious or fearful, they are less flexible in their thinking and less open to new ideas. By contrast, when they feel happy, they are more open to ideas and, as a result, more open to new and creative solutions. So, an understanding of inner work life is critical to facilitating high-level performance.

To explore inner work life more fully, we’ll take a closer look at each of its three components: perceptions (also called thoughts or cognitions), emotions (or feelings), and motivation (or drive). These are, far and away, the major internal processes that our participants described in their diary narratives. Note that, although inner work life includes a broader range of mental activities, we will not discuss all of them here. Rather, we focus on those that psychologists deem most important for performance, and those that our research participants described most often in their diaries. For example, although daydreaming undoubtedly contributes to creativity, we leave it out of the discussion because virtually none of the 12,000 diaries mentioned it. Many diaries recorded emotions, however. That’s where we’ll start.

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