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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Emotions are both sharply defined reactions and more general feelings, like good and bad moods. Emotion is the joy you feel when you finally solve a difficult problem; the frustration when your solutions fail; the disappointment when the board rejects your strategic plan; the pride when a fellow manager recognizes your creativity at a company meeting; the gratitude when an assistant helps you find critical information; and the anger when you discover that your subordinates have missed a milestone because another team failed to do its work. Emotion is also the overall positive mood you feel when everything seems to be going well on a particular day, or the negative mood you’re in when a day starts with a setback and goes downhill from there.

Emotions vary along two key dimensions: degree of pleasantness and degree of intensity. You can be mildly annoyed by a brief outage of the corporate intranet or enraged by a flippant response to a new idea you floated in a management meeting. Both are unpleasant emotions, but the latter is much more unpleasant and much more intense.

Recently, much of the management literature has high-lighted the long-neglected role of emotions at work. Most savvy managers have read about the need for emotional intelligence – an understanding of one’s own and others’ emotions and an ability to use that understanding to guide managerial thought and action. Recent research has also revealed that emotions can have both positive and negative effects on a range of work behaviors, including creativity, decision making, and negotiations. For instance, positive feelings can lead to greater flexibility in problem solving and negotiations. Clearly, emotions are crucial.

But beware. It’s tempting to classify the entire inner work life phenomenon as “feelings,” partly because emotion has become such a hot topic in management. Moreover, emotions are what you’re most likely to see when inner work life does come to the surface. Recall the bereft expressions on the faces of Lehman Brothers employees as they left their building that day in September 2008 when the firm filed for bankruptcy. And when, in 2010, the 3-D film Avatar broke all box-office records, it was easy to imagine the elation rippling through everyone at 20th Century Fox.

However, inner work life is not simply about emotions. Emotions are only one piece of the puzzle, and managers who rely on emotional intelligence to build high-performance organizations are dealing with only a fraction of the inner work life picture. Our theory of inner work life builds on theories of emotional intelligence by placing emotion in the context of two additional components: perceptions and motivation. Both, like emotions, are essential.

Our theory of inner work life builds on theories of emotional intelligence by placing emotion in the context of two additional components: perceptions and motivation.


Perceptions can range from immediate impressions to fully developed theories about what is happening and what it means. They can be simple observations about a workday event, or they can be judgments about the organization, its people, and the work itself. When something happens that grabs your attention at work, you start sensemaking – trying to figure out what it means. Your mind poses a series of questions, especially if what happened was ambiguous or unexpected; these questions and their answers make up your perceptions. Interestingly, you are usually unaware of this process. These questions might bubble up unconsciously if, for example, upper management canceled your team’s project without warning or explanation: Do these managers know what they are doing? Are my teammates incompetent? Am I? Does the work that I do have real value?

In films and plays, characters are given a backstory to help the actor understand how to play the part – for example, Scarlett O’Hara’s pampered, restrictive childhood in the antebellum South of Gone with the Wind or Luke Skywalker’s innocent upbringing on his uncle’s farm in the Star Wars films. The backstory is the character’s accumulated experience in a particular milieu over a particular period of time. We borrow the term because it helps illustrate how the perception component of inner work life operates. Real people have real backstories at work, and they form perceptions against those backstories.

Each of us interprets each workday event against our own backstories in our organizations.



Motivation is a person’s grasp of what needs to be done and his or her drive to do it at any given moment. More precisely, motivation is a combination of a person’s choice to do some task, desire to expend effort at doing it, and drive to persist with that effort. Many possible sources of motivation exist, but three stand out as most relevant to work life. First, extrinsic motivation drives most of us in our work to some degree – the motivation to do something in order to get something else. This is your motivation to take a position because the pay and benefits can’t be beat; to work fourteen-hour days all week just to meet a deadline that you consider arbitrary; to do whatever it takes to win an industry award; or to produce a position paper that you know will look good for your performance review.

Intrinsic motivation is the love of the work itself – doing the work because it is interesting, enjoyable, satisfying, engaging, or personally challenging. Intrinsic motivation – deep engagement in the work – can drive people to surprising displays of seemingly unrewarded effort. Witness the phenomenon of open-source programming innovation, in which thousands of programmers collaborate online to create and improve computing platforms – with absolutely no tangible compensation.

Finally, relational or altruistic motivation arises from the need to connect with and help other people. The camaraderie that comes from collaborating with congenial colleagues can drive us in our work, and so can the belief that our work has real value to a person, a group, or society at large. Altruistic motivation can be fairly general (“My work helps people with Type 1 diabetes,”) or quite specific (“My research could lead to a treatment for my diabetic child”). Usually, the reason behind relational motivation isn’t nearly as compelling as treating disease – but even less dramatic reasons can be forceful (“My collaboration helps this struggling junior designer.”) Many people are driven to do well for a person or a group they like and respect.

The different forms of motivation can coexist in the same person, at the same time, for the same work. In fact, nearly all intrinsically motivated tasks on the job have some extrinsic motivators attached. For example, you can be intrinsically motivated by the challenge of creating a marketing strategy for a new service, while still driven by next week’s deadline for presenting the strategy to the board – an extrinsic motivator.

Unfortunately, there is a nasty underside to extrinsic motivation, one that many managers don’t recognize: if extrinsic motivators are extremely strong and salient, they can undermine intrinsic motivation; when this happens, creativity can suffer. Let’s say that the CEO reminds you of that marketing strategy deadline twice a day. Now overwhelmed by the sense that you are working primarily to make the timeline, you can lose the excitement of creating something great. You may begin to focus narrowly on just getting the job done, rather than exploring for a truly novel “killer” strategy.

Most people have strong intrinsic motivation to do their work, at least early in their careers. That motivation exists, and continues, until something gets in the way. This has a startling implication: as long as the work is meaningful, managers do not have to spend time coming up with ways to motivate people to do that work. They are much better served by removing barriers to progress, helping people experience the intrinsic satisfaction that derives from accomplishment.

If you want your people to be fully engaged in their work, you must first give them meaningful work to do, and then support their progress in that work.

Inner Work Life and Performance

Each component of inner work life has a direct impact on performance. We found that when workers’ inner work lives are more positive, they are more creative and productive, more committed to their work, and more collegial. For instance, on days when our participants felt happier, they were more likely to solve complex problems and come up with creative ideas. And not only were they more creative on that day, they were more creative on the following day, as well – regardless of their mood that next day. On the other hand, when they were angry or fearful, they tended to be less creative.

So, if positive inner work life is so critical to high performance, what leads to positive inner work life? On people’s very best days at work, one kind of event stands out above all others: simply making progress on meaningful work. We call this the progress principle. In fact, progress occurred on 76% of people’s best inner work life days. Progress does not necessarily mean major breakthroughs. In fact, we found that even incremental progress – small wins – can have a huge positive impact on inner work life, as long as the progress is on work that the person cares about. In order to be meaningful, work need not have a noble, higher purpose like curing disease. It can be as simple as providing a valuable product or service to a customer.

For the progress principle to operate, employees only need to see that the progress they make contributes to that meaningful goal.

But there is a dark side to the progress principle. Of all things that occurred on people’s very worst days, the single most prominent was being stalled or having setbacks in the work. We saw setbacks on 67% percent of people’s worst days. To make matters worse, the negative effect of setbacks on inner work life is 2-3 times more powerful than the positive effect of progress. Therefore, it is especially important for managers to remove any obstacles (even small hassles) that can lead to setbacks.

Although we were surprised by the powerful impact of progress on inner work life, we wondered if it was obvious to managers. To find out, we asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five motivators in terms of importance: incentives, recognition, clear goals, interpersonal support, and progress in the work. If these managers were aware of the progress principle, they should have chosen progress in the work as the most important motivator. In fact, however, progress came in dead last. Only 5% of the managers selected progress — well below chance. More importantly, our diary research revealed that most managers in the seven companies we studied failed to support progress consistently.

If you are a manager, our research has implications for what you say and do every day. If you want your people to be fully engaged in their work, you must first give them meaningful work to do, and then support their progress in that work. We have identified seven types of actions, which we call catalysts that managers can use to facilitate progress. These include providing clear overall goals in the work, allowing as much autonomy as possible, and creating mechanisms for learning from setbacks. We also identified four types of managerial actions called nourishers, which directly support inner work life; these include showing respect and providing emotional support. In our book, The Progress Principle, we take advantage of our diary data to provide examples of these and other catalysts and nourishers, showing how they impact the lives and the performance of people at work.

The progress principle provides a real opportunity during the current disengagement crisis. Managers have the power to revitalize work engagement within their organizations. And they can do so without providing expensive perks or delving deeply into the inner work lives of their people. The single most important thing they can do is to help people move forward on meaningful work. In a very real and important way, the needs of employees and their organizations are the same. Workers want the opportunity to succeed at something meaningful. And this is certainly what organizations want and need from their people.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Copyright 2011. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. All rights reserved.

About the authors

Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and Director of Research at Harvard Business School. The author of numerous articles and books, she has long studied creativity, motivation, and performance in the workplace.

Steven Krameris a developmental psychologist and has co-authored a number of articles in leading management periodicals, including Harvard Business Review and the Academy of Management Journal.

They are the coauthors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work(Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).




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