The Number One Way to Stay Motivated Breakthrough Research from the Harvard Business Review

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Every January, the Harvard Business Review publishes ten breakthrough ideas for the year ahead.

Number one on this year’s list was new research on what really drives motivation: A clear sense that progress is being made.

In a multi-year study, researchers at the school first asked 600 managers from dozens of different companies to rank the impact of five factors that are normally associated with motivation – recognition, incentives, support from managers and colleagues, clear goals and a sense of making progress.

In this first phase of the study, recognition for good work was ranked by managers as the most important factor in motivation.

In the next stage, hundreds of knowledge workers in a variety of settings emailed 12,000 end-of-day diaries, rating their motivation level and talking about the kind of day they had. The researchers then dug deep to look at what events those workers reported each day, especially on those days that respondents said were their “best days” and their ”worst days.”

And the answer is……

A sense of progress was the factor most strongly correlated with a strong feeling of motivation.  Particularly interesting – out of the five options rated by managers before the study began as keeping people motivated, that sense of making progress was rated last

Here’s an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review article:

On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.”

Here are the five factors that appear to drive motivation the most, the events workers said they experienced on their very best days:                             

Making progress




Organizational  support


Interpersonal support


Doing important work


Negative events generally have a greater effect on peoples’ emotions, perceptions and motivations than positive ones, according to the researchers. And the most prominent event on workers’ worst days was experiencing a setback.

And here’s what the HBR article had to say about recognition:

“As for recognition, diaries revealed that it does indeed motivate workers and lift their moods. So managers should celebrate progress, even the incremental sort. But there will be nothing to recognize if people aren’t genuinely moving forward – and as a practical matter, recognition can’t happen every day. You can, however, see that progress happens every day.”

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