Last summer I hiked through Zion National Park, Utah, with a group of teens. It didn’t take many miles into the hike for me to realize that they were much younger than I, and with that youth came much greater stamina and flexibility in climbing.
Over a period of four days we hiked and climbed some difficult terrain, and for those of us no longer in our teens, the distance seemed double what it actually was. However, the breathtaking views and thrill of the journey far outweighed the difficulty in getting there.
In four days, we logged over 35 miles of trail. At about mile six, I noticed something interesting. When we trekked into those areas most isolated by majestic canyon walls and heavy forest, although the beauty was certainly apparent, these stretches seemed to go on forever. We constantly referred to GPS and trial markings to understand where we were in relation to our pre-determined end point. Other than occasional guesses based on levels of fatigue, it was often difficult to gauge how much trail we had actually covered, as the dense woods masked our sense of distance.
We soon sensed that this lack of positioning was impacting our attitudes toward the hike. Rather than be mesmerized by the nature surrounding us, we instead seemed to be obsessed with understanding how far we had gone, as well as the distance ahead of us. We found ourselves making frequent GPS and map check-ins.
Although our GPS behavior bordered on obsessive-compulsive, we found that it provided us with relief—and renewed energy—when we knew where we stood in relation to where we had been and what remained ahead. When we could see our progress, even though it may not be much, we were excited to continue our journey. When progress was questionable, our packs appeared to double in weight. However, once that calibration had been made, we were good for another half-mile stretch.
As if to further solidify this point, several of the boys commented on the fact that when we were able to clearly see the trail below and above us, we progressed much more rapidly. I believe this more rapid progression to be fact rather than fiction but, even if not, my perception was also that being able to visually note our progress at all times provided that boost we needed on a difficult hike.
Employee Engagement surveys conducted by DecisionWise typically contain the question:
Most days, I feel like I am making progress on important work projects or initiatives.
We find a clear correlation between this question and overall levels of engagement. This relationship (a clear view of progress and motivation) is explained in depth in the book “The Progress Principle,” written by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. As they discuss the impact of discovering progress, they cite the following example from the book “Work Design:”
“If a programmer labors to create some tricky new code and then runs the program through a series of tests, that debugging process gives her immediate and complete knowledge about how much progress she has made on that job. If she sees that there are just a few glitches, her motivation will surge, as will her joy and her positive perceptions. But if the testing is decoupled from the programming task, if it is done by someone else, that programmer cannot enjoy an immediate uptick… The key, then, is to design each job so that, in the act of carrying out the work, people gain knowledge about the results of their effort.”
Whether developing code, picking oranges, conducting training, treating patients, or hiking “Angels Landing” in Zion National Park, much of the source of our internal motivation comes from our ability to see progress.
Struggling with engaging a workforce? Help them see progress.