Making Progress in Work is a Key Motivator, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — February 12, 2010 1 min read
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Perhaps Harvard Business Review isn’t high on your list of regular leisure reading. It isn’t high on mine, either. But this is worth a look.

It’s an argument for the importance of feeling that you are making progress in your work. The authors studied “knowledge workers” of many stripes, and found that recognition, incentives, interpersonal support and clear goals are not as high on the motivation scale as that sense of making progress in your work. (Managers of these workers thought that recognition for good work would be the most important motivator, and making progress would be the least important. They were wrong.)

The findings seems utterly reasonable to me, based on the years I’ve spent in newsrooms. And in the last decade, I’ve seen both sides of this coin visiting schools. Since I covered urban education for most of those years, I was usually in schools that faced epic-scale struggles. And I watched many frustrated teachers and administrators try to manage with far too few materials and emotional resources, and go home spent and demoralized each week.

In some schools that were just as hard-pressed, though, I was inspired by the camaraderie, creativity, and spirit of positivity that infused the work. Often these schools were headed by visionary principals with great people skills, who had figured out ways to clear away the obstacles that made teaching the curriculum difficult. And amazing stuff happened in the classrooms at these schools.

And let’s not forget the other “knowledge workers” in this equation: the students. I’ve watched my own two children exhibit exactly what the study describes. When they don’t understand, when they can’t make headway, their spirits fade to gray. But when those lightbulbs go off, the room brightens noticeably. In the classrooms I’ve visited for my stories, it’s the same thing.

So how to translate that sense of making progress into good policy? The national dialogue surely is peppered with many incentive theories, and a whole lot of them seem to be about cash and about choice. Is this what will give teachers and students the sense of progress they need? Let me know what you think.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.