The Power of Local Leaders

Adapted from “The Progress Principle: Using Small Win to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

By Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

To understand what makes people happy, motivated, productive, and creative at work, we have been studying what we call inner work life—the confluence of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that occur continually throughout the workday. When inner work life is positive, people feel happy, have positive perceptions of their work and those they work with, and are highly motivated by the work itself. When inner work life is negative, everything is reversed. In our quest to find the forces that rule inner work life, we discovered that lower-level, local leaders —such as team leaders—can be surprisingly powerful. The route to this discovery was an interesting one.

Because inner work life is usually not observable, we knew that, to learn about it, we would have to study people’s inner thoughts. To that end, we asked 238 people working on 26 creative project teams in seven companies to complete a diary form at the end of each workday over the course of an entire project. The major question on the diary form asked people to describe an event that stood out from the workday. Along with the diary narratives, we collected data on a number of other measures, including creativity, productivity, emotion, and motivation. In the end, we had nearly 12,000 event-of-the-day narratives, revealing people’s thoughts and feelings about their work, their colleagues, and their organizations.

We made two major discoveries. The first was the inner work life effect: People are more creative, productive, committed to the work, and collegial when their inner work life is positive. For instance, when people are in a good mood, they are more creative. Not only are they more creative on the day they are happy, but they are also more creative the next day, even when we control for their mood on the next day.

But what makes for good inner work life? When we looked at the days when people’s inner work lives were at their best, by far the most common event that occurred was simply making progress on meaningful work. In fact, progress occurred on 76 percent of best days. And it wasn’t only huge breakthroughs. We found that, very often, small steps forward were sufficient to boost inner work life. That was our second discovery, and we call it the progress principle.But there is a dark side. Setbacks in the work had the greatest negative effect on inner work life.

The lesson from our research is clear—if you want workers who are fully engaged, productive, and creative, then you must do everything in your power to support progress and to remove obstacles that can lead to setbacks for the people who work for you. We identified two pairs of action types that managers can take to support progress and inner work life; catalysts/inhibitors and nourishers/toxins. Catalysts directly support progress in the work, while their opposite, inhibitors,derail progress. These include things like supplying needed resources. Nourishers, actions that make people feel valued and respected as human beings, directly support inner work life; their opposite, toxins, poison it.

Many people think it is obvious that people will be more happy and engaged when they are making progress. But when we surveyed 669 managers about how important supporting progress is, we found out differently. We asked managers at all levels from companies around the world to rank order the importance of five motivators, including support for progress. The other four items were straight from conventional management wisdom: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals. Supporting progress came in dead last. In fact, only 5 percent of managers picked it as their No. 1 motivator. Moreover, when we looked at the teams and companies that took part in our research, we saw that most managers acted like supporting progress was a low priority.

We had expected that the people at the top of an organization would have the greatest influence over inner work life, by supplying or withholding the catalysts and nourishers. C-level executives definitely did have an impact. But we were in for a surprise. Our study revealed that—holding other factors equal—“local” sources of catalysts, such as team leaders and immediate coworkers, had a stronger influence on inner work life than “broad” forces such as top-level managers and organizational systems. This certainly doesn’t mean people were impervious to the effects of these broad forces, but it does mean local leaders have special leverage on the inner work life of a team. In fact, they can be a more important day-by-day source of the catalyst factor than top managers. By analyzing the team leader actions that led our research participants to see their team leaders as supportive (or not), we identified a set of catalyst leverage points.


As a team leader, do. . .

As a team leader, don’t. . .

  • Gather information constantly that could, in any way, be relevant to the team’s work.
  • Involve the team in making important decisions about the project.
  • Develop contacts with people outside the team who could be important sources of information and support for the project.
  • Sell the project; fight for a good project if it is threatened.
  • Fail to disseminate project-relevant information to the team.
  • Micromanage; don’t stifle team members’ autonomy in carrying out their work.
  • Fail to motivate and inspire the team by what you say and, especially, the example you set with your own work habits.
  • Avoid solving problems or cause problems through your own timidity or arrogance.
  • Fail to provide clear, appropriate, meaningful assignments and goals.


Because of their close working relationship with subordinates, team leaders also have an especially powerful impact on inner work life through the Nourishers they provide or fail to provide. In fact, they may have even more power than top managers to create a supportive or debilitating work environment for members of a team. They can even attenuate the negative impact of an unsupportive upper management. If you are a team leader, our research identified direct actions you can take—or avoid—if you want to support your team’s inner work life through nourishers. Even if you are not a team leader, you can apply the same tools—whatever your level in your organization.


As a team leader, do. . .

As a team leader, don’t. . .

  • Show that you respect people and the work they do.
  • Recognize and reward the accomplishments of your people.
  • When needed, provide emotional support to those who work under you.
  • Create opportunities for the development of friendship and camaraderie in the team.


  • Act dismissive, discourteous, or patronizing.
  • Display apathy toward your team members or their projects.
  • Obfuscate roles, responsibilities, and formal relationships, or change them haphazardly.



We all want workers who are engaged, creative, and fully productive. The progress principle describes how to do that. First, use nourishers to support the inner work lives of the people who work under you (and for that matter, your colleagues). Second, support progress every day through the generous application of catalysts. Your organization and its people will share the benefits.

Adapted from “The Progress Principle: Using Small Win to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School. Her studies have focused on creativity, motivation, and performance in the workplace.  She has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University.  Steven Kramer is an independent researcher, writer, and consultant. He has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Virginia.

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