Why It’s Time To Manage Progress And Not People

Telling your workers to be more engaged just won’t work. Leadership is about putting mechanisms in place that will encourage their progress.

Why It’s Time To Manage Progress And Not People
[Image: Flickr user Joshua Mayer]

The farmer is in the business of growing plants, the physician that of curing patients, the teacher that of educating students. But the very grammar of those clauses betrays a misunderstanding.


The farmer does not grow the plant, the plant does; the physician does not make the patient healthier, the patient grows healthier; and the teacher cannot command the student to learn, that growth must happen within the student.

Instead, what these noble professions do is arrange the circumstances for the beings they are taking care of so that they may flourish.

You cannot tell a flower to grow, but you can help it to do so. The farmer is mindful of the seasons and plants seeds when most suited; the physician studies a patient’s case history and integrates treatment into that larger narrative; the teacher tailors her lessons to the lives of her students, allowing the material to be as relatable as possible.

We can add leaders to that list of helpers.

The people we work with are not so unlike the plants the farmer grows–we can’t simply tell them to grow.

The growing happens within them, and for people to want to work rather than having to work is actually a matter of managing progress, not people.


Progress Principle

Teresa Amabile is a professor and a director of research at Harvard Business School. She began her career researching the nature of creativity, though as of late her focus has shifted to the inner lives of people at work.

She studies how we relate to our achievements both as individuals and within organizations. Her research, including a study of 238 individuals making nearly 12,000 diary entries, skewers the widely held idea that fear and high-pressure cultures are what ensure achievement.

Instead, as she writes in one essay for HBR, people are more creative when they have a positive experience of work, when they think well of their organization and colleagues, and when they find their work meaningful and thus intrinsically motivating. When they are achieving, they see themselves as making progress.

The progress doesn’t need to be monumental. Although there are indeed heroic moments within a career, Amabile notes that a more commonplace victory can be enough, like if you’re a programmer rooting out a difficult bug, the nonprofit director making a draft of a grant application, the high school teacher finishing a day without having to raise his voice, or the executive wrapping up her tasks in time to have dinner with her family.

A Holistic Leader

When people have these slow, steady daily markers of progress, they feel fulfilled and end the day looking forward to the next one rather than walking out the office door like a zombie. Workaholics aren’t addicted to work; they crave the validation that comes with success.

With that in mind, a humanistic, holistic leader arranges for such moments of progress. In the same way that a farmer tills the soil to help seeds germinate, a leader may till the workflow to allow meaningful progress and the engagement that follows to take root.


Adapted from Everything Connects: How To Transform And Lead In The Age Of Creativity, Innovation, And Sustainability (McGraw Hill, 2014). Copyright (c) 2014 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved.

About the author

Founder of SHADOKA and other companies. Newest book "Survive to Thrive – 27 Practices of Resilient Entrepreneurs, Innovators, And Leaders" (Motivational Press, 2015).