While I was doing some research online about accounts payable technology, I stumbled across an article on employee motivation. No idea how the two subjects converged, but the ideas discussed in the paper made so much sense, yet go against so much of the conventional wisdom, that I thought them worth mentioning here.

The authors and researchers behind the paper are Teresa Amabile, a professor of business administration at Harvard University, and Steven J. Kramer, an independent researcher in Wayland, Mass. A summary of their work is available in this article in the January-February issue of Harvard Business Review.

To start, the two asked 600 managers to rank five tools commonly used to motivate employees, such as incentives and recognition. The winner, according to the managers? “Recognizing employees for good work, either in public or private.” After all, who doesn’t like to be appreciated?

At the same time, the researchers were asking hundreds of workers to keep detailed, daily diaries of their workdays; in all, they reviewed 12,000-some diary entries. These summarized the workers’ days: their emotions and motivation, as well as the work they completed.

They found that three-quarters of workers felt most highly motivated, not when they were recognized, but on days in which they were making progress. As the investigators write, “…making progress in one’s work – even incremental progress – is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.” In fact, the diaries rarely mentioned other supposedly motivating tools, such as incentives.

To me, this seemed like an “aha” moment. I know how de-motivating a lack of progress can be. I think most of us have experienced a time in which we were working hard, but our efforts weren’t helping us move forward – the proverbial wheel-spinning. We may have been approaching a problem in a way isn’t quite right, or found ourselves stymied by outside forces that kept up from making the changes we could see were needed. Then, we try a new approach or get the resources needed to move forward, and eureka! We’re finally moving on.

For many managers, this offers a new approach to employee motivation. Rather than focus on elaborate incentive schemes, managers can more effectively motivate employees by helping them move toward their goals. That requires setting clear, meaningful objectives and then providing, as much as possible, the resources employees need to achieve them. At the same time, it means minimizing irrelevant demands that take away from employees’ ability to get the job done.

This isn’t to say that recognition and incentives serve no use in motivating employees. They certainly can help. However, they can’t substitute for fostering an environment that enables employees to move forward.