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This article was published on August 11, 2015

This is how to motivate creative teams

This is how to motivate creative teams
Taylor Mallory Holland
Story by

Taylor Mallory Holland

Taylor Mallory Holland, founder of Taylored Editorial, LLC, has edited books, ebooks, blogs, and Web content for dozens of best-selling auth Taylor Mallory Holland, founder of Taylored Editorial, LLC, has edited books, ebooks, blogs, and Web content for dozens of best-selling authors—including NASA CIO, Linda Cureton; referral-selling expert, Joanne Black; and award-winning poet, Mali Phonpadith. Holland also works as a content strategist for Skyword—ghost-writing thought leadership copy for high-profile technology companies. She is the lead writer for the ongoing "Maps Are Going Google" campaign, which is reporting Web traffic and engagement numbers that are twice the company's average.

An early-80s baby, I was among the first Millennials. Yet, when I entered the workforce, we were already a hot topic. Business magazines published article after article extolling our virtues— creativity and technological know-how — and outlining the challenges managers would face when attempting to motivate a spoiled, self-entitled group.

The key, it seemed, was positive feedback. Millennials grew up hearing that we were special, talented, and capable of anything. We received trophies just for participating in sports, regardless of aptitude or performance. So, to tap into our creativity and innovative problem-solving skills, managers would need to shower us with praise and encouragement.

This characterization annoyed me as much as my boss’s attempts to leverage it. I know he meant well, but a person can only hear “Great job!” so many times before the compliments start to sound hollow.

All workers, regardless of generation, like to know they’re doing well, but perfunctory pats on the back and generic praise are not inspirational. For employees to be engaged and driven, they need more than lip service. They need to feel like they’re doing a great job—to know they’re making forward progress on meaningful projects.

For business leaders, the ability to inspire and motivate an increasingly global, multi-generational workforce hinges on helping employees overcome setbacks, recognizing their successes, and moving forward.

The Progress Principle at Work

Overall, workplace engagement is on the rise, reaching the highest level since Gallup began its annual employee engagement survey in 2000. But the numbers are still pretty dismal. Only 31.5 percent of US workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014. Meanwhile, 51 percent were still “not engaged,” and 17.5 percent were “actively disengaged.”

If less than a third of your team is bringing their A-game, you’re missing out on the creativity, passion, talent, and innovative problem-solving skills the other 69 percent could bring to the table. But what does it take to engage and inspire them? What makes the difference between happy, productive workers and those who are just showing up to collect their paychecks?

Harvard researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have spent nearly 20 years studying the psychological factors that drive creative, productive performance in workers. In doing so, they discovered the “progress principle.” As they explain in the Harvard Business Review:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

Yet, when they surveyed managers about the best ways to motivate workers, only 5 percent ranked progress as number one. The majority said “recognition for good work” was the most important factor.

According to Amabile and Kramer’s research, recognition (in public or private) does boost performance, but not nearly as much as progress. As they point out, “Without work achievements, there is little to recognize.”


For leaders who want to motivate their teams, the trick isn’t telling employees they’re great. It’s setting them up to achieve greatness.

4 Leadership Strategies That Move the Team Forward

How can leaders emphasize progress? Try the following four strategies:

1. Limit setbacks by providing the support your team needs

Great leaders clear the way for progress by setting clear goals, ensuring employees have sufficient resources and training, and then giving them the freedom to succeed.

“[You] can alter the meaningfulness of work by shifting people’s perceptions of their jobs and even themselves,” explains Amabile and Kramer. “For instance, when a manager makes sure that people have the resources they need, it signals to them that what they are doing is important and valuable.”

Once employees know what they need to achieve and have everything they need to achieve it, allow them the autonomy to do work they can feel good about.

For example, Zappos gives every call center representative full autonomy to make customer service decisions—whether that means issuing refunds, upgrading shipping, or sending gifts to loyal shoppers. The result: Increased productivity and creativity and reduced sick time and turnover.

2. Celebrate small wins and individual contributions 

According to Amabile and Kramer, small victories can be huge motivators. They write:

The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions.

In most cases, real progress takes time. But you don’t have to wait until a product, solution, or campaign takes off before you celebrate. Instead, look for opportunities to recognize and savor small victories along the way.

Maybe someone has a great idea that leads to a breakthrough, or the team reaches a milestone, or a customer shares positive feedback. Any sign of forward progress is worth calling out.

idea spark

3. Remove fear from the leadership equation 

Fear is certainly a strong motivator, and the fight or flight response it creates in the brain can be useful for firefighters, soldiers, and other professions where lives are on the line. But in creative fields, where workers must take risks to innovate, fear impedes progress.

As motivation expert Daniel Pink explained to The Washington Post, “Negative emotions, fear being the poster child, narrow our perspective. Positive emotions, by contrast, typically widen our perspective. That’s why fear isn’t so great a motivator for, say, long term, creative, conceptual tasks.”

Understanding the value of positive psychology, VF Corporation—owner of The North Face, Timberland, and other popular brands—is working to remove fear from its company culture, starting with the fear of change.

Soon Yu, the company’s global vice president of innovation and a major driver behind the efforts to eradicate fearfulness at work, says the trick is breaking big projects into small steps. By setting short-term goals that can easily be achieved and celebrated, the task becomes less intimidating.

He also encourages employees to risk failure by setting a strong example. He told The Washington Post, “My number one job is to be the biggest failure in the company and be OK with it.”

Yu’s efforts have paid off tenfold, resulting in so many creative ideas that VF developed a Corporate Innovation Fund, through which the company literally invests in employees’ ideas. The result: Over the last four and a half years, 100 fearless employees have contributed ideas to a $2 billion product pipeline.


In a sense, emphasizing progress is a close cousin of workplace optimism. When people see the glass as half full, they’re more likely to focus on their progress rather than their setbacks.


Apparel company Life Is Good understands this better than most companies. In fact, optimism is the retailer’s brand, and as it turns out, a hot commodity. Brothers Bert and John Jacobs started the company in 1994, selling t-shirts out of their van. Today, their positivity-promoting products are sold in 4,500 stores nationwide, and the company is worth $100 million.

This company’s inspiring mission to “spread the power of optimism” doesn’t just drive sales; it also motivates workers. As one employee explains, “When you use [optimism] on a day-to-day basis, as it applies to your job, it makes coming here fun. And those challenges turn into something fun: ‘I need to solve this issue. It’ll be fun to do it and achieve it as a team.’ That’s kinda how I see the half-full philosophy.”

Bottom line: If you want motivated employees, create an environment where they have the resources, support, and optimistic outlook needed to make forward progress. Then get out of the way and let them achieve greatness.

Read Next: Rewards and recognition: The keys to motivating your employees

Image credit: Shutterstock

This post first appeared on Skyword.