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Trumpet progress only if it is real

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

BP chief executive Bob Dudley may be asking for the impossible from the company’s rank and file.

The CEO sent a memo to employees, asking them to look away from the negative headlines and “short-term noise.” He insisted that the company is making “real, solid and measurable progress.”

Given the company’s current struggles, Dudley’s impulse to send a morale-boosting message may have been right. BP is still paying claims for damage to the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Shares are trading more than 40% lower than before the spill.

But Dudley’s plea will rally employees only to the extent that the company’s progress is actually “real, solid and measurable,” says Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School.

Amabile and her husband, Steven Kramer, a developmental psychologist, wrote a book, The Progress Principle, about the importance of removing day-to-day barriers, so employees can feel they’re making progress. Companies like Google know how to support work/life in a way that leads to extraordinary performance.

“Our research inside companies revealed that the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress, even small ones,” the authors write.

So while the impulse to trumpet progress is right, leaders shouldn’t overemphasize or fabricate small wins. “If there’s no progress, that would look fake,” Amabile says.

Cautionary lesson: If your company isn’t actually achieving and making progress, don’t send out a broadcast that claims otherwise. Employees will see straight through it.

--Adapted from “Tiny bursts of joy pave the way to BHAGs,” Andrew Hill, Financial Times, September 12, 2011.


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