Are 'The Best Places to Work' really the best?

Fortune Magazine just released its annual list of the 100 best workplaces. The perks are nice, but that's not what really motivates employees to do their best.

Kai Ryssdal: The cover story of the latest issue of Fortune Magazine is its annual list of the 100 best places to work. Salary, benefits, perks, intangibles -- all the standard measurements.

Commentator Teresa Amabile says there's something missing from the survey.

Teresa Amabile: The list might make you conclude that the best workplaces have fantastic perks and lots of fun every day. Sure, the techies at Google love the free gourmet food, and Zappos employees get a kick out of playing Nerf Dart war. But all of that misses the most important element of employee engagement: helping them succeed at work that matters.

My research team and I analyzed nearly 12,000 work diaries from professionals in seven different companies. We discovered something we call the progress principle. That may sound like "management speak" to you, but here's the thing: It really is all about management. The single most important thing that can keep workers deeply, happily engaged on the job is moving forward on work they care about -- even if the progress is an incremental "small win." And the event that most often makes for a bad day at work, feeling like you are being stalled. The negative effect of these setbacks, on motivation and emotion, is two-to-three times stronger than the positive effect of progress.

Your bosses -- and how they manage you -- make all the difference. The best managers in our study paid attention to progress and supported it every day. They set clear goals and gave people autonomy in meeting those goals. As a result, their employees stayed committed, productive and creative. Sure, cool perks are great. Who doesn't want gourmet food and game time? But it's the feeling of getting somewhere that keeps people jazzed about what they do at work.

And that takes work.

Ryssdal: Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School. Send us your thoughts about where you work or anything else.

About the author

Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of "The Progress Principle."
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I worked for a company that made the Top 50 Fortune list and it was MISERABLE. Great pay. Terrible management. I have found that the best companies I've ever worked for have these traits in common:

1) Probably the greatest pleasure is to work with other really smart, talented people who naturally problem-solve -- A-team people. Management's job is to recruit these people. And you can't do it if you're insecure and incompetent.
2) It helps when you feel like management is also talented, hard-working and competent in their domain.
3) What tends to energize the organization is when management articulates "here is how we are going to change our industry" -- and then follows-through. They call this "having vision".

I've had the free lunches, been thrown stock options and the like. But I work because I really desire to make a difference and when management understands that fact, they will tap into the nerve center that spurs true motivation.

I used to work for a company in middle Tennessee that bragged about their Best Place to Work awards but their surveys always had PIN codes to enter. They told us every week to find the right fit or get off the bus, so we were afraid not to give them good ratings and PIN codes told us they could tell who didn't complete the surveys or give good ratings. I always remember that experience when I see this kind of award.

I'd like to share this story with my organizational communication behavior students, but the audio does not play.

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