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Are ‘The Best Places to Work’ really the best?

Teresa Amabile Jan 31, 2012

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.

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