Progress: I’m on my way!

The intrinsic motivator of Progress is all about movement. 

Promising Career
Unpromising Career
“He’s getting ahead” “I’m stuck, there’s nowhere else to go here”
“She’s shooting straight to the top” “It’s a dead-end job”
“It’s got a lot of upward mobility” “She’s trapped and needs to quit”
“He’s moving up, no doubt” “He’s in a career rut”
“I’ve been advancing quickly” “My career has completely stalled”

These are all common ways of describing a promising or unpromising career. Notice how they are all based upon the concept of movement? There is a reason that we call it a career “path”. “Path” indicates a route forward, a way of moving from here to there, where “there” includes greater experience, responsibility, autonomy, recognition and compensation. But there’s another reason that we call it a “path” and not a “portal”, it takes time to navigate the path.  Striding down a path takes time and may have some detours along the way.

Of all the intrinsic motivators Progress can be one of the most difficult to effectively manage. It is influenced so heavily by an employee’s expectations and those expectations are greatly impacted by their perception of time.  The challenge is to ensure progress to those who have earned it while managing their expectations about when such progress should occur. There are three actions that managers can take to feed their team’s intrinsic desire for progress while tempering the impatience that is often coupled with youth and/or ambition.

Map it: What’s the destination?

Let’s face it, the nature of a career path is that you want to move forward no matter where you are now, whether you’re a junior rep or the CEO. This is one of the defining characteristics of intrinsic motivators – they can never be satisfied. For this reason, it is imperative that management understands where an employee wants to go, and then provides the roadmap for them to get there. It’s still up to the employee to navigate that path, but at least they will have a roadmap. You may not be able to provide the WHOLE path to the employee’s ultimate goal, but if they can see progress toward that goal, their motivation for progress will be supported. When working with your employees to develop a career path show them clearly:

  • The next stop on the path. Whether it is increased responsibility, a new title, increased pay, or a different position altogether you must clearly communicate the next stop.
  • The route to the next stop. The route could include training, performance KPIs, management recommendations or even time. Yes, time. The route tells them exactly what they must accomplish to progress to the next stop.

Track it: Where are you on the path?

Have you ever noticed that the more times you take the same route, even if that route is hundreds of miles, the shorter it seems to get? There are several reasons for this phenomenon, but one of the most applicable is that a familiar trip has recognizable milestones. These milestones help to frame your reference regarding how far you’ve come and how far you have remaining. Just as a trip without milestones would seem endless, a career path without milestones seems motionless. But it’s not enough to simply create milestones, they need to be visible! For example, if you require a certain volume of inside sales before a rep can move to outside sales, show them their DAILY progress toward that volume goal. By prominently displaying progress toward any measurable milestone you deter the equivalent of the annoying and timeless “are we there yet?” question we’ve all heard from kids on road trips.  Impatience can be greatly tempered when they see that they are indeed getting closer to the next step in their career.

Get out of the way:  Is the path obstacle free?

My cousin works for a technology company that prides itself on providing unlimited upward potential to Millennials and Gen Z employees. She joined the company specifically because they did such a great job of demonstrating how a person could progress from an entry-level role to a more challenging and lucrative position in a variety of different departments. “Work hard, learn the ropes, and we’ll take you places”, she was told.

Imagine her frustration when this same company decided to hire an entire tier of mid-level managers from outside the company directly into her next role. This company was built by hiring talented young people who would work at a less-than-desirable role initially with the payoff of incredible advancement opportunities down the road. By filling the positions with outsiders, they:

  • Betrayed the work/reward agreement they made to their junior employees
  • Increased the perceived (and real) time to achieve the next stop on their career path
  • Communicated that they didn’t trust their own employees’ competence
  • Failed to leverage the intellectual capital held by their employees
  • …and CRUSHED the intrinsic motivator of Progress for their staff!

Don’t job-block your own employees.

I have worked in several environments (both insurance and software) where it is more difficult to replace highly trained frontline support staff than it is to fill management positions from outside. Do not hold a person in a role because they are too valuable to YOU in that role. The temporary benefit you derive from “stability” will quickly be offset by lower morale, leading to higher turnover and the loss of priceless intellectual capital.

Progress is a partnership between the employee and the employer in which both parties have responsibilities. Employees must be accountable and master skills in their current position before they can expect to move forward. Managers must communicate the path forward, measure their progress along the way, and facilitate their forward movement. Movement creates momentum. Create enough momentum and your company becomes unstoppable.

Seth Preus
Seth Preus

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”