Human ingenuity knows no bounds.
Think of the greatest feats ever accomplished by mankind—be it inventing the printing press, distributing electricity, creating bionic cats, or even machines that can beat you at a game of checkers; all of these feats have one thing in common—they started from little wins.
Nobody woke up one day and decided to send a man to the moon. Every significant feat requires weeks, months, or even years of grind, sweat, and toil. However, one thing is clear—even the smallest of accomplishments can snowball and build up to something that is truly remarkable.
We get that there are HR professionals out there who believe that praise and recognition are better limited to big wins that concoct massive results. But we’re here to tell you why this is a grave misconception.
Why you should rethink your idea of a “win”
In the hustle and bustle of the workplace, it's easy to overlook the accomplishment of minor goals or tasks that contribute to overall progress. Completing a project milestone, resolving a customer issue, or learning a new skill may seem like small victories, but they can add up over time and make a significant impact on your organization in the near future.
We know about the domino effec'—a term used to describe a chain reaction-like phenomenon, where one event triggers a secondary event and so on, resulting in a cascade of events that can have far-reaching consequences. The term is thought to have been coined by American journalist and author James Hagerty in 1949 to describe the fall of European countries to communism.
But what is its significance with respect to human behavior? The domino effect states that when you make a change to one behavior, it will activate a chain reaction and cause a shift in related behaviors as well. For example, whenever you celebrate small wins, such as making your bed in the morning, you’re more motivated to repeat it and build upon it the next morning. The following video better demonstrates the true potential of the domino effect:
A single 5-millimeter tile holds the potential to topple one as large as the Empire State Building!
It may sound insane, but that is the true potential of small wins. Why then do leaders limit praise to the biggest tiles, ignoring the smaller ones that lead to it in the first place?
When employees feel appreciated and recognized for the small things they do every day, it can make a big impact on their motivation and morale. A simple thank you, a small gesture of appreciation or a word of encouragement can go a long way in creating a habit of that little win and building stronger wins upon it.
Why we tend to downplay small wins
It's easy to become consumed by macroscopic views of progress. We often measure success by the shipping of major projects or the attainment of large goals, overlooking the power of small wins. A major feature release is great; a small bug fix is minor progress. But why is this the case? What is it about smaller wins that make them seem less significant?
One explanation may lie in our natural tendency to focus on immediate gratification. We're wired to seek out the quick rewards of big successes rather than the slower, more incremental gains of small victories. For example, shipping across a major project or landing a huge contract with a client may seem like praise-worthy wins as compared to completing a set of small, but particularly difficult tasks, or learning a valuable new skill.
Additionally, our capitalist culture often glorifies the idea of the "big wins"—the revenue generators, the ones that create more jobs, the ones that make the most profit. Whether it’s an overnight success story, a massive product launch, or a viral marketing campaign, from a capitalist lens, the incremental, smaller wins that made them possible become invisible.
Focusing on small wins can also help create a sense of progress and momentum. When employees are able to see progress and success in their work, even in small ways, it can boost their confidence and inspire them to keep pushing forward. This is better illustrated by what is known as ‘the progress principle.’
We need a better yardstick
The progress principle is a concept in organizational psychology that suggests that people are most motivated when they feel they are making progress toward meaningful goals. This principle was first proposed by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.
According to the progress principle, when individuals experience a sense of progress in their work, they are more likely to feel motivated, engaged, and satisfied with their jobs. This progress can come in many forms, including small wins, learning new skills, overcoming obstacles, and achieving milestones. Importantly, the progress must be perceived as meaningful to the individual, aligned with their values and goals, and recognized by others.
“Our research inside companies revealed that the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress—even small wins. But the managers in our survey ranked 'supporting progress' dead last as a work motivator.”
― Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work
Research conducted by Amabile and Kramer at Harvard Business School has found that small wins have a significant impact on employee motivation and creativity. In a study of knowledge workers, they found that when employees made progress on their work, even small amounts of progress, it had a positive effect on their emotions, motivation, and creativity. They also found that the frequency of small wins was more important than the size of the win.
Hence, small progress on a regular basis is more motivating and effective than large progress made infrequently.
The progress principle suggests that organizations can foster motivation and engagement by creating an environment that supports individual progress, such as providing challenging tasks, opportunities for learning and development, and recognition for accomplishments. By doing so, organizations can help individuals feel more fulfilled in their work and ultimately improve performance and productivity.
The impact of small wins is cumulative
In one of their most famous studies, Amabile and Kramer asked participants to keep daily work diaries for several months. The diaries were analyzed to identify the events that occurred at work and the impact that those events had on the participants' emotions and motivation.
The study found that making progress on meaningful work every day, even if it was only a small win, was the biggest driver of motivation and positive emotions in the workplace. Participants who reported such progress reported feeling happier, more engaged, and more motivated than those who did not make progress on meaningful work. They also discovered that celebrating small wins improves team dynamics.
Most notably, Amabile and Kramer found that the impact of small wins was cumulative, meaning that making progress on meaningful work every day, even if it was just a small win, led to a sense of momentum and progress that carried over into the next day. Ring a bell? That’s precisely what was happening to the dominos in the earlier video!
In other words, small wins can build on each other to create a sense of progress and momentum that can be incredibly motivating for employees. Overall, this study suggests that by recognizing and celebrating small wins, organizations can help employees feel a sense of progress and momentum in their work, which can, in turn, lead to higher levels of motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction.
The HR leader’s guide to acknowledging small wins
When employees feel valued and recognized for their efforts, they are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and committed to their work. So how can you, as an HR leader, create a culture of recognizing small wins within your organization?
Firstly, celebrating achievements is not always about throwing a party or handing out awards—this can be impractical to execute for everyday small wins. Rather, it’s about creating a culture that values progress and recognizes the hard work made by your employees that often goes unnoticed in the big picture. This could be as simple as a quick shout-out in a team meeting or an email highlighting a colleague's achievements.
As an HR leader, you can help develop the skills and attitudes of your management-level employees when it comes to celebrating smaller achievements as much as major ones. This includes providing training and coaching on how to provide effective feedback and recognition and how to create a culture that values effort and hard work.
Leading by example is the easiest way HR leaders can create such a culture. For example, highlight positive contributions made by individual employees or teams during meetings or in company communications. Providing real-time social recognition tools can be an easy medium for employees to give and receive appreciation for their achievements—be they big or small.
Another solution is to create a platform specifically for the purpose of celebrating small wins publicly, such as through an intranet or company-wide email or a dedicated Slack channel. Celebrating small wins in a public setting can create a sense of community and encourage employees to strive for excellence.
Celebrating small wins can inspire innovative thinking
By recognizing and celebrating small successes, individuals and teams are encouraged to take risks, try new approaches, and experiment with creative solutions. This can lead to an increase in confidence and fuels innovative thinking as well as a willingness to take on bigger challenges. Additionally, celebrating small wins can help break down larger goals into more manageable pieces, making it easier to achieve progress and maintain momentum.
Ultimately, celebrating small wins is about more than just boosting employee motivation and engagement—it's about building a culture of support and positivity that can help your employees, and thereby your organization, thrive.
So why not start today by recognizing and celebrating the small wins in your own work and the work of those around you? Who knows what positive change it might inspire!