Appreciating progress will boost performance

Is the workplace getting worse or better?

If we take Gallup annual polls results, it’s inevitable to jump into the conclusion that it’s broken. We all start to point out fingers — people are disengaged, want to do the bare minimum and ready to jump into a new job.

But, what if that’s just one side of the story? Not every organization is broken, and not everything within most companies is terrible either.

Maybe employee disengagement is not just a reflection of their workplace, but we fail to appreciate progress.

 

Things are much better than we think

Perception clouds our judgment — we are all biased, especially when evaluating our own situation.

Take the world, for example. Only less than 10% of people believe it’s much better than it used to be. Every generation felt the same — they thought theirs was experiencing the worst crisis ever.

But, if we analyze statistical facts, the world has been getting better, and better, as I wrote here. Life expectancy continues to rise, child mortality continues to drop, and more people are living in democracies. Fact analysis by various scientists shows that progress has occurred not only in developing countries but across the board.

It makes sense to think that the workplace might be experiencing a similar phenomenon — we can’t appreciate progress.

One of the first steps we take, when consulting organizations, is helping uncover the good within. Most teams have a lot of good talented people, hidden superpowers, unused resources, and practices that are unnoticed.

Instead of trying to fix them, we want to amplify what’s already working.

When we start working with a new team, it seems their perception doesn’t match reality. Many people think their team is worse than it actually is — they assume the grass is always greener on the other side.

Acknowledging progress doesn’t mean conformism. But, we must appreciate the journey if we want to get to a better destination.

Here are some of the most frequent reason why people don’t appreciate progress — and what you can do about it.

 

1. Rigid deadlines

Deadlines are one of the most significant sources of stress in the workplace. The perception that they are non-negotiable makes us feel miserable and causes burnout — a key reason why people are disengaged.

The pressure to deliver on time harms people self-esteem — they feel worthless. Even if they achieved 95% of a project, not meeting a deadline is like not having done anything at all.

Women suffer from this phenomenon more than men — they worry their managers would judge them more harshly. However, research shows that 95% of people who asked for more time, got it. According to the study, managers perceived both male and female employees who asked for an extension as more motivated than those who didn’t.

What you can do:

Communicate clearly: Don’t add more pressure than needed. Let people know that it’s okay to ask for more time with a good reason. Make sure the end deadline is the real one — there’s no need to add pressure by creating fictional end-dates.

Involve your team: Make all your team’s deadlines public — transparency is key for collaboration. When one team is falling behind schedule, another can volunteer to lend a hand. Encourage your team members to negotiate dates among them, not just with you.

 

2. Big goals

Lofty goals can be inspirational, but also intimidating. When the mission is too big, it’s harder for people to figure out the specific tasks required. There are a lot of uncertainty and unknowns.

Imagine a team working on 5 G implementation — it can take a couple of years from kick-off to inception. It’s very challenging to define clear budgets, timelines, etc. when your initial stage is full of assumptions.

Also, for long-term projects, people won’t know if something is working until it’s finished — only then they can measure the ‘big’ goal.

As this HBR article explains, “to achieve a large-scale goal for the first time, it is best to work your way up through more manageable projects.” The idea is that, by tackling smaller projects, people get early feedback, learn on the go, and can adjust their approach.

Managers shouldn’t expect a team to figure everything out the first time they are doing something — especially when they are working on a significant project.

What you can do:

Set up smaller goals: Divide the larger goals into smaller chunks. Use them to assess progress, identify learnings, make necessary adjustments, and recognize the team is making headway.

Implement Minimum Viable Changes (MVC): When organizations try to change everything at once, they end changing nothing. I use the term ‘MVC’ to refer to a small dose of change that can create a big impact. MVCs are easy to implement, create less resistance, and drive momentum.

3. Perfectionism

Perfectionists believe that working over and over on something will make it better. The truth is, there’s a point in time when the extra effort not only doesn’t add to the end result but it also becomes unnoticed to managers.

Perfectionism doesn’t mean setting the bar high — it’s when nothing ever feels good enough. Perfectionists can’t let go. They are always focusing on what’s missing instead of appreciating progress.

Whether it’s your organizational culture, your manager or yourself — a perfectionist mindset can kill a team. You have to conquer it before it conquers you.

Perfectionism is an illusion — we believe it makes us better but actually harms the team.

What you can do:

Freeze the project: Perfectionism is a moving target; at some point, you have to end the futile chase. The automotive industry calls it “freeze the project.” Designing a new car is a never-ending race — you must put a stop if you want to launch it.

Let go: Perfectionist managers have a hard time delegating — they want to have the last word on every project. Spotify builds squads — small cross-functional, self-organized teams — that have end-to-end responsibilities to run a design project. Managers and teams align on the mission, and then the squad figures out the solution — no one tells them to “build a bridge.”

Autonomy let’s team do their best and put perfectionist bosses at rest.

Source: Spotify Engineering Culture

4. Long-term focus

Visionary leaders drive an organization toward a lofty ambition.

However, a company’s purpose or 10-year vision can be daunting for many. People are better at concentrating on what they can achieve in the short-term — they focus on today’s or next week‘s goals.

Research found out that people overestimate how long-term benefits influenced their persistence. Enjoyment and doing what matters were reported as critical reasons for them to stick with their long-term goals.

The study uncovered that immediate benefits are what separates perseverant, successful people from the rest. While a long-term vision is essential to set goals; short-term rewards are what keep people engaged and motivated. For example, among gym goers, those who focused on enjoyment completed 52% more repetitions of their exercise compared to those who focused on effectiveness.

What you can do:

Celebrate small victories: Identify clear milestones that are worth honoring. High-altitude climbers celebrate reaching each camp, not just when they get to the top of the mountain.

Have fun: Making work more enjoyable — like listening to music, a relaxed atmosphere, and team outings — can improve your team’s engagement. Fun is not the opposite of work — it’s actually the best way to learn and improve people’s ability to innovate.

 

5. We don’t make time

Most teams are always on — they are so busy taking care of day-to-day stuff, that they never pause to reflect on how things are going.

Busyness is a symptom of inefficient time management — we are not prioritizing what really matters.

Organizations must make time to pause and reflect. A study found that regularly and deliberately acknowledging progress improves our mental health and physical well-being. Additional research shows that being thankful strengthens our relationships, improves sleep, and boosts self-esteem.

What you can do:

Ongoing feedback: Regular conversations about performance drive continuous learning and improvement — they provide room to acknowledge achievements, no matter how small. That’s why most organizations are ditching annual performance reviews — don’t wait until the year is over to celebrate individual and collective progress.

Team retrospectives: Take your team out of the office to acknowledge progress — address emotions, engagement, collaboration, what’s working and what can be improved. Most teams do project-focused retrospectives; I strongly recommend having one — once or twice per year — to reflect on team dynamics, not a specific project.

 

Happiness in the workplace is not driven by ping-pong tables, free meals or salary raised. Those might help, but have a short-term effect — we quickly go back to our normal state, as I wrote here.

Work satisfaction is not about having the perfect environment or job, but appreciating the good. I’m not advocating for conformism. We should all aim for better and better. However, to move to the next level, we must first appreciate what got us where we are.

Appreciating progress is the foundation for improvement — acknowledging achievements excites and motivates people to go for more.

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