The Truth About the Secret Psychology of Quick Wins

By Catherine Cheong on October 11, 2016

Last updated: 11 Oct 2016

The psychology of quick wins has become popular these days among business leaders, behavioural economists and psychologists. The idea is rather simple. If employees see quick yet incremental progress in their work (which get celebrated as “wins”), they will feel motivated, be more engaged and, ultimately, become more productive.

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The theory of repeating certain behaviour followed by wins (or pleasant consequences) is nothing new. Over a century ago, American psychologist Edward Thorndike put forward a “law of effect” which states that any behaviour that is followed by responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation.

For example, if a work project is given and successful completion is celebrated as a win (i.e. desired, pleasant effect), an employee will feel energised by the response and strive to repeat those wins.

Such theories are all well and good in the theoretical and scholarly space of psychology and economics, but are they applicable in the workplace?

Can you really “encourage” someone to produce satisfying results, day in, day out by celebrating progress as quick wins?

And how much work are these quick wins going to create for managers? And is it worth the time and hassle?

The psychology of quick wins

Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile, through years of research, introduced what is called the “progress principle” to explain the benefits and efficacy of quick, small wins. 

Amabile’s progress principle states that, of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run, she wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Small wins come from catalysts and nourishers in a person’s workday, which make one feel a sense of progress and meaning in work life, Amabile says. Catalysts include setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, helping with the work and allowing a free exchange of ideas. Nourishers are actions that support work and acts of interpersonal support.

On the flip side, what hinders work life are inhibitors (i.e actions that interfere with work and negatively impact progress) and toxins (i.e. disrespect, discouragement, disregard for emotions, and interpersonal conflict).

[ctt template="11" link="dxUyd" via="yes" ]The single most important driver to boost motivation is making progress in meaningful work @EngageRocketco[/ctt]

Amabile says the central driver of creative, productive performance is the quality of a person’s inner work life—the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions over the course of a workday.

Contrary to traditional belief, Amabile’s research proves that work isn’t just about getting paid and attaining personal and professional success. And it certainly isn’t about achieving some momentous corporate end goal, either.

People are sentient, complex beings, so happiness at work isn’t just about meeting basic needs through earning. Money may give us a certain amount of satisfaction, but it doesn’t necessarily make us feel like we’ve “made a difference.”

Quick wins help achieve ultimate corporate goals

If you focus only on some momentous end goal, then you will not achieve the sense of progress that can come from a series of small wins – which, ultimately, achieve that same goal.


Team wins
Making small, incremental wins together fosters team spirit and motivation


Achieving small wins through catalysts and nourishers also means more immediate, tangible impact: your employees will get an instant boost to their emotions, their motivation to do a great job, and their perceptions of the work and the organisation. They can alter the meaningfulness of work by shifting people’s perceptions of their jobs and even themselves, she adds.

When you feel you have the resources you need to do your job right, you feel your work is valuable. When you feel valued and find greater meaning to the work that you do, you are more inclined to do better work, which translates into corporations reaching their goals. And that is how progress is made, according to Amabile.

Quick wins aren’t so swiftly attained - Expect some hurdles

The real problem with quick wins is that they aren’t that quick and easy to create and don’t come without certain traps.

For one thing, managers may get too caught up on orchestrating a string of quick wins for the wrong reasons. Under the guise of supporting subordinates, managers may put too much pressure on achieving quick, successive wins to rack up brownie points with the powers that be. It’s human nature to want to get ahead and progress, but be mindful about the true reason behind creating opportunities for quick wins for your employees.

Another issue is that criticism may be avoided in an effort to circumvent confrontations (which obviously creates a toxic work environment), causing more problems in the end. Constructive criticism is a necessity in all aspects of life. People do need to have constructive criticism to develop and excel.

But it is the method of delivery which can turn a negative experience such as criticism into a positive one, that helps support and develop an employee, both professionally and even personally.

Micromanaging could also be another drawback of focusing on quick wins. In order for there to be regular and steady progress at work, managers may feel they need to check up on every aspect of their employees’ work, which can be stifling and restrictive.

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Why do we need to care about quick wins?

There is a theory that gets tossed around in jest (and frustration) among top executives who belong, in many cases, to older generations: i.e. pre Gen Y & Z : Why don’t these people just stop expecting to be “happy” at work and just do their jobs?

Why do we need to spend so much money and time on worrying about the “hippie” notion of happiness? Well, the answer is simple. There’s no going back in time. Millennials are here to stay and they make up a fair chunk of your workforce. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there are plenty of Millennials out there—80 million plus (the largest cohort size in history) in the US alone.

And Millennials think differently. They are not afraid to tell you what they’re thinking and they’re looking at the world in a completely different way. They are extremely tech-savvy, which means they’re able to create value and contribute in so many different ways and mediums. An Ernst & Young survey of Millennials showed that 75% want the ability to work flexibly and be on track for promotion. That means they don’t want to just sit at their cubicles to just clock in the hours, as they feel they can contribute from anywhere.


75% of millennials want the ability to work flexibly and be on track for promotion.


Millennials have been branded by pre-Millennials as self-entitled and just plain lazy. But the real issue is that they want more meaning out of work than just meeting corporate goals. They want their work to matter to their lives, not just help pay the bills to keep the lights on at home.

The fact that you have a new-generation workforce that demands a different set of values to your own, means you, as a manager, have to adapt. You have to learn to adjust your mindset and strategies to get the best out of your employees.

Quick wins: Common sense and common decency

At the end of the day, it isn’t rocket science. A lot of it is just common sense. Think about what your employees want, not just long-term but on a day-to-day basis. Acknowledge and give credit generously to those who did the actual work. Be kind, be respectful. Be a resource for your team to draw upon, not a micromanager who just checks up on them. Be positive and be a true team player. Most importantly, communicate with your team and really listen.

But remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t expect to get big results in one fell swoop. Work at the quick wins because those successes will have a multiplier effect which will ultimately help you reach your corporate goal. If you ignore the benefits of quick wins and choose to focus merely on drumming in a top-down corporate strategy, you’ll quickly realise that your workforce will lose interest and motivation.

If a manager facilitates his/her subordinates’ steady progress in meaningful work, make that progress salient to them, and treat them well, they will experience the emotions, motivations, and perceptions necessary for great performance, Amabile found. Their superior work will contribute to organisational success and here’s the beauty of it: They will love their jobs.

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Tags: Leadership, Performance Management