Nurses Value Progress More Than Recognition

Rebecca Hendren, March 2, 2010

At nursing management conferences, the most jam-packed sessions are about retention and recognition. Nurse leaders want fresh ideas to keep staff happy, engaged, and not tempted by the attractive signing bonuses offered at the hospital down the street.

Conference sessions usually focus on recognition and reward as the most important areas, and suggest simple gestures such as sending personalized thank-you notes, or small gifts to nurses who've done a good job.

Is this what nurses value most? Perhaps not. A new study suggests we focus too intently on the warm-and-fuzzy of recognition and reward instead of a bigger nurse value: progress.

Harvard Business Review recently published a multi-year study by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer that tracked the daily activities, emotions, and motivations of hundreds of knowledge workers across a variety of professions.

First, Amabile and Kramer asked more than 600 managers from a range of companies to rank workplace factors in relation to their effect on employee motivation and emotions:

  1. Recognition
  2. Incentives
  3. Interpersonal support
  4. Support for making progress
  5. Clear goals

The managers overwhelmingly ranked "recognition" as the most important factor for employees. But Amabile and Kramer found that employees were happiest, most engaged, and motivated when they made headway in their jobs, or received support to remove obstacles. When obstacles got in their way, they felt weighed down, unmotivated, and dissatisfied.

The study involved gathering more than 12,000 e-mail diary entries from participants, and showed that making progress in one's work—no matter how small or large the progress—is associated with positive emotions and high motivation. The survey notes that when participants experienced progress in their jobs, 76% of them reported it as their best day.

Amabile and Kramer say their findings are good news for managers, who have the power to help staff excel and progress. To make that happen, managers must clarify goals, ensure staff get the right support, and create an environment where minor glitches are seen as learning opportunities, rather than insurmountable hurdles.

This makes sense. Recognizing an employee's hard work is important and affirming, but it won't overcome a poor work environment where nurses feel they are thwarted at every step.

Having said that, don't abandon recognition. Even though progress may be the leading motivator of performance, managers must always recognize staff for a job well done. If nurses meet or exceed their goals, praise them. It reinforces motivation. Everyone wants to believe they are making progress and getting things done, and that their efforts are appreciated.

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Rebecca Hendren Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at
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