Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance

by Jay Cross on May 6, 2007

An article by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer in Harvard Business Review this month describes “what employees are thinking and feeling as they go about their work, why it matters, and how managers can use this information to improve job performance.”

People experience a constant stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations as they react to and make sense of the events of the workday. As people arrive at their workplaces they don’t check their hearts and minds at the door. Unfortunately, because inner work life is seldom openly expressed in modern organizations, it’s all too easy for managers to pretend that private thoughts and feelings don’t matter.

This is what we mean by inner work life: the dynamic interplay among personal perceptions, ranging from immediate impressions to more fully developed theories about what is happening and what it means; emotions, whether sharply defined reactions (such as elation over a particular success or anger over a particular obstacle) or more general feeling states, like good and bad moods; and motivation—your grasp of what needs to be done and your drive to do it at any given moment. Inner work life is crucial to a person’s experience of the workday but for the most part is imperceptible to others. Indeed, it goes largely unexamined even by the individual experiencing it.

High performance is the product of creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality. People performed better in each of these areas if they were positive about their work. This comes about “when they saw their organizations and leaders as collaborative, cooperative, open to new ideas, able to evaluate and develop new ideas fairly, clearly focused on an innovative vision, and willing to reward creative work.” These results come from day-by-day study of work diaries of 26 teams over a period of months.

The most important factor in satisfaction, and therefore productivity, is knowing that one is productive in one’s work. This takes clear goals and feedback on progress. Next in importance is being treated decently as human beings.

The value created by knowledge workers is heavily influenced by the emotions swirling around in knowledge workers’ heads. This will not be news to those of us who’ve seen our productivity plummet when we encountered severe stress, depression, or low self esteem. Perhaps it’s a surprise to behavioral psychologists, time-and-motion consultants, and hard-nosed managers who see no importance in the “soft stuff.” Time for that crew to wake up and smell the coffee.

Flying home from Toronto last week, I took a booster shot of Peter Drucker. In an HBR article in 2002, They’re Not Employees, They’re People, the management sage wrote, “Knowledge workers are not labor. They are capital. And what is decisive in the performance of capital is not what capital costs. What’s critical is the productivity of capital.”

Business people who remain oblivious to the impact of personal feelings on professional outcomes are missing the boat. (The Clue Boat?)

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