Harvard Business School professor Teresa M. Amabile asked 238 professionals to keep diaries of their "inner work lives" while engaged in research and development projects. She and co-author Steven Kramer detail their findings in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. She spoke with Inc. editor at large Leigh Buchanan.

What is "inner work life," and why is it so important?
Inner work life is the combination of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience during their workdays. We discovered that on those days when people had positive inner work lives, they were more likely to be creative and productive.

What affects the quality of inner work life?
When we looked at the diary entries--and we had more than 12,000--what stood out above everything else on people's best days was that they were able to move forward in their work, even if it was just an incremental step forward. That had a huge positive impact on their motivation.

Are managers aware of this?
After we did this study, we surveyed nearly 700 managers, asking them to rank five employee motivators, including recognition and incentives. Progress came in dead last.

What should managers do?
Managers have to pay attention to whether employees are making steady progress, and if not, why not. Do they have clear goals and autonomy about how to pursue those goals? Do they have sufficient resources? There's a big payoff to spending a few minutes a day studying what is going on.