Progress is a powerful human motivator. But unfortunately, many teams mark progress only when projects are complete or big milestones are crossed. They don’t often celebrate small wins that build up to those big completions.
But recent research suggests that small wins celebrated regularly are a more potent way to keep teams engaged and motivated. In a landmark study from Teresa Amabile, participants were most energized and motivated not in the aftermath of a big celebration, but when they had little breakthroughs—when they found small wins to celebrate.
In this article, we’ll outline four keys to celebrate small wins on teams more powerfully, so that small wins can have a BIG effect on your team’s motivation.
The first key to celebrating small wins on teams is to celebrate daily. It’s important to have a ritual on your team where wins are celebrated on a regular basis—preferably daily. Celebrating daily has two big effects on teams. The first is that it becomes something embedded in the culture and something that makes the day feel incomplete without the celebration moment. The second is that it reinforces the message that a win is a win no matter how small, and that gradually encourages the team to look beyond big milestones and appreciation smaller victories much more.
There are a few good ways to celebrate daily. You could end each day with a different member of the team sharing their win, with a new person every day. Or if you have the time, you could do one win per person every day. But you could also make it a game by trying to find three wins each day and seeing how long into the day it takes to get there. If you’re on site, hang a whiteboard where everyone can see it. If you’re remote or hybrid, make it a dedicated channel in Slack, Teams, or whatever communication tool you use. Regardless, celebrate daily in order to reiterate the concept that there is something worth celebrating every single day.
The second key to celebrating small wins on teams is to celebrate progress. As reviewed above, progress is a powerful human motivator. Many teams only measure progress based on external markers like milestones or project completions. And that can be highly motivating and an easy way to connect small wins to progress. Even if it’s a very little victory, when it’s listed, you can talk about how that win brings the team closer to a significant milestone or to project completion.
But savvy leaders connect small wins to internal progress as well. Many individual victories listed during daily small win sessions will be more indicative of that person’s improved skills or career progress. So, make the effort to remind the person celebrating how that win never would have happened without the growth in a specific area that you’ve noticed over time—and even better if you can point to the future growth that win suggests. Between external and internal markers of progress, it should be simple to connect every victorious moment to the momentum of your team.
The third key to celebrating small wins on teams is to celebrate contributions. Work is teamwork. Most victories are a team effort—even small wins. It may have been volunteering to help on a specific project, or just handing off their work in a timely fashion so the next person could build upon it. Some people do have small wins in isolation, but more likely someone else’s effort contributed in some way to that person’s success. So, when one teammate is stating their win, make sure they’re also expressing gratitude to the teammates that helped them.
Ideally, teammates learn over time to use small win celebrations as a gratitude exercise as well. But as a leader you may need to model the way during your shares and ask specific questions that draw out the contribution when others share. Overtime, that should turn celebrating contributions into a regular habit on the team. And the team will internalize their interdependence upon each other—and celebrate their collaborations as well.
The fourth key to celebrating small wins on teams is to celebrate impact, as in celebrate the impact that this win is going to have not on the team but on the people who that team serves. Progress is a potent motivator but it’s even more potent when combined with a sense of purpose. And the clearest, more powerful way to help employees feel purpose in their work is to connect their work to an act of service—the more specific the connection the better. Leaders ought to provide a concise answer to the question “who is served by the work that we do.” The “who” could be customers or end users, or stakeholders, or even other teams inside the organization who are enabled by the work your team does.
So, when teams celebrate small wins, help them connect the win to how it serves those beneficiaries. Hopefully, they notice the connection on their own but if not, you may need to ask specific questions that draw that connection out. Ending each celebration session with a connection to impact and purpose reminds people that their work matters—and hence their wins matter as well.
In the end, that’s what most individuals and teams need to be motivated by their work. They need to know their work matters. And a daily ritual of celebrating small wins (and the contributions, progress, and impact of those wins) becomes a daily reminder of what matters. And that should motivate everyone on the team to do their best work ever.
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