Here’s a tale of yet another software system that gamifies the workplace with the justification that it enhances employee engagement. Actually, it sounds pretty cool and may well be worth its costs with whatever benefits it may or may not generate versus the distractions it definitely will generate. I’ve yet to personally witness or directly connect with a significant workplace that has done this for a significant amount of time and publicly raves about the tangible, measured and proven results. Alfie Kohn might be controversial but his research does not reinforce the use of what he would term ‘bribes’. And that is what ‘points for prizes’ are.
Genuine engagement comes from an internal motivation. If the gamified points-for-prizes were removed, would the desired behaviours continue? Nope. And you’ve thoroughly reinforced the position that they shouldn’t. Plus, the incidental stuff that isn’t directly being bribed via points-for-prizes suffers. “Is this going to be in the test?”
“…money affects our attention as shown by Alfie Kohn’s experiment where participants are given cash for remembering words on cards, but they are almost unable to remember any of the word cards’ colours. That wasn’t what they were focused on so their incidental learning was minimal. The same goes for our incidental attention.” – From my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’
Of course, that is assuming there is a culture of support already in existence for people’s internal motivation. Given the generally terrible levels of engagement everywhere, this clearly isn’t the case. If motivation levels are starting from a baseline of terrible, I guess the games can’t make things any worse. But is, “Can’t make it any worse” really a sound tick in any cost / benefit analysis for a software investment or intrusive engagement project?
Carol Dweck might argue that the problem isn’t that we reward, but what and how we reward.
“Dweck’s famous finding from this and other studies was that people tended to fall into one of two groups. There are those who believe that their talents are a fixed trait. They believe they are or they aren’t fast, strong, smart, etc. This is the fixed mindset group. Then there are those who believe that talent is something that can be developed. This is the growth mindset group. You can tell them apart by their behaviour towards work and mistakes. If you have a fixed mindset and believe you are what you are then why would you work hard and why would you attempt something new or challenging that could lead you to making mistakes and being judged on them? Growth mindset people do the work and see mistakes as a pathway to learning. They use the word “yet” a lot. They say, “I did” versus “I am”. For them, becoming is better than being.” – From my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’
So, by all means, play your silly games and see how it goes. True ongoing engagement that drives productivity comes from a working environment supportive of people’s need for autonomy, development and a sense of meaning in what they do, and a pay level sufficient to remove money as a worry. If points-for-prizes are offered as a short-term attention campaign, I can see it working in a focused way in an area with a definite problem. A health and safety campaign or a wellness campaign for example are, in themselves, good things and might contribute to an overall enhancement of engagement.
I’m trying not to be a hater here on the points and games, but all the info I see on them right now seem to come from those selling systems. Once I hear some credible and independent success stories, I tend to be a lot more generous of spirit.
This ComputerWorld article refers to businesses that have used online games to stimulate customer interest, involvement and eventually revenue for the business. “The Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s home loans division has employed gamification to boost revenue. It’s ‘Investorville’ app lets consumers go through a simulated process of property investment, with the aim of making people feel more comfortable about signing up for a CBA home loan.”
The article then goes on to ask the question – Can the same approach rekindle or kindle employee interest, participation, focus and effectiveness? I think I recall reading somewhere that some spy agencies are recruiting using online games. More for the nerd roles than the James Bond roles.
Certainly when you watch gamers, even non-obese ones with reasonable skin conditions, they seem very very focused. If that’s what you’re looking for in an employee then maybe consider gamification. But focus is a double-edged sword. Strong focus on one thing makes the brain very susceptible to not noticing anything else. I heard a radio interview yesterday with adventure racer Steve Gurney who, amongst his many adrenalin-fuelled experiences, had been hit by a train in the middle of a race. He had stopped on the crossing to look for the next marker. He was very competitive and focused on winning what was, in effect, a game. Very focused on one thing. The interviewer asked him how he had come to be hit by the noisy train. “I didn’t notice it…”
That quote might not be exact. Check out the whole interview here. He is an awesome achiever and I’m keen to check out his new book ‘Eating Dirt.’ Here’s the blurb: For adventurer Steve Gurney, life is about taking risks and he fears that New Zealand society has become over-regulated, risk-averse, and wrapped in cotton wool. His challenge is to let children make mistakes, climb trees and play bullrush – to help them learn how to find their limits in later life.
I also highly recommend the book ‘The Invisible Gorilla’ which expands on ‘Inattentional Blindness.’ Gurney’s train incident might be better labelled ‘Over-attentional Blindness.’ It wasn’t that he wasn’t paying attention. He was. It was just that the game blinkered that attention extremely narrowly. And that’s what happens in workplaces where the total focus is limited. Be it money or whatever, if workplace leaders using incentives or gamification to redirect or narrow the focus, just be aware of unintended consequences or the light at the end of your tunnel might be the headlamp of an oncoming train.
And, for banks, it shouldn’t be too hard for a game designer to make a version of Angry Birds called ‘Angry Investors.’