Employee Engagement: Goals with ‘Warning Labels'

/ 30 June 2020

In his 2014 book GAMIFY, Gartner research VP Brian Burke, wrote that “Employee-focused applications are the fastest-growing area for gamification solutions and the reason is not surprising… employee engagement is dismal in many organisations, which makes for a target-rich environment.”

Fast forward to 2020 and we got in touch with Brian and asked whether he still felt the same way; he told us that employee-focused applications still clearly dominated as a target audience for deployments of gamification solutions, and that “Training appears to be the #1 use case, but there are many more opportunities.”

He re-emphasized a key theme of the book, “solutions must be focused on enabling employees to meet their individual goals as a primary objective. When employer goals and individual goals are aligned, employer goals will be met as a consequence of meeting employee goals. While that is a limitation on the potential use cases, there are still many opportunities. Use cases for gamification in employee focused solutions include: security awareness, sales productivity, workforce engagement, innovation management, recruiting and culture change.”

Aligning the goals of employer and employee is hugely important to the successful application of gamification.

In ‘Drive’, Daniel H. Pink noted, “goals that people set for themselves are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others – sales targets, quarterly returns, standardised test scores, and so on – can sometimes have dangerous side effects.” He referenced business school professors who suggested such goals should come with their own warning label…

“Goals may cause systematic problems for organisations due to narrowed focus, unethical behaviour, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organisation”.

The danger comes when an organisation fails to understand the objective of individuals. Microsoft’s failed employee ranking system, ‘Stack Ranking’ (done away with in 2013), is a classic example of getting this wrong and the negative consequences. At its core was a system whereby employees’ expectations for promotion were based on how they were ranked among their peers. The result was that staff hired people weaker than themselves.

It’s all about context. The ranking mechanic can be highly effective when used in the right way, such as the training efforts referenced by Burke. He cited a VP of a healthcare company that delivered a training course through videos, a quiz and leaderboard who said, “Once the players saw their names on the leaderboard and understood they were being ranked against their peers, they actually watched the educational videos two or three times so that when they took the quiz they could get higher scores”. In this case it was healthy competition that aligned the goals of the company and the employees.

Harnessing such motivations is something we have done time and again for clients, particularly for training purposes. It’s about going with the grain of human motivation, rather than against it. 

VIEW CASE STUDY: National Australia Bank creates interactive training journey

Whereas ill-conceived goals can be dangerous, so too can goal vacuums. Toby Beresford writes in the recently released ‘Infinite Gamification’ that “we are all conditioned to calibrate our behavior to the score given to us. Former education tells each of us, right from a young age, to pay attention to scores. We are all hypersensitive to our scores… scores are at the heart of the most important stories we tell ourselves.” He says that if people are not shown their ‘scores’, they’ll probably invent their own; “How many of us have worked in offices where success was thought to be measured in the amount of overtime worked?” In this example, employees may be trying to demonstrate how much work they’re doing (and presumably how much they’re benefiting the company) though an artificial mechanism. We’ve long known that time spent in an office doesn’t equate to business returns in today’s professional industries, yet in the absence of proper goals (and ‘scoring’) it can still be common.

It’s an important point. Whereas dictated goals can be dangerous, so too can assumed goals and scores. The key then is what Edward L. Deci, Ph.D. professor of psychology at the University of Rochester termed ‘autonomy-support’; actively encouraging self-initiation, experimentation, and responsibility within limits of what the organisation needs to achieve. There is a balance to be struck between helping employees develop their own goals and ensuring they are aligned to those of the business. It’s not necessarily easy, which is why so few achieve it at scale, but those that do have a significant advantage.

Businesses today must combine behavioral and motivation sciences and appropriate mechanisms to ensure employer and employee goals are defined and aligned. Gamification is a powerful tool, but you have to know how to wield that tool to get the best results (and avoid the dangerous ones). None of this works unless everyone is on the same page. But when done right, everyone wins big!

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