The Perils of Workplace Gamification

Article by:

Thierry Poitras
EO Québec
Thierry Poitras - EO Québec

The word “gamification” entered our business lexicon in 2010, but the concept has been around since at least the 1970s with “Salesperson of the Month” contests. Gamification is hailed as a panacea by HR professionals and managers who want to drive employee engagement and productivity in a lively, participatory way. The idea of applying game theory—Earn points! Win badges! Get on the leaderboard!—to galvanize employees in support of organizational goals sounds like a win-win. Rather than being a universal cure for workplace woes, however, gamification can go sideways fast without a well-conceived strategy.

Here’s an example: Jack, a call-center manager, decides a series of contests will motivate his employees. A die-hard football fan, he spends weeks crafting a sports-themed program and launches it with more pomp and circumstance than the Super Bowl. Rather than motivating employees, the program falls as flat as a deflated (ahem!) football. Why? Sixty percent of his team doesn’t watch or even enjoy sports. And the prizes he offered—caps and t-shirts—are usually relegated to the donation pile. Jack didn’t do his research. Such failures are common due to a complete misuse and misunderstanding of gamification in the workplace.

One problem is that companies deploy gamification as an end unto itself, when it should be the means to an end. If the game becomes the focus rather than the organization’s goals, the work at hand isn’t taken seriously. Where’s the ROI in that? In a nutshell, HR, performance and organizational challenges can’t be fixed through gamification alone. To change employee behavior, you have to motivate employees and cultivate engagement. Studies show that motivation and engagement come from having clear goals, tracking progress, getting constructive feedback and developing a sense of team spirit. Let’s explore some common gamification mistakes and how to remedy them:

Completely ignore company culture and staff personalities. As Jack demonstrated, you’re doomed if you neglect to align gamification strategy and incentives with employees’ genders, age groups, preferences, cultures and values. Know your audience.

Develop a one-size-fits-all program. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to gamification. What motivates a sales team likely won’t work with field technicians. Recognize what gets your teams fired up. Competition? Collaboration? Sci-Fi? Fashion? Don’t exclude any segment of your staff. Sometimes incentives for high-achievers can discourage staff members who aren’t as likely to climb the leaderboard.

Base your gamification strategy solely on competition. Don’t turn your workplace into “Game of Thrones.” While friendly competition can bolster team spirit, pitting employees against each other can obscure the purpose of your incentive program— they just want to win.

Set unrealistic and unachievable goals. You want your team to aim high. You’re under pressure to hit sales targets or decrease customer complaints. However, if goals are unattainable, no matter how much gamification you add, employees won’t succeed. Instead, target reasonable, bite-sized goals.

Design a behemoth contest with one huge prize at year’s end. A single grand prize won’t motivate dozens of employees to achieve targets. Keep employees engaged by dividing your gamified incentive program into digestible monthly or quarterly chunks. Staff members will be more enthusiastic about multiple chance to win. Attaining monthly goals fosters long-term, cumulative achievements.

Don’t measure ROI. Without measuring ROI for both your incentive program and accompanying gamification strategy, how will you know its value? Always take the pulse to justify results and determine whether you chose the right KPIs from the get-go.

I’m not bashing gamification; it can be a very potent solution to jumpstarting employee performance. However, I am calling out ineffective and downright absurd gamification implementations without legitimate goals, strategies or consideration for employees. It’s not about playing games. It’s about fundamental human nature. With that thought firmly in mind, game on!

Thierry Poitras (pictured) is an EO Québec member, as well as the founder and CEO of Greatify, whose mission is to restore performance and engagement in the workplace. Contact Thierry at thierry@greatify.com.

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