Don’t play games with people


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One of the most satisfying contracts I’ve had involved working with a group of team leaders on a manufacturing line back in 2005. We had an introductory tour of the factory floor before we engaged with them and I saw what you would expect to see on an assembly line. Articles being put together in sequence in order to turn out a finished product. Repetitive, time-pressured, loud and VERY hot. Upon meeting with this group and getting to know them, I was astounded to learn that most of them had been with the company for over 10 years, the longest serving being about 25 years. Much to my shame, I will admit that my astonishment was based on a prejudice I had about repetitive work: that it is personally unrewarding, it provides little room for personal development and offered little real challenge to those who carried it out. I never imagined that in this day and age, people would voluntarily choose to stay in a job that involved doing much the same thing, day in and day out, for mediocre financial reward. How wrong I was and how much I learnt from these folks, and their company, about satisfaction and engagement. We were contracted to do some development work which would assist them to grow, not just as team leaders, but as people. This should have given me a clue that this manufacturing company was different from most workplaces.

My memories of this arose thanks to Bob Marshall’s recent post, The Games People Play. The first line really grabbed me: “Gamification bugs me.” I, too, feel uneasy about gamification. I recalled this factory floor and the people who made it run and remembered that engagement at work is not about making it all fun fun fun. While I’m certainly no puritan and I accept that work is better if it’s fun, I would suggest that trying to dilute the meaningless of some jobs by gamifying it is missing the mark entirely. Sure, people are more productive when they’re having fun, but I contend that fun is not about “silly dress-up day” or paper airplane contests. I googled “how to make work fun” and I was disappointed (but not too surprised) to see it was all stuff aimed at brightening up your day, bringing humour into the workplace and having fun, but I couldn’t see anything that was related to actually changing the business on a deeper level so that the work itself became engaging. I believe that gamification sits within the old mindset of those who ascribe to Theory X: that people are inherently work-shy, unmotivated and uncreative and need to be motivated by the old carrot and stick. In other words, if you reward a behaviour, you get more of it or if you punish a behaviour you get less of it. Trying to turn dull, silo-ed work into a game is just another bright shiny thing, to my mind.

Just as genuine engagement is not about trying to window-dress tedium with toys, neither is engagement about enticing people with pots of money. That manufacturing company did not apply the carrot and stick to get people to stay engaged. They did something bigger. Firstly, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Pink, they paid people enough so that they took money off the table. I’ll add that they don’t earn a fortune, but they earn enough so that it’s not an issue. Once money was dispensed with as a motivator, they applied themselves to growing a workplace where people can achieve something even better, something that Daniel Pink and others assert creates real engagement: meaning, mastery and autonomy (MMA). I recommend watching this compelling ten-minute clip of Daniel Pink discussing motivation at work, where he sets these ideas out.

As Pink states in that clip, the science shows that we humans care about mastery very very deeply. The science shows that we want to be self-directed. THE SCIENCE SHOWS. I don’t think I’m making it up when I say that people want to be successful in their lives. People want to do something they feel is connected to something bigger than themselves. People want to learn and to keep learning to do better. People want to feel in control of what goes on in their lives and to have real input into workplace decisions that affect them. People want all these things from their work and unless businesses change, the gamifying fad will quickly lose its lustre as people wake up and realise that nothing has really changed. And nothing will have really changed for the business either; they’ll have to find the next bright shiny thing……unless they take the courageous path and transform how they do business.

There are no shortcuts and no magic bullets to creating engagement. Now, though, in the mistaken belief that there is, some businesses are trying to divert people’s attention from repetitiveness and routine and make work fun. Everything has to be fun fun fun. Was Huxley right when he foretold how the human race would be kept placid and compliant by a daily dose of soma? For soma, read gamification.

In a lot of cases, when I see some kind of game element embedded in a retention or marketing strategy, what I actually hear is, “What I sell/ask people to do is intrinsically dull so I’ll use a little smoke and mirrors to get you to engage with my product/my service/my company/your job.” If the premise is that people enjoy playing games more than they enjoy work, then trying to gamify boring work is looking at the symptom, not the cause. And if your product or brand is lacklustre and uninspiring, gamifying it will not change its intrinsic dullness.

I don’t want to come across as some old fuddy-duddy. I enjoy games. I have games on my iPhone and I enjoy an boys’ night with beers and PS3. When I’m in the world of Angry Birds or Assassin’s Creed, I find what any good game developer knows makes a good game: autonomy, mastery and meaning. I also find MMA in a cryptic crossword, so it’s not a new phenomenon. But I find these things within the world of the game. It is specious logic to say, then, that just because an engaging game will have these three ingredients, that you can generate these three things in your customers or employees by turning what you do into a game.

When we wake up in the morning, how magnificent if our first thoughts are “I wonder what I can learn today?” or “I wonder how I can enhance someone else’s life today?” or “I wonder what joy I can find in my day today?” or even “I wonder if I will experience some things, good or bad, that stretch me or challenge me today?” NOT “I can’t wait to get to work so I can earn more badges, points or move up the leaderboard,” or “Oh great! It’s cupcake day.”

We want meaning in our daily lives.

We want to master something in our daily lives.

We want to be self-directed in our daily lives.

Turning routine chores or repetitive tasks into some sort of game may make the hours pass by quicker, but it does not provide meaning to this work. But somehow, that manufacturing company found ways for people to find MMA in their repetitive assembly line work. How did they do it? Short answer: they changed the business. Even back in 2005, what I saw was evidence of a culture of engagement, participation and continuous improvement. They haven’t stopped manufacturing the same product they had manufactured since the 1800s. They changed (and continue to change) how they ran the business. To me, they are a living response to Deming’s quote, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” They are interested in surviving and thriving, so they have embarked down the path of business transformation. The culture they are careful to steward is one that emphasises effectiveness and ensures that people who work there gain meaning, mastery and autonomy from their work. Any systems thinker would say that these things are all connected.

  • People on the factory floor are encouraged to see the bigger picture. Even though they may be responsible for one part of the assembly line, the focus is on the effectiveness of the whole. The focus is kept on the quality of the whole finished product, the customer and the company brand. Because they see that they are contributing to something bigger than the efficiency of their small part, they do this rather old-fashioned thing and take pride in their work. Poor quality work is a concern for the whole business, not just one part. Talking to some of those people from the factory floor back in 2005 and I found they actually cared how effective everyone else was because they knew it affected them too.
  • People have the opportunity to challenge themselves. They are encouraged to move to other parts of the assembly line, to learn about other processes that go on and to develop themselves technically. People who show leadership potential are encouraged and supported to extend themselves, take greater responsibility and receive leadership development in the form of mentoring and formal learning. The business provides opportunities for people to learn (and to fail). Even while monitoring high standards, this business views “failure” as an opportunity for the whole business to learn and re-tool itself. The whole of the business, the factory floor included, is infused with the ethic of continuous improvement.
  • People are encouraged to participate. Workers’ fora, genuine consultation, devolved decision-making all happen. This business knows that the best problem-solving will happen amongst the people it directly affects, with the input (but not the coercion) of management.

Trying to turn repetitive work into some sort of game in order to increase engagement is just Snake Oil 2.0. It misses the point. It’s trickery to try to get people engaged in something which instrinsically adds nothing to their lives. It sits within the old carrot and stick school of motivation, which sits nicely alongside Theory X.

Gamification, or trying to change behaviour at work by turning everything into a game, is a practice rooted within the Theory X assumption that is just not true, but that most organisations operate under. I’m sticking my neck out, obviously, by using that word “true”. However, when Copernicus challenged the “truth” of an Earth-centric universe, his “heresy” was actually true. It just took a while until it could be proven and then another little while for people to believe it. I am satisfied enough with the work of people such as Douglas McGregor, Martin Seligman and Daniel Pink to say that Theory X is just plain wrong. It is more true to say that people will instead self-motivate under the right conditions. To me, however, the right conditions are not built on flimsy gamification.

Theory X and Theory Y are not polar opposites. They are two different beasts. “Carrot and stick” and MMA do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum of motivation in the same way that doorknobs and breakfast cereal do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum. They are entirely different things related to entirely different paradigms. As Bob Marshall says, gamification is doing the wrong things righter. It is tinkering with a bad model.

If you think that what you do is essentially un-engaging, stop trying to dope people up with their daily dose of soma and take a good hard look at how you structure your business instead. Great work is fun. We feel good when we do well. We feel good when we are enabled to do well, too.

Why not craft a work culture where MMA is inherent in the company structure? Why not take up real leadership and transform what you do and how you do it so that it is truly something people want to engage with? Why not make your product or service so bloody good that people actually want it?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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