Gamification: is it as simple as it seems?

Business leaders, change managers, communication teams, and change champions, are excited and invigorated to propel the organization towards a transformative goal. However, when this initial burst dies down, people (and organizations) return to business as usual - often reverting to old behaviors, and the transformation initiative running the risk of failure.

November 16, 2017

Change managers are often posed with this question: “How can we encourage the right behaviors? Do incentives work?” Gamification—otherwise known as adopting the elements of game play such as point scoring, competition and rules of play to incentivize behaviors—provides a practical solution. However does it have inherent risks? Can an incentive have the opposite effect and exacerbate the problem instead of solving it?

Before exploring this further, let’s first understand how behaviors are formed, what makes certain behaviors stick and how gamification can be used to encourage the right ones.

How are behaviors formed?

Charles Duhigg in his seminal work The Power of Habit describes a cue-routine-reward loop. The cue is the initiator of action, the routine is the action and the reward is the benefit of performing the routine. For example, a notification on your mobile phone is a cue that triggers action, the routine could be unlocking your screen, viewing the details, and acting on it and the reward is the dopamine rush we experience. Dopamine, also known as the ‘feel good’ hormone, is a chemical compound produced in our brains when we do something that makes us feel good.

In a nutshell: The more often you perform the cue-routine-reward loop, the more often you feel good, the more reinforced that particular habit gets.

What makes certain behaviors stick?

Surprise, surprise! Turns out we get bored easily.

Can an incentive have the opposite effect and exacerbate the problem instead of solving it?

If the cue-routine-reward process gets too predictable, we lose interest. Unpredictability is one of the key factors to maintaining interest. Continuing with the mobile phone notification example above—what makes you want to unlock your phone and check the notification constantly? Curiosity. Not knowing who the notification is from, how important it is and what actions are required keeps you guessing and interested.

Other important elements are anticipation (not knowing when you will receive a notification) and exploration (checking your screen even when there are no notifications). These are powerful concepts and are applied everywhere, from advertising to website design. It is also exactly what makes games such as Candy Crush or Angry Birds addictive.

But, can we use this knowledge to influence behaviors in the workplace? Keep reading to find out.

Gamification in the workplace

A recent New York Times article described how Uber uses gamification to achieve specific objectives such as motivating drivers to achieve certain financial objectives or move to high demand areas. The Starbucks rewards program also gamifies the traditional card loyalty program with levels linked to rewards.

We get it. Gamification is great—it can help make the change process fun, create a sense of competition to increase adoption and provide rewards to encourage the right workplace behaviors. Here are four practical applications of gamification that I often see in workplace change management:

  1. Play and learn

The success of any workplace program is dictated by how well people understand the changes coming their way. Ensuring people participate in change training is critical and gamifying the learning experience not only brings in a sense of play, but also, is likely to greater participation.

  1. Compete to win

Creating a sense of competition with game play can lead to greater adoption. For example, a leaderboard, that displays adoption rates across different groups or teams, is likely to bring out the competitive spirit among team members—thus driving higher participation and increased adoption.

  1. Motivate and inspire with incentives

Incentives arguably provide the best form of motivation. These could be financial (e.g. prizes and rewards) or non-financial (e.g. recognition from leaders). Other incentives such as levels or badges work equally well, by creating a sense of achievement among participants.

  1. Quizzing for insights

Gathering insights during the change process through surveys is fairly common. However, it’s not uncommon for the participation rates for these surveys to be low. Designing the survey to incorporate quiz-like elements could drive higher participation.

However, use gamification with caution. As great as it may appear to be, without concerted study, gamification can cause the opposite effect too.

The cobra effect—when gamification backfires

In their publication Primed to Perform authors Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi introduce an interesting anecdote to explain why an attempted solution could make the problem worse. Let’s take a look:

During the time of the British rule over India, the British government was concerned about the number of cobras in a certain province. As a solution, a reward was established for every dead cobra. On the face of it, this looked like a logical solution to the problem.

A large number of cobras were killed for the reward and it appeared that the solution was working. However, oddly, the number of cobras did not seem to be reducing.

An investigation was launched and it was found that people began to breed cobras for the reward. The reward program was scrapped, but this lead to a compounding effect. People released the now-worthless snakes. As a result, the cobra population further increased.

Instead of solving the issue at hand, the incentive made things worse!

Gamification: is it as simple as it seems?

Gamification can be a powerful tool when used wisely. The cue-habit-reward loop is hardwired in all of us and can be leveraged to positively influence workplace behaviors.

But as illustrated in the example above, when applied without careful analysis, it can lead to people ‘gaming’ the system—causing the opposite, unintended effect and aggravating the problems.

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