To get more out of workers, some employers are introducing "gamification" into the workplace. It may be a worthwhile strategy, just don't forget these four principles.
The trend of gamification in the workplace could be a boon for your business, but if you're not careful, it could also curb creativity and dampen morale among workers.
Thanks to emerging software, employers can turn mundane tasks into games. For instance, you can award your employees points for every line of data they enter into Excel. The points can be tallied, used as performance benchmarks, and, in the best of worlds, help foster a productive culture of competition.
But the trend is also worrying. With the rise of wearables, employers can also track where their employees are in real time. Every minute your employee spends on the sales floor can be recorded faithfully. Every second your office administrator spends away from his desk is flagged. Yes, employees may get digital points as a reward for their efforts, but they also may pay what The Wall Street Journal’s Farhad Manjoo calls a “psychic cost.”
If you track employees meticulously they may lose their ability to be creative and innovative. Why would an employee risk attending a brainstorming meeting if she loses points by doing so? Similarly, why would an employee try something new if it meant her performance rankings would plummet?
Good, pragmatic leaders intuitively know that data alone isn’t the only measure of their employees. They know that performance metrics are just a frame by which they can view the larger picture.
As we march into a future where all of our movements can be stored, studied, and compared, leaders may find it tempting to leave leadership to algorithms. But you should never rely on data exclusively. You must always remember the following:
1. Be clear about the subjective bottom line. An important part of every managerially competent leader’s job is to provide his team with clarity around the criteria employees will use to evaluate process and performance (the “what” of evaluation) and standards that they will hold members to (the “measures” of evaluation). Too few people in leadership positions provide clarity about what is being evaluated and what measures are being used to evaluate process and results.
With the advent of gamification the “what” can easily become murky. Are employees simply working for points? The most retweets on Twitter? The most page views? Pragmatic leaders have to remind employees of the larger goal, the crucial bottom line. While points, retweets, and the rest are helpful metrics, they don’t necessarily show an evolution toward a better service or product. It is up to you to tell your team how you evaluate and what you take seriously. You don’t want the game to eclipse meaningful work.
2. Give autonomy but define parameters. How you execute an agenda and keep projects going is a structural issue, according to organizational behaviorists. If you structure the job correctly, you will be able to get more things done. Failure to structure the job correctly, regardless of resources, will prevent you from pushing projects forward. In trying to move an agenda, pragmatic leaders have to give autonomy while defining the parameters.
In the world of gamification this is a crucial lesson to remember. You have to give employees independence so they aren’t afraid to take risks and experiment with different ideas. While data can supply you with ever better parameters by which to follow, a good leader always allows people the autonomy to be creative and innovative. Successful leaders will strike a balance.
3. Make adjustments but don’t overreact. Monitoring and evaluating are only the first information-gathering steps. The next step is to make adjustments and corrections based on the data you’ve collected. Your challenge is to make the adjustments and follow through.
It can be tempting to issue sweeping decisions based on data alone. Leaders often see a problem and their knee-jerk reaction is to slam on the brakes. But you have to see problems in a wider context. Pragmatic leaders should give constructive feedback and make appropriate adjustments and corrections, before they reach for the emergency brake and curtail momentum.
4. Don’t let the collective mindset slip away. Gamification can pose a threat to workplace coalitions. Points can be compared to create competition, but they can also be used to insult and gloat.
Moving agendas forward in an organization is a team process, not an individual one. Pragmatic leaders must always emphasize that working together has more value than working on an individual score card.
Game technology and wearables haven’t yet taken hold in offices across America--however their arrival is imminent. You cannot let new data collecting technologies replace your leadership duties and responsibilities. You shouldn’t let data, alone, guide your decisions and strategies. You must use data to inform your decision, not make them.
SAMUEL BACHARACH is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. @samuelbacharach