How to Motivate Your Employees Using Gamification Principles

January 18, 2019
Aakrit Vaishya

You’ve heard about the perks that employees have at those hyper-funded new startups: Guitar Hero hour, yoga room, video game room, unlimited coffee, unlimited beer, free lunches on Friday. You would love to offer the same, but —can you afford it? Unless among your investors is a Saudi prince, probably not. And do all those perks really keep employees motivated? I recently toured one of those startups with a friend. “Nobody ever uses the yoga room,” she told me. “And on free-lunch-Fridays, most of the food goes to waste because we’re so sick of seeing each other, most of us go out to eat somewhere else.”

According to a recent study by Dale Carnegie Training Global Leadership (2016) that considered 14 countries, including India and the US, only 22% of full-time employees plan to stay in their current jobs for the long term. 16% are currently looking for a new job, and 29 percent intend to start looking for a new job. Considering how expensive, painful, and tiring it is to hire and train new employees, those aren’t good numbers! The same study explains what’s best to keep employees happy: sincere appreciation and praise, effective leadership, and reliable leaders, leaders that seem honest with others and themselves. For employees that always see their employers as reliable, job satisfaction grew to over 80 percent.

“What nonsense is this!” You’ll say, “Why would I have to be nice? I pay my employees to do their work. If they don’t like it, there’s a long line of others that would love to have a job!”

Well, if money is what drives you, there is an important reason why you want to keep your employees motivated other than reducing hiring and training costs: increased productivity. A highly motivated employee performs better.

Should you invest in a PlayStation, then? That’s not exactly what I meant by gamification principles. Gamification is not turning things into a game, but using elements games use to increase engagement. And what many successful games do is to apply the principles of self-determination theory.

Let’s put some psychology on this: you already know you have to be nice (which is cheap) but let’s explain why, so you will be more motivated to do so.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

According to Self-Determination Theory, people are intrinsically motivated to perform a task when the task is inherently pleasant. We play games because we derive pleasure from it. How do you feel every time you pass a level on Candy Crush Saga? You feel good! It’s the dopamine working inside your brain. The tougher the level, the better you feel. You may not have done a victory dance when you passed the first level, but didn’t you do one when you passed level 45? Now, how do you feel when you have to do chores? Take out the trash, drive through heavy traffic — you don’t dance much, do you? You are extrinsically motivated when the motivation to perform a task comes not from the pleasure the task will bring you but from a separate outcome: you take the trash out to keep your house clean; you drive because you need to get to work, and you work because you want to get paid.

Your employees are extrinsically motivated. If they were intrinsically motivated, they’d work for free. You cannot transform extrinsic motivations into intrinsic motivations unless the separate outcome (reward) becomes the task.  Most times that’s impossible, but you can make the separate outcome more attractive: free beer, free coffee, yoga room, higher pay… or apply some dirt-cheap psychology to convert external regulations, the separate outcome, into integrated regulations, regulations that we follow not because they lead to a separate reward but because we have made them part of our concept of self.

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Self-Determination theory also says that motivation increases as we satisfy the needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These are psychological needs we all have the urge to satisfy, just like the need for food and shelter. We want to control our own decisions, we want to feel capable and we want to belong. We’re not walking machines, we’re social animals!

 How can you make your employees feel more autonomous?

Stop micro-managing. Train your employees properly on how to do their work instead. Give them responsibility. Explain to your employees what’s expected of them, give them the tools to do it, and then let your employees run free. Let them make decisions. That’s how you learn to play video games! Like a short basic tutorial: you jump with button A, you run with button B, the mushroom-looking guys are the bad guys, and then you’re free to run through the hills and rescue the princess. You’ll spend some time exploring the world, and your employees will spend some time exploring what they can do with the newly earned responsibility and maybe making mistakes. That’s alright. Of course, in video games, you have unlimited lives (you can always restart when you die), and you don’t find the first boss till the end of the third level, but video games also start easy. Give your new employees only the autonomy you both feel comfortable with. And as your employees become more experienced, give them even more.

“But training is expensive!” you’ll say. Then use tools that are both empowering and easy to use. tools that can increase your and your employee’s productivity like in a retail store you can use Point of sale software to automate your inventory and payment process.

How can you make your employees feel more competent?

By letting them know they’re doing a good job — just like in video games. Every time you grab a coin in Mario Bros, you hear a little cha-ching! Every time you defeat an enemy, you gain points. And every time you finish a level, you hear this catchy song. Video games constantly let you know that you’re doing a good job and rewarding your efforts with cheap praise. Our response? We become addicted. We spend HOURS trying to defeat the boss so we can hear a silly song and get a message saying, “Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle!” and then continue playing for another hour or so. Same with a job: a little praise here and there works wonders. Why? Because when we verify that our efforts are paying off, we feel happy. Likewise, when something prevents us from achieving that goal, we feel angry. And when the goal is no longer attainable, we feel sad. Emotions indicate our progress towards a goal. Thus, they serve as directives for behavior on how to achieve that goal.

Emotions fade with time, though. If something initially seems too easy you may become excited, only to soon find your excitement turning to boredom. Boredom is an emotion that indicates that a goal is no longer attractive. What do you do when video games get too easy? You stop playing. What does a video game need to do to keep you hooked? Get increasingly difficult, not so difficult that you cannot pass the level, just difficult enough to keep you interested. Same applies to a job: Praise your employees, so they know they’re progressing, but keep them challenged, so they stay interested. If the job is too difficult, they’ll quit. And if the job is too easy, they’ll get bored.

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Many tasks at work are either difficult or tedious and therefore boring, which reduces motivation. How can you easily increase your employees’ competence? Give them ePaisa! Okay, yes, this is becoming an infomercial but you’re getting lots of good advice and ePaisa does increase competence, by making tedious tasks, like controlling inventory or keeping detailed records of sales easy, so your employees can do more! Keep reading.

How can you make your employees satisfy their need for relatedness?

Let me be cynical about it: humans are terribly gullible. The one person we love the most in this world is our own self, that’s why we need constant affirmation. It isn’t just vanity but an evolutionary advantage: we prefer those that are nice and complimentary to us because being surrounded by those kinds of people increases our chances of survival. When you feel that you are part of a team, you fight for your friends and you help them protect their resources. Your employees need to know that they’re part of a team. They need to know that you are all working together for a common goal. Not to make you rich, but to make everyone working for the company live richer lives. They need to feel that work is like family. That’s why video games always start with a clear inclusive mission: Rescue our princess. Help us defeat tyranny. You are our only hope.

Tricks to increase relatedness? What about an all-expenses-paid bonding seminar to Hawaii, which will drive you out of budget… Or just the occasional “How do you do?” Spend some time explaining to your employees what you’re doing and why their work is important. Let them know that even if they feel as if they were the smallest crew in the big machinery, that little screw is important. In games, you play with your team. You may not be able to choose who is in your team or which team you join, but it’s your team, and you’re loyal to that team simply because it is your team. Again, an evolutionary advantage: being a close knit increases our chances of survival, so we have a tendency to prefer those that are close to us.

One final advice, for the shy: What if it’s not in your nature to be “nice”, or you’re too “results-oriented” and just cannot praise those needy millennials for everything little thing they do? Your grandma gave you a box behind the ear every time you did something wrong, that’s how you learned! Well, if you cannot be nice, hire someone that can.

I used to work in this office with a very negative vibe. The sales team was always angry and tired and productivity was low. Then this girl came who wasn’t the brightest, or the fastest, and needed help constantly because she didn’t know too well how to use a computer. Not the best fit, perhaps? Oh boy, was she a blessing. Everyone’s mood improved because she always had a kind word and made everyone feel useful. The office had become a pleasant place to be with our occasional laughter. The result? Productivity grew. By a lot.

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