Blog post

The Limits of Gamification in the Workplace

By Brian Burke | January 14, 2014 | 2 Comments

In the Wall Street Journal article, “The ‘Gamification’ of the Office Approaches”, Farhad Manjoo is justifiably concerned about the growing trend for managers to try to turn work into a game by simply adding points, badges and leaderboards. Manjoo observes, “Getting people to do things they don’t really want to do turns out to be a key mission of workplace gamification.” The concerns that are raised in the article highlight some of the common misbeliefs about gamification,  which is one of the reasons that gamification is currently at the peak of inflated expectations on the Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. Organizations that attempt to use gamification as a means of manipulating and exploiting employees will ultimately fail with those efforts.

In employee facing solutions, the sweet spot for gamification is where the manager’s goals and the employee’s goals are aligned. In these cases, gamification can be used to motivate employees to achieve their goals, resulting in a win for both the employee and the manager. Designing a gamified experience that truly engages employees requires a deep understanding of employee goals. But many managers are simply blind to employee goals, or choose to focus on their own goals. They are missing the point.

Gamification is not useful for making people work harder, but it can be used to encourage people to work better. The example Manjoo cites is a good one. Sales contests are designed to increase sales productivity, usually by enticing sales people with some tangible reward. While sales contest have proven to achieve results, I would not consider those to be examples of gamification. Rather, they are simply rewards programs – a payback scheme for getting people to work harder. Alternatively, gamification can be used to nudge salespeople to enter client information, assess the quality of sales leads, and follow-up after sales meetings. Following these steps leads to a more effective sales process, benefiting both the salesperson and the company.

Managers who are considering using gamification in the workplace need to clearly understand the opportunities and limitations of gamification. The best place for a manager to start is by understanding employee goals and how they align to organizational goals. If you can figure that out, you are in a good place to start thinking about how to design a gamified experience that will encourage employees to achieve their goals.

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  • I completely agree, particularly with the statement:

    “I would not consider those to be examples of gamification. Rather, they are simply rewards programs”

    Many examples of gamification fall into this category. I wrote about this last year:

  • Mats Björk says:

    Nice article. Agree (but actually think that it can have “work-harder-effects” as a bi product)

    There is actually a term coined in the industry that refers to this problem – that there is a risc that people use “badgeification” instead of gamification. Thinking that it “will be fun”. This is probably a big part of why you guys also think that 80% or more gamification projects will fail.

    Personally i use a framework called Octalysis from one of the industries most methodical pioneers.

    It focuses on human core drives (and goals) and can be applied on several stages of the relationship between man and system.

    It might be worth to take a peak 🙂