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The Employee Performance Paradox and Gamification

August 4, 2015 • gal

employee performance paradox gamificationThe Problem with Traditional Performance Management (and Traditional Gamification)

The Corporate Executive Board published a great piece of research about the Employee Performance Paradox. The paradox is that traditional performance management – we can lump the traditional approach to enterprise gamification here too – is overly focused on individual achievement.

The point is that today, individual achievement can only bring about half of the results enterprises need. The rest depends on collaboration, or, as the report says:

The era of the star individual contributor is, in most cases, over. Ten years ago, rulebased and highly linear processes meant that discrete, individual tasks drove business unit revenue and profitability… Fast-forward to today: work has dramatically changed and is becoming increasingly horizontal. Compared to just three years ago, today’s work environment is more interdependent and collaborative. Consequently, the impact of any one individual is masked and even limited by the effectiveness of the broader organization.”

This, in turns, brings us to the era of the Enterprise Contributor, an employee who doesn’t focus only on their individual achievements but also on how to achieve more with the collaboration of the enterprise around him/her. But what is preventing employees from becoming enterprise contributors? the performance paradox.

The Four Performance Paradoxes

Any workplace has some inherent tensions that employees and managers have to deal with.

  • We want our employees to strive to excel and outperform their colleagues, many times in exchange for promotions and opportunities, but at the same time we want them to cooperate with their peers.
  • We want to give our employees the freedom to be creative and make decisions, but we still want to have control over what they are working on and what is left off their task list. Withholding the power to decide how to direct the employee, while maintaining her autonomy can be tricky.
  • We also request our employees to be collaborative and to work together with their colleagues. At the same time, it is important to us that work is still done quickly and efficiently. Many times, collaboration means longer processes which come at a cost to the quickness of the processes and the amount of time spent on each task.
  • Finally, one of the most prevalent paradoxes in the workplace is that employees want to be financially compensated for assistance to their colleagues of other showings of heightened motivation, but research shows that financial rewards diminish intrinsic motivation in the long run.

Although these problems have existed in work environments for ages, gamification may offer an interesting way to get around these problems, or deal will them in a better fashion. Let’s see how:

Paradox 1: Cooperation ↔ Competition

The ideal situation regarding this issue is one of “competitive cooperation”, where cooperation becomes part of what makes a good employee. This way, employees are encouraged to cooperate and develop an understanding that promotions and opportunities are rewarded in part based also on how much an employee is a team player.

In order to do this, organizations can use gamification mechanics such as group leaderboards, where not only individual contributions are taken in to consideration. Gamification can also be used to encourage knowledge collaboration, and to provide recognition for contribution to others. Gamification can be used to encourage team challenges that place a stronger emphasis on collaboration, ignoring gamification’s historical “winner takes all” approach.

Paradox 2: Direction ↔ Autonomy

One way to keep employees in the direction you want, while still allowing for them to have their fair share of autonomy, is by connecting them to the bigger picture.

This is what Vikram Subramaniam, VP Customer Experience at Elance-Odesk-Upwork calls “Line of Sight”

“We wanted to move the agents’ focus away from the day to day mechanics of customer service process, to its actual outcome. We wanted to make sure that our agents had a real line of sight between what they did and the ultimate outcome which was making the customers happy.”

When employees know where the company is headed, it makes it easier for them to make decisions that align with that general direction. Gamification can assist in this by directing employees towards the next tasks on their list, when they have completed the specific task they are working on – this is called next best action. It also communicates enterprise goals extremely well – see some tips for communication through gamification here.  As a new type of performance management tool, gamification ties objectives to performance, in a forward looking way that lets employees adjust their behavior and feel autonomous.

Paradox 3: Speed ↔ Collaboration

Collaboration is a skill that can be mastered and become much less time costly. As with other skills, this can be taught via gamification mechanics. Employees can learn how to effectively collaborate with one another through coaching and feedback, that can be integrated with gamification. Employees can also learn to evaluate for themselves why the work is slowing down and give solutions for this problem with no need for supervision.

Paradox 4: Monetary rewards ↔ Intrinsic motivation

Using gamification mechanics, it is possible to offer rewards which aren’t financial, but which still motivate the employee. As I’ve written in the past, the trick is to find goals and objectives which are meaningful to the employee and which are also aligned with the goals and objectives of the organization. These types of rewards can be a sense of accomplishment, a sense of mastery, recognition for a job well done, etc. It is known that intrinsic motivation works better than extrinsic drivers.

The paradoxes mentioned here are bound to arise in any workplace. The interesting question is how these tensions are dealt with so that the energy rising from these “workplace paradoxes” can be navigated towards good, productive work. Hopefully I’ve been able to give you some ideas about how to do that here.

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