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If Winning Isn't Everything, Then What Is?

If Winning Isn't Everything, Then What Is?

Barry Kirk


By Barry Kirk VP, Loyalty and Motivation, Bunchball, @barrykirk

Topping the leaderboard. Being first to complete a mission. Earning the most points. Much of the current talk around enterprise gamification understandably focuses on competition and status as the primary human drivers of an effective gamified experience inside corporations.

But new data suggests it may be time to start challenging that notion.

Yes, it’s true that a desire for mastery and tangible rewards are key human motivators. These drivers grab the brain’s attention, focus its energies and inspire repeat performance. And this effect absolutely can be amplified when employees are able to compare their performance to others and compete within the same experience.

The question is: are these the most important behavioral drivers? Not so much, according to new research by The Maritz Institute:

In a recent U.S.-based employee study, we found that the most engaged employees work for companies they perceive to value “self-expression” in the form of self-direction, stimulation, and universalism. Yet, this constituted only 21% of the organizations. The least engaged employees work for companies they perceive to value “self-enhancement” in the form of achievement, power, and conformity. This constituted 60% of the organizations.

These insights are reinforced by the findings of the World Values Survey. It shows that as more workers are lifted out of poverty and the world becomes an increasingly connected place, values globally are shifting away from material gain and toward self-expression. Business that want to succeed in the new normal should be paying close attention to this trend.


So, what does this mean for your employee engagement strategy? One guide might be The Maritz Institute’s re-imagining of Maslow’s well accepted, but (IMHO) slightly tired Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. In their revised model, the desire for self-expression sits on high, trumping the desires for material success and basic security. This says to me that while generalized competition and rewards can be part of effective engagement design, an exceptional gamified experience will focus even more on the top of the pyramid, where personal meaning, collaboration and trust-building within the organization are the most critical drivers.

This can show up in your engagement design in three key ways:

  1. Personalized Missions - One-size-fits all really means challenges that fit no one. Recognize that you have noobs and experts, thinkers and doers, and that your sales people and your IT team have different needs and values. Creating missions that are personally meaningful to them and their work will have a far greater impact than asking everyone to do the same thing.
  2. Group Challenges - Collective action is a significant part of the global shift toward self-expression. Be sure you can create challenges that require the effort of every member of a team to complete, or which encourage different parts of the company to form spontaneous teams working together in order to level up. And if you still want competition in the mix, encourage competition between teams while your encouraging collaboration within them.
  3. Choice - The human brain uses iterative processing cycles and feedback loops to explore options and make choices that match personal values. This means we attach more strongly to that which we choose, vs. that which is dictated to us. You’ll see more engagement when you offer employees a variety of challenges, mission types and rewards to select from, letting them be masters of their own destiny inside of a structured gamified experience.

Gamification is a proven tool for driving higher levels of engagement, but it’s a tool that will be most effective when applied with an understanding of the differing and shifting values of your employees. Simply put, figure out what winning really means to them and engagement will follow. Just don’t assume it always means topping the leaderboard.

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