LeaderEnterprise Gamification is Leadership 101

Mario Herger’s book Enterprise Gamification is certainly an outstanding introduction to gamification.  However, it is far more.  While I am a novice at game development and gamification, I do consider myself to be knowledgeable and accomplished in the realm of leadership.  As I read Enterprise Gamification, I could imagine an entire MBA Leadership and Organizational Behavior course based on this book.  I was blown away with how richly Mario filled this book with studies and sources regarding individual and organizational behavior.  In terms of truth in advertising, Mario was one of my advisers for my recent thesis in which I designed a serious, multiplayer, computer game to improve Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regional Response Coordination Center training and exercises.  I am now inspired to think more globally and imagine how to gamify FEMA and even the Department of Homeland Security to improve engagement, efficiency, and effectiveness.  But, that is another story.  I am not writing a book review here.  Rather, I would like to share just a few nuggets out of Enterprise Gamification that leadership enthusiasts, like myself, might enjoy.  The concept of applying these concepts through gamification quit simply makes the application of the principles more fun.

Play the Cards You are Dealt

When I mentor young folks, I tell them that if I only had one piece of advice to give, it would be that you play the cards you are dealt.  What this means is you are leading a team of individuals. They are all unique and motivated in different ways.  Wait, did I just state the obvious? While we learned how we are unique as children from Sesame Street and Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood, we seem to forget it in our leadership styles.  In addition to intrinsic individuality, each person’s own motivation changes over time. An old, experienced, introvert may only need and want the task description and then runs off and takes care of it. A young, inexperienced person may need a little more hand holding or timely checks to make sure they are on track. Similarly, Herger refers to empathy-based design when he writes, “…understanding the motivations of players is a crucial part of making gamification successful.” In other words, one must consider what motivates a player to make a good game.  This is analogous to a leader needing to understand the motivation of employees/teammates in order to be effective.

In particular, leaders new to an organization need to first take a little time and just learn from the people how things currently work. Step one in understanding a problem using an empathy-based approach is to observe.  Herger describes the interaction of a teleconferencing development team and a top sales representative. The team decided to watch how the employee used the teleconferencing system. In fact she didn’t use it.  Instead, she simply dialed people on three different phones and spoke to them all with the receivers off the hook. The development team learned the value of seeing how employees use (or don’t use) a system before they design and/or modify it. In both gamification and leadership the overriding rule is to see the world through the eyes of your team member (player).

Have Fun

As an Air Force pilot, I started the habit of having the same first and last objectives on all training missions. The first was to be safe. The final objective was to have fun.

But understand I don’t run clown acts. No offense intended to professional clowns, but we certainly do not want our work places to feel like their acts. I expect myself and my team to work hard and produce results. However, I also believe we should enjoy, and actually want to go to work. I tell both my children and the members of my team that if they are not enjoying and looking forward to work, they should seek out another job. Life it too short to be miserable.  But here is the cool thing.  The people who enjoy work are also the ones who really produce results.  I have actually heard people say they do not want fun at their work.  So be it. Even if you uncomfortable with the thought of making your workplace fun, then do it for selfish reasons; do it for your organization’s performance. Herger notes that, “Happy employees:

  • Are twice as productive
  • Stay five times longer in their jobs
  • Are six times more energized
  • Take ten times less sick leave”

Furthermore, “…happier workers help their colleagues 33% more…raise issues that affect performance 46% more, and they achieve their goals 31% more often and are 36% more motivated. In short, making your work more fun doesn’t make you a “nice guy” it makes you more effective.

Attitude is Everything

I like job interviews, on either side of the table.  They are like first dates because you are both trying to figure out if you want the relationship.  When people ask me who I hire, I tell them I take attitude over experience seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Assuming the person has the basic qualifications, I can teach them the skills and knowledge they need for the job. What I want is someone who is motivated.  Herger provides a nice treatment of motivation based on Dan Pink’s historical look of motivation. Motivation 1.0 is basic existence.  Motivation 2.0 is Frederick Taylor’s approach to treating workers little better than livestock.  Motivation 3.0 that balances extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. While extrinsic motivators, the carrots, can actually kill intrinsic motivation; reduce performance, creativity, and good behavior. Extrinsic motivators can also become addictive, lead to short-term thinking, and result in unethical behavior.

On the other hand, sports psychologists have found intrinsic-only motivators to be insufficient and some extrinsic rewards necessary for the drive to win.  The gold standard is to achieve the proper balance and for players (employees) to be intrinsically motivated through the right mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. This reminds me of my A-10 flying days.  Not only were everyone’s bombing and gunnery scores posted on the squadron board, but we would also place bets on our performance on the range; a quarter per bomb and nickel per hole on the strafe rag. You might win $1.50 in a day. The pilots were already intrinsically motivated people.  And although winning a dollar or so could hardly be considered a great reward, it was just enough to mix with the intrinsic motivation to turn up your focus.

Set the Course

As leaders we must define the end state for our team and establish the goals that will get us all there. This includes helping our team members set their own personal goals. Have you ever worked for a boss who couldn’t even tell you what success looked like?  Did people in your organization sit around griping about not knowing what was going on? Of course they did. We need to be able to clearly tell our team what we want our organization/achievements to look like one year (or quarter/month/week/shift) from now. There is no sense making great time going the wrong direction. In discussing engagement, Herger notes that, “Fifty-two percent of US employees are disengaged; 18% actively disengaged; 30% are engaged.” As a tool for player engagement, he provides a “core engagement loop.” The core engagement loop is as follows:

  1. A motivation or emotion;
  2. A call to action to give the person a goal that is …clear, explicit, and aligned with the mission…”;(165)
  3. Engaging or re-engaging;
  4. Feedback and/or reward.

As with game design, your team follows rules to support the mission. In games, players receive, “…clear and actionable feedback…” immediately and at the end of the loop. And the cycle begins with another challenge/level/project/day/person.

Give Feedback

Herger writes, “Every game today gives more immediate and accurate feedback than the most important tasks at work.” People thrive on feedback. Studies show that people enjoy public praise. In my experience, most people cringe at the big, formal proclamations, but really glow after an impromptu and heartfelt pat on the back in front of their peers.  While people don’t like being called out for bad performance, anyone who is honest and self-aware, knows what is coming when summoned to your office. If so, no need to beat them when they are down.  Stick with specific facts and observations and help them work through the issue and solutions. Just remember the old adage; praise in public and punish in private. The key with all feedback is to do it as soon as possible after the event.  Whether it be praise or a correction, time dulls the senses and meaning. If you want to cause stress, confusion, and poor performance in an organization, give no feedback and watch people squirm as they wonder what the heck is going on. Herger reports that, “83% of employees said recognition for contributions is more fulfilling than any rewards or gifts.” Furthermore, “71% said that the most meaningful recognition they have received had no dollar value.” And, “88% found praise from their mangers to be very or extremely motivating. In other words, a little feedback in the form of praise just might be the best, and cheapest, way to motivate your team. The way I do the math any performance increase from some simple praise divided by the cost of praise ($0) gives you a performance to cost ROI that approaches infinity.


Liza Minnelli may have sung, “…Life is a Cabaret…” but I submit life is a game, or at least can imitate the best of games.  We can overlay the key leadership concepts discussed here onto Mario Herger’s core engagement loop and use it in our everyday work.  

  1. Play the cards you are dealt (determine what motivates each individual)
  2. Set the course and make calls to action. Define the end state and set goals for the organization and individuals.
  3. Have fun. Engage people in a meaningful way that makes them enjoy coming to work.
  4. Give feedback. Give feedback early and often. Simple praise is the stuff of life.

If we are smart we hire people with great attitudes. As leaders, it is our job to feed those attitudes and foster ever-greater performance. We don’t do that by beating people down. We do it by making people want to come to work every day.  But don’t take my word for it, check out Mario Herger’s, Enterprise Gamification: Engaging people by letting them have fun, and put some more tools in your leadership toolbox.