The Dark Side of Fun

May 6, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

Frowning emojisFun is an important part of today’s most engaging workplaces. In fact, group activities and fun are an important part of the culture philosophy for many companies on ‘best places to work’ lists.

The organizers of these activities envision that they will make employees happy and engaged. And for many people they do just that. In our own company, for example, we have many group activities that happen all year that bring us closer as an organization.

But there is a darker side of fun, that can become a problem if left unchecked. And that’s when it stops being voluntary and cooperative and begins being mandated and competitive. One common way it occurs, is when companies add gamification into their work activities without thinking it through. You can spot it when you begin to see leaderboards and badges popping up.

The problem is twofold:

Gamification is too often adversarial: Gamification is a sort of mandated “forced fun” which adds an element of gaming, but often also an element of competition. More and more we see it creeping into recognition. This competition transforms something that should be inclusive and welcoming into a contest. If you understand what really makes recognition work (being inspired and putting the focus on thanking your co-worker for great work) you can see why I find this trend disturbing.

Gamification is inauthentic: The other problem, from a company perspective, is that gamification gets people participating for the wrong reasons, rendering recognition data useless for anything except measuring the competitive nature of your employees. Recognition data is super useful for measuring culture and informing talent management. But when it is gamified that data is corrupted.

Gamification is such a popular trend, so it is tempting to want to put it—like ketchup—on everything. It seems like a good idea to add it wherever we can. Only it turns out it isn’t such a good idea. Some things just aren’t better with ketchup. Sure, you can cherry-pick elements of games, like social interaction and engaging interfaces, that will always make work better. And you should. But when you inject gamification, badgification and competition into cooperative areas of your business like recognition, you risk altering and poisoning those areas forever.

Gamification makes sense to incentivize naturally competitive tasks like sales contests. But it should not find its way into cooperative interaction at work.

Think everyone loves gamification? Think again. The dark side of fun.
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But lest you think I’m just a crabby luddite who lost too many games of dodgeball, here’s some research that backs this up. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that even if employees love games and gamification in their private lives, they are a lot less enthusiastic about games that are mandated by management.

In the UPenn study, a technology company was split into two groups.  The first were mandated to participate in a basketball themed game at work and the second got a reprieve. It revolved around closing deals with customers.  The researchers found that employees who liked games outside of work had strong performance.  But for the employees who disliked game playing, both sales figures and general wellbeing plummeted in an ugly way. As importantly, performance in the game did not have an impact on levels of employee engagement.  The winners were really only very slightly more likely to be happy than the losers.

Our upcoming Spring 2014 Workforce Mood Tracker research, which will be released this month, also uncovered that employees do not find competition and gamification to be a very positive addition to the work dynamic.

When we asked workers in the U.S. if gamification would make them work harder (specifically if they were ranked according to the recognition they gave or received) nearly 80% said it would not. This is particularly interesting when you consider that recognition itself, according to 86% of workers, would motivate them to work harder. That means recognition significantly moves the needle where gamification does not. 70% of workers also said they would not want to add gamification into a recognition program, and indicated that in their opinions gamification would reward the wrong type of behavior.

Having a fun workplace can be a great thing. And we all want happy employees. So where is the happy middle ground?  Here are a few tips on avoiding the “forced fun” trap:

Use gamification sparingly and thoughtfully: Gamification (leaderboards and badges) works when the purpose is to compete—such as in sales incentive programs. But elsewhere in the organization they can force a false overlay of competition onto cooperative work. This changes those programs into something that many employees are not comfortable with. Be cautious where it is used to avoid poisoning your culture in areas like recognition and fun.

Make fun voluntary: Many cultures thrive on pizza parties and sack races, so don’t think you have to cancel them entirely. Just ensure that they are voluntary, and there is no explicit or implicit coercion to make employees participate.

Don’t punish your introverts: Make sure your culture has modes of fun that will also appeal to your more introverted employees. Introverts have unique needs and contributions, and also their own sense of what is fun and what is not. Take the time to understand it and it will pay off.

Understand that engagement isn’t uniform: Engagement comes in many forms. Try not to judge other people’s engagement by your own preference, but rather by the results of their work. Never judge someone’s engagement by their willingness to participate (or not) in activities. This is the surest way to kill engagement.

Remember that choice is always fun:  When you recognize employees in a way where they can turn that recognition into whatever reward they choose, they will always maximize their fun. Consider employee reward schemes where awards can be redeemed for gift cards, items, trips, meals, gifts for others, charitable contributions, or even, yes, fun outings with (willing) co-workers. Choosing rewards for others will always backfire for someone. But allowing them to choose themselves, from a virtually unlimited set of choices, ensures that the fun will never be forced.


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