From World of Warcraft to Disneyland: Lessons learnt for encouraging employee motivation


Posted on: Oct 11, 2017 by Danny Oldenhave

We all know what it can be like when new processes and systems are introduced at work. For those wishing to instigate change, the common pushback will also sound familiar - “I’ve been working like this for years now, why change?” Introducing innovation at work might sound like a good idea, but businesses can fail to address employee engagement and motivation, an essential driver for long-lasting change.

I’ve previously discussed the use of Persuasive and Motivational Design (PMD), the use of game psychology, personality theories, and different kinds of psychological models to ignite change. In my first blog, I discussed the three major elements required for ‘human centered design’: motivation, behavior and goals. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how businesses can motivate and encourage their employees.

Avoiding the electronic whip

In 2011, Disneyland used a scoring system to encourage its hotel cleaning team to improve morale and performance. While staff carried out their daily laundry duties in the basement, monitors would play with a scoreboard ranking the fastest and slowest workers. The leaderboard would list people by name and compare speeds for tasks such as folding sheets and emptying the washing machine. For its unpopularity with staff, this technique became known as the ‘electronic whip.’

Failure to motivate employees can make them feel exploited and their motivation can drop significantly. If employees feel motivated, businesses can reap the rewards of higher quality work, increased employee satisfaction, reduced sick leave and staff retention. So how do we motivate people in the right way?

What businesses can learn from World of Warcraft

 Video games can keep people captive for hours, with enthusiasts loyally dedicating hours every week to their favourite game. For instance, at its high point, World of Warcraft had 12 million active players, each playing for four hours a day and paying up to $15 a month. It makes you wonder why people were willing to spend the equivalent of half a working week on one game, while paying for the privilege?

The answer lies with building the right state of mind. In the 1990s, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his partner Martin Seligman published a report focusing on what makes people ‘go with the flow.’ In other words, when an individual is “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Creating the mental state of ‘flow,’ requires the following three conditions:

  1. An individual must be motivated to complete a task that has clear goals set out
  2. There should be instant feedback on progress
  3. There should be a balance between the challenge and skill set

The three conditions for ‘going with the flow’ are consistently met with World of Warcraft. Video games provide instant feedback, allowing players to adjust their behavior immediately. This in turn increases the mastery and skill of the player. Goals (a critical part of PMD, and a subject for a future post) are set in the form of missions and bonus objectives. Each task becomes more challenging as the player progresses, while maintaining the balance between difficulty and skill for the player.

Sustainable motivation

The next challenge is making motivation sustainable. One way to achieve this is by building intrinsic motivation, or finding self-driven and long-lasting satisfaction in what we do. Most organisations, when aspiring to motivate, focus on extrinsic motivation i.e. performing well to receive a reward (or being punished for failure).

The problem with extrinsic motivation is its short-term success, it’s expensive and it’s unsustainable. If employees have a sense of purpose, they are more likely to derive satisfaction (and therefore intrinsic motivation) from getting results and doing their job well.

Daniel Pink, in his book ‘Drive’, identified the three elements required for intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Employees require freedom (within set boundaries), self-improvement and meaningful work. If any of these things are missing, we immediately fall back into extrinsic motivation.

Sustained motivation for ongoing success

When businesses instigate change, it’s important to keep their audience in mind. By motivating employees in the right way, adoption and acceptance for different ways of working will be more successful. There is nothing wrong with using incentives initially to get people onboard, but delivering autonomy, mastery and purpose will enhance long-term engagement. In doing so, the chances of sustained success for different ways of working will be greatly increased.

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About Danny Oldenhave

Consulting Lead for Gaming and xR (VR/AR/MR) and member of the Scientific Community
As the Consulting Lead for Gaming and xR (VR/AR/MR) at Atos in BNT, Danny is responsible for the consulting part within projects regarding gaming (gamification, serious games, games) and eXtended Realities. As a member of the scientific community and a part-time PhD student he focusses on how Persuasive and Motivational Design can be used to enhance the adoption of innovation within organizations.

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