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Ideas for Leaders #702

Gaming Elements in Performance Feedback Inspires Effort

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Key Concept

A new study shows that adding gaming elements to the performance feedback process can increase employee effort, especially when extrinsic motivation is low and internal task motivation is high.

Idea Summary

Effective performance feedback is a key factor in successfully managing and motivating employees. Companies recognize that what information the employee receives and how frequently can impact the effectiveness of the feedback. One variable not always considered, however, is how the feedback is delivered. 

Gaming offers some innovative ways to present performance feedback beyond the annual performance appraisal or periodic vocal or written praise from managers. A study based at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, used a simple laboratory experiment to test the effectiveness of four gaming elements in increasing employee effort. The experiment also allowed researchers to observe whether extrinsic motivation and task motivation increased or decreased the impact of the gaming elements.

In the experiment, participants were given a code key — consisting of a string of numbers and the letter each number represented — and then given words in the form of numbers. Participants were then asked to decode the words. Once they had finished their string of words, they were asked if they wanted to decode another set of words (with a different code). At the end of every set of completed words, participants were asked if they wanted to continue.

The variables in the experiment were manipulated as follows:

  • Effort. Effort in this experiment was measured by the number of times participants were willing to decode a new set of words. 
  • Gaming Elements. Some of the participants received feedback using gaming elements (e.g., leadership boards, badges); others did not. 
  • Extrinsic motivation. Some of the participants were extrinsically motivated with piecemeal rate compensation (the more words, the higher the compensation); others received a straight salary.
  • Task motivation. All of the participants completed an exit survey, which included questions that measured task enjoyment — the proxy for task motivation.

The four gaming elements used in the experiment were:

  • Points. For each word decoded, participants received 1 point, but also a multiplier starting at 1 that increased by 0.1 with each word in a row correctly decoded.
  • Badges. Participants were shown the badges they could receive and then received badges with each milestone achieved (e.g., a bronze badge for 4-6 words decoded, a silver badge for 7-9 words, a gold badge for 10-12 words and so forth, with the highest badge being the titanium badge for more than 18 words).
  • Leaderboard. The ranking of participants was listed on a leaderboard (the board was anonymous: participants saw where they were ranked but did not see the names of the other participants ranked.)
  • Narrative. The words to be decoded were placed within a narrative. Thus, the more words decoded, the more participants understood the story.

Analysing the data from the experiment, the researchers drew the following conclusions:

  1. Introducing the combined gaming elements into the feedback process led to increased effort.
  2. The combined gaming elements seemed to have an impact when extrinsic motivation was low. In other words, the gaming elements motivated participants who were paid a salary to exert more effort; the gaming elements did not have the same motivating impact on participants who were paid a piecemeal rate.
  3. The combined gaming elements seemed to have an impact when task motivation, as measured by the exit survey, was high.
  4. When the data was analysed for the individual gaming elements, the researchers found that points and badges had little impact on effort, while use of the leaderboard had a significant impact. The most significant impact by far, however, was achieved by the narrative, which motivated participants to decode nearly twice the number of words compared to the baseline condition (salary, no gaming elements).

Business Application

Supplementing basic feedback with elements of gaming can have a significant impact on the motivation of your employees. However, note the caveats highlighted by this research. Extrinsically motivated employees, for example, are less likely to increase their already increased motivation to put in more effort. Task motivation, on the other hand, increases the impact of gaming elements. Thus, introducing gaming elements in combination with task-related enhancements of some kind can make a significant difference in employee effort.

The fact that the most effective individual gaming elements were related to competition (leaderboards) and context (narrative) is also illuminating. While too much competition among employees has been shown to be counterproductive, some competition can be motivating — as is offering some context for the employee’s task.

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Idea conceived

  • November 2017

Idea posted

  • April 2018

DOI number



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