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Why you are wasting time trying to create motivation – and how to fix that

Why you are wasting time trying to create motivation – and how to fix that

In 2010, I became really passionate about how game mechanics could be used outside of games to motivate and influence the behavior of participants; passionate enough to quit my job and launch Half Serious, a design agency specialized in gamification.


Some of our early projects had to do with self-help. For example, we worked on increasing the stickiness of fitness programs that helped people get in shape, or to stop smoking.


The use of game mechanics with these activities worked great. Losing weight, for example, is a long-term endeavor. Game mechanics help break it down into near-term challenges and shorten the reward loop. It keeps things interesting and exciting.


Along the way, we entered a space that was a little different, in which the challenge was to stimulate motivation and engagement in the workplace. You may know this, but studies routinely show that less than one-third of American workers feel engaged in the workplace.


Personally, I feel like this is actually a significant social and economic problem that affects how happy and productive we are as a society. I also have 2 young daughters that will one day integrate the marketplace. I hate to think that they might enter an ecosystem where 70% of participants wished they where somewhere else.



Back to motivation…

Our experiments using game mechanics in the workplace produced polarized results. Some people reacted well and got a kick out of the format but to be honest, they were usually the employees that were already engaged to begin with.


Alarmingly, a large portion of the employees remained rather unresponsive. Immune to our attempts to cajole, reward, and challenge them, there was no observable modification in their behavior.



Motivation can be boosted, but it can’t be created.

What these failed experiments revealed is that it’s impossible to really motivate people (meaning to create motivation).


Because motivation is either there, or it isn’t.


Motivation exists within us like DNA markers. If you are not a competitive person, there is no way for me to transform you into one – no matter how great of an experience I design. If what your company is trying to achieve doesn’t tickle any of your internal motivations, I can’t make you engage with it, no matter how clever the mechanics put in place.


The reason why we hadn’t faced this before is that in self-help situations, the “players” were already motivated. They showed up motivated to lose weight, to stop smoking, to keep up with an inherent desire to do something over time.



So what can you do: change how you think about motivation

As we continued to try different things and learn from our experiments, it became clear that the idea that we could motivate people was counterproductive. Instead we needed to try to understand the different motivators that already existed in people, and figure out how we could build bridges between these motivators and activities that add value for the organization.


Easier said than done. There is a wide range of motivations out there. Which ones hold the more promise in a business setting? There is no simple answer to this and all I can do I humbly offer what we are using as a baseline.


Some of our most trusted motivators

Note: this is not a complete list of what we consider but I felt like they were the most interesting for this post.


The desire for social connections

A lot of people (myself included) believe that the #1 factor for work happiness is the quality of your social connections. Being happy at work doesn’t really mean that you are engaged with your organization though. You could just be a happy slacker. But it’s hard to think that you will engage if you hate everyone around you. So think of it as a starting point.


Purpose – feeling that what we do matters

Antoine de St-Exupery once said: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”


Almost everyone wants to be inspired. To believe that what they do matters. Without purpose, I might complete tasks in a proper order and timing, but it won’t lead me to apply my creativity, insight and knowledge to organizational problems.


“If you want to build a ship,

don't drum up people to collect wood

and don't assign them tasks and work,

but rather teach them

to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”



Our current managerial culture is heavily derived from Charles Taylor’s “scientific management” which materializes itself as strict hierarchies that manage through command-and-control.


The unfortunate side effect of command-and-control is that it fosters “parent-child” relationships between employees and their management. Infantilization in the workplace is the complete opposite autonomy and is directly linked to disengagement.


Transitioning our organizations beyond this model is the focus of people that are way smarter that I am, but within the limits of our projects, we always seek out opportunities for self-management and self-direction.



The mantra: putting this into practice.

In creative projects, I’ve always believed in the power of agreeing on mantras before starting the design. A design mantra is a single sentence that defines the core of the experience. At Insyders, we have developed the following mantra.


What we all want: “to be a valued member of a winning team on an inspiring mission”


What does that mean for us when we design something? First, know that at Insyders we help employees engage with transformation in their organizations. Yeah, we try to make change engaging… I know.


These are some of the design decisions guided by this mantra:

- Employees can decide who they want to form a team with. F**k silos.

- We keep teams small (limit of 5). In order to make sure that everybody has a voice.

- You don’t feel like participating now? Then don’t. We’ll try to get better at making you want to come in at the next iteration.

-  We over-focus on why the goal is important. Not how we think they need to reach it (sometimes difficult to sell to command-and-control management).

- We celebrate victories… and failures but mostly when it comes out of attempting something big. The possibility of failing is part of what makes it exciting.

- Employees can redefine the challenge according to their context (this is important for ownership)



Parting words

Thinking that you can create motivation in people is a waste of time. Because it gets you to think like this: “hum… competitiveness is a strong motivator. I’ll organize a contest to make people act like competitors” that won’t work. You will only excite people whose DNA reacts to competition. The rest will ignore you. Some might even find the competition intimidating.


Instead think about what you feel are good motivators that already exist in your teams, and create ways for them to express those motivations.


Easier said then done? Damn straight!


But I’m not saying that this is the only relevant way to look at motivation. The psychology of motivation is a complex topic and anyone that tells you they figured it out is full of crap. What I am saying though is that for us, this has been the most productive way to look at motivation when dealing with psychology in the workplace.


Good luck out there. 

Eric Bourget is cofounder and CEO of Insyders, a Montreal-based startup crafting a social platform that sits on top of enterprise social platforms (like SharePoint, SalesForce) and provides employees tools to self organize into teams in order to solve complex problems (basically any problem that requires insight and creativity to solve).


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