You don't have an engagement problem, you have a reward problem

Mark Eggers, 6 min read

You don't have an engagement problem, you have a reward problem

You've been told you have to attend an 'Employee Communication Methods' workshop. Six hours long. Mandatory. Bad coffee. Mentos provided - both fruit (pink is the best) and mint flavours. It will cut into your normal work hours, so please make arrangements to accommodate the lost time.

You have to attend this workshop, but you haven't been told why. Will attendance improve your job performance? Is there some form of reward for participating and paying attention? Or will the same outcome result if you completely tune out?

This is where a lot goes wrong with workplace training: the benefits don't outweigh the effort required. No, the perceived benefits don't outweigh the effort required.

We all have a lot to learn. There's so much to know. Name any field, any thing, you could know more. And knowing more has benefits - we've all heard it before "knowledge is power". But the problem with a lot of workplace training is that the benefits aren't tangible or measurable. Why should you take six hours out of your day, to the expense of your other work, to improve your communication methods? Are you not currently communicating well? And by what criteria is communication assessed? How can you be motivated to do something when there is no perceivable benefit to that task?

Therefore, lesson one about engagement: nobody is engaged for no reason. Benefit creates motivation, and that creates engagement.

Now that we've brought up motivation, however, we need to make a distinction:

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

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Extrinsic motivation comes from when you have to do something because there are consequences if you don't. Think high school exams, work performance, most things in life. The source of motivation is external to self: someone else has set the parameters and you are to meet them. Conversely, intrinsic motivation comes from the self: you do something simply because you enjoy it; because it's fun. This is what has made the gaming industry bigger than the music and movie industries combined. A large body of literature demonstrates that intrinsic motivation leads to 'better persistence, performance, and satisfaction in a variety of tasks in various domains' (Roca and Gagne 2007, p. 1587). Which, is pretty obvious. If you enjoy something, the motivation to do it will be there.

However, if we look at learning from this view, then the pursuit of knowledge is futile. It will always be postponed to our intrinsic desires: sitting on the couch, doing nothing, playing video games.

But obviously, this can't be true. We live in a living, breathing, functioning society. People do things every day. This is because external motivation can be internalised. For example, you have to sit a test on a certain day due to that date and the content of it being set by your teacher (external motivation). BUT - the desire to perform, to do well in that test will come from internal motivation. You have to do the test because your teacher said so, but you want to do well in it because it will benefit your life in some way: better marks means getting in to the university course you want, which will mean you're able to get a job in the field that you want, which will mean greater job satisfaction down the line.


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There's another way to internalise extrinsic motivation: enjoyment. It's why the word on every Learning and Development manager's lips is "gamification". For those not in the know: gamification is the use of gaming-elements in non-gaming contexts, to make said non-gaming context more engaging and even fun. The purpose is simple: if we can manage to make learning fun, then we grab on to some of that internal motivation as well. Humans love games. Sport. Voting. Likes. Monopoly. Candy crush. It's all about who can rack up the most points. It's how you know where you stand. It's pretty simple stuff: if something is enjoyable, we're going to find it more engaging.

So how do you make something fun? When people want to incorporate gamification, they usually go straight to implementing leaderboards and giving people awards. This is good. Leaderboards make it a competition, and as we know from the many Monopoly-induced tantrums we've all experienced (or doled out), humans love competition. Awards are also great. It's how you make people feel rewarded for their work. It also provides a yardstick for achievement: you know you're on the right track when you're being rewarded for your work.

However, we can't get carried away with badges and points and bright shiny cartoons telling you you're the best. It's meaningless after a while. In fact, without tangible reward, it's completely meaningless from the start. It's great that you're number 1 on the Workplace Communication Essentials training mini-game, and that you've racked up 100,000 Go Get 'Em! points, but what does that give you? It's what we started with: if there's no actual reward, or no measurable difference between you completing the training, and not completing it, then we're going to lose interest. We all played Candy Crush. We all stopped playing it. After a while, the bright colours and badges can't disguise the fact you're just making threes of the same jellies over and over. The problem with a lot of attempts at gamification is exactly this: an over-fixation on bright colours and points, to the expense of intrinsically motivating rewards such as personal improvement, career advancement, and skill development.

Further, when it comes to workplace training, motivation via gamification on its own probably won't even last as long as it did for Candy Crush. The reality is no matter what you do, learning and studying is never going to be as intrinsically fun as any non-learning based game. might have been a fun treat while you're in class, but you never went home and played it. Dress it up all you want, maths is still maths. It's just never going to be as fun as any other non-maths based game.

Where do we go from here?

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Back to where we started. If you think you're having an engagement problem, you're not. You're having a reward problem. Engagement comes from motivation which comes from there being an appropriate reward for work done. Gamification is merely means to facilitate this. It may increase engagement, but rewards and affordances are meaningless unless there are tangible and measurable benefits to the training itself. Let's break this down:

  1. If you want someone to do something, you have to give them a reason to do it, i.e. there has to be sufficient motivation present for the particular task.
  2. Motivation can be external or internal. Better yet, we hit the motivation jackpot when external motivation becomes internalised. When does this happen? When external motivations and internal desires align, i.e. the external motivation to complete the company training is because it's mandatory, but the internal motivation is that completing it will better your career or life generally in someway.
  3. Gamification facilitates motivation but is not enough of itself. Badges and leaderboards don't mean anything unless they translate into some real-world reward. Therefore, when you implement gamification, you also have to implement a reward.

You can take your training troubles away. Just figure out what the purpose of the training is, and demonstrate that purpose to those undertaking the training. If there is no purpose to your training, why are you doing it? The purpose of training needs to be relevant to the job performed: will it open up new career opportunities? Improve job performance? Improve a person's ability to handle the stresses of work, or improve their work-life balance? These are just broad examples. The more specific to the job and the individual the better. Motivation can be anything. Just figure out what it is. It's not so hard. Once you do, you're good to go.

Mark Eggers

Mark heads up the Sales team at Yarno. He loves to chat, which is fortunate because he’s very good at it. He's our digital Swiss Army Knife, always armed with a solution to any problem.

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