How Leaders Are Using Games to Drive Behavioral Change

This is a guest post by Travis Dommert. He is president of irunūrun, the greatness app. By combining social elements and gamification features, irunūrun helps people achieve their potential in work and life through focus, consistency, and accountability. Travis also writes on the irunūrun blog.

What does leadership have to do with playing a game? If your leadership style still reflects the industrial revolution, perhaps very little.

Some Friends Enjoying a Video Game - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #20557818

Photo courtesy of ©

Fifty years ago, leadership was often about command and control. Business leaders were like generals, directing their troops into battle. “Don’t ask why, just follow orders—or we’ll replace you with someone who will!” Loyalty, respect, and fear created compliance.

But with the strengths movement of the last two decades, we know there is a better way. Treat people like the individuals they are. Align their responsibilities with their talents and equip them to pursue their potential. Voila! Exponential gains in productivity, engagement, and results, right?

Well, not so fast. Uncovering one’s talents may be easier than ever before thanks to tools like The Birkman, Strengths Finder, and Myers-Briggs or leading talent development firms like Talent Plus, Talent Quest, or Gallup.

But here’s the rub: talent itself only suggests potential. For talents to become strengths and for strengths to yield impact, you have to get people using them—consistently and relentlessly.

That means sustainable behavior change. And, how do we change behavior? “Tell them to do it, or else!” (Uh oh. Sounds like we just regressed fifty years!)

There is a better way: games.

Games are fun. Games allow people to achieve a feeling of significance among their peers by mastering skills through repetition. Games allow the players to encourage and police each other, relieving the leader from much of the heavy lifting. Bottom line: games are great for creating sustainable behavioral change.

And, all the while we’ve been learning about strengths, another trend has been under way—the application of game theory and game mechanics to solve business problems. It is a method known today as gamification.

Gamification started with driving consumer behavior. (Remember collecting bottle caps, UPC codes, or game pieces to earn prizes?) Today, smart companies are using gamification inside the firm.

In his recent article in Forbes, Dan Woods describes gamification as “a CEO’s best friend.”

Want to reinforce behaviors consistent with your mission, vision, and values? Create a game. Want to get your sales force making more calls? Create a game. Want to elevate key service behaviors? Gamify it. Encourage a healthy lifestyle? Yep, gamification.

Here are five steps to adding games to your leadership toolbox.

  1. Objective. Identify exactly what behaviors you want to reinforce. The game is about action, not just results, so think behaviors. By whom, when, how, and for how long? Be sure to include your team members in this process. They will play harder if they have a role in defining the desired behaviors. (Also, be careful! Games are powerful. Test your game for at least a month with a pilot group before releasing it organization-wide.)
  2. Rewards. People want to know what they are playing for. Recognition alone may be enough, so a trophy may do the trick. But if you have the budget, consider a little office bling—perhaps an upgraded phone, monitor or chair. Just beware of big incentives. The reward shouldn’t tempt participants to sacrifice their integrity to win.
  3. Consequences. I know, consequences may not be popular. But the truth is some people are much more motivated by a consequence than a reward. Have fun with it. Be sure it fits your culture—something light-hearted with just enough edge to dissuade anyone from warming the bench while the more competitive players pursue the rewards. Performing a show tune at the annual meeting should do the trick.
  4. Accountability. Keep the game visible as much as possible—both the progress and the results. Whether you utilize a flip chart or a web-based gamification app, keep game play out in the open.
  5. Communicate. Andy Stanley says leaders need to repeat their message twenty-one times before people hear it once. The same is true with your game. You can’t just kick it off and announce the winner months later.  You must revisit the game at least every week. Integrate it into your messages, your e-mails, your meetings.

Since the invention of pong, games have driven behavior change. Ironically, from the beginning, games (especially video games) have drawn fire for being so addictive. If you need to drive behavior change in your organization, unlock the extraordinary power of games to grow your people.

Question: How could games be used in your organization to drive positive behavior? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Dallon Christensen

    All I have to do is look at my two boys (8 and 4) to understand how turning anything into a game can help them get this done! When we turn a chore into a game or contest, they get motivated to begin working on the task at hand. We could all use a little bit of that.

    Success Magazine ran two articles in their June 2012 issue showing how games are intersecting with real life in different ways. The links to both articles are below.

    • Travis Dommert

      Thank you for sharing these links, Dallon.  Clearly games are quite a rage (for gaming sake)…will be interesting to see if / when the mainstream game shops invest in more business applications the way Bunchball is gamifying

    • Michele Cushatt

       I have four boys, and you’re exactly right!

  • Watkins Sherron

    I speak on the ethical lessons from the Enron scandal.  Over 2 dozen employees who considered themselves to be ethical leaders ended up as felons.  I speak about the need to recognize the small rationalizations that erode your soul and emasculate your ability to say no when it really counts.   

    My concern is the impact of the lessons – most believe they’d be the truth teller, the lone person to stand up and say no, when all the psychological tests (Milgram, Stanford Prison, etc.) say they’d succumb to the organizational pressures to conform and go along with the unethical behavior.

    I’m in search of a ‘game’ to employ that exposes our weaknesses or desires to go along or be liked/praised/admired (sort of like King Saul who succumbed to the pressures of his men twice) – so that my audiences then listen to my cautionary tale with a concern about their own ability to be villain vs victim.

    • Travis Dommert

      Very intriguing.  In a workshop format, I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t create a situation that exposes the real power of group think and moral grey.  Not aware of such a game, but perhaps you could be the pioneer.

    • coachbyron

      Watkins, you may try planting a few people within the group as “the behavioral leads” and have them do something subtle but out of the norm like wear their name tags on their sleeve and pass along the subtle instructions that “I THINK we are supposed to wear our name tags on our sleeves this morning.”  Then see what happens.  Robert Caldini sites that often in new environments we rely heavily, to a fault, on social cues that could easily steer intelligent people towards making wrong choices.  Then, during your talk you could sight how many people put their name tags on their sleeves just because “the group” did it.  Just an idea!

      • T Cattermole

        One of the very studies that identified this group/herd mentality is a simple exercise where the majority of a room full of people voted the wrong answer to a question (which is the longest line? or something similar) and most people went along with the incorrect group majority answer rather than speak up. Accepted, most of the people in the room were actors, and the person being tested didn’t realise they were the only one being tested, but you could reverse that simply by talking confidently about something that is plainly incorrect on screen (the longer line, or the bigger circle) and see if anyone speaks up?

  • Cyberquill

    I like the rewards system from the sales contest game they play in Glengarry Glen Ross: first prize, a Cadillac; second prize, a set of steak knives; third prize, you’re fired. 

    • Travis Dommert

      Ha!  Talk about rewards *AND* consequences.

      For great tips on rethinking rewards and consequences, I have found a lot of useful insights in Daniel Pink’s book, DRiVE, the surprising truth about what motivates us.  Suggests the Glengarry method needs a little retooling!

  • Dan Black

    This is a great concept and post. I think playing games can create positive/friendly competition that produces better results.  For example if a team of sales men are competing to see who will have the best sales month they will strive to win. 

    • Michele Cushatt

      I worked in sales for a few years, and we always had some kind of incentive/contest going on. Usually it was sponsored by a vendor, but occasionally by the sales director. Definitely made the job more fun–and productive.

  • Chris Coussens

    There is a danger to the gaming methodology as well. How do you keep those who fall behind engaged. Some people are more motivated by games or certain types of games that others. I think, if you were going to use this, you need to keep it varied and short. This gives you the opportunity to appeal to many and also reset and start over for those who fall behind.

    • Travis Dommert

      You are right about duration.  People can check out quickly.  Very tough to sustain game cycles longer than quarterly without some sort of reset.

      I am aware of some organizations doing a weekly game cycles, though my fear would be that it could feel a little manic unless you maintain a cumulative score / level-system, badges, etc.

  • Michele Cushatt

    I was at a local medical facility yesterday and noticed they’re running a weight loss contest/game for the staff, including prizes for the winners. I thought it was a great idea to inspire healthy eating and exercise in an organization that should be representing wellness as a whole.

    • Travis Dommert

      Great to hear!  The fitness world seems to be leading the way for the application of games.  (running, walking, calories burned, etc.)  

      In time I hope these become more pervasive as well as more wellness oriented (i.e. less one-dimensional and better at encouraging a healthy blend of sleep, exercise, nutrition, hydration, faith, and relationships).  All in good time!

  • Rich Pierog

    Thanks for the posting, Travis! Though their acceptance is proceeding at glacial pace (as we’ve come to expect in education), games are making their way into some creative classrooms. Here’s one example:

    • Travis Dommert

      This is a great TED talk, Rich.  Very relevant.  Using his analogy, I think work environments are often the opposite extreme from the school example.  Instead of it being like a school bus with a driver, it is often as though someone just threw everyone some keys and said “go drive as fast as you can!”  Would certainly seem that the optimal paradigm is somewhere in between.

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  • George

    I don’t want to be the old poop here, but as an employee, what I really wanted from my employer was to be treated as an adult. I came there to work, to do the best job I could, and if that was not satisfactory to the person who hired me, then I should be fired. It’s not a choice between “do what I say and don’t ask questions” and “OK boys and girls, let’s all play a game.” There is a happy medium in there. Being forced into little games is both degrading and disrespectful. But perhaps that’s why I am no longer work for somebody else.

  • Gail

    “For every job that must be done there’s an element of fun. You find the fun and snap the job’s a game!” Who said that? It was Mary Poppins of course! This song has an element of truth that is true at work and when getting the kids to do chores.

    However, having spent decades leading games for children and adults, I will be the first to say that no one wants to play games all the time.

    Yes, it’s fun to make a special day to get through that mountain of sales calls that need to be made or to go abseiling to build team but making every day and everything at work into a game can turn it into unhealthy competition, frustration, boredom, demotivation and even bullying.

    Games can be beneficial in the workplace but they need to be facilitated correctly, at the right time, with the right motives. I’ve seen them done very well and I’ve seen them backfire.

    So go ahead, play some games, make some changes but be careful to play right or they can explode and cause much collateral damage. 

    • Travis Dommert

      Great points, Gail.  Enjoyed the Mary Poppins reference, too!  

      Your points about the backfire are valid, as well…particularly if you set the game up with purely extrinsic rewards or you run it too long.  

      A particular WARNING…tempting as it may be, pay for performance is a very dangerous element to put in a game.  Pilot extensively with real people first (or reconsider more intrinsic rewards altogether).  

      Studies show that pay-for-performance games GET OLD FAST…and don’t necessarily lead to the desired results, particularly in environments demanding creativity, collaboration, or innovation.

      An alternative?  Celebrate mastery, determination, cooperation, or great service externally or laterally.  Reward people experience points, levels, or other forms of well-deserved credibility.  If you use a points system, allow them to be redeemed for something that creates an experience rather than cash.

  • Michael Ojelabi

    Very wise cracks and great insight. Never thought of this before, and never bothered to look at it that way. Great leadership stuff. I ‘m richly blessed with it. Regards. 

  • coachbyron

    This post is spot on!  Gamification not only allows for the team to police itself and provide development, it also gives reason to risk and move out of ones comfort zones on a regular basis.  Games create a new culture that allows for the “normafication” of new behaviors and beliefs.  My wife and I “world-school” (aka: home school) and we rely on gamification to reinforce  a culture of critical thinking and creativity that is a part of the “Davis family” culture.  Thanks for the post and discussion around this interesting topic.

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