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.