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Francis Wade | How to gamify employee engagement

Published:Friday | December 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

For most companies, staff engagement is just like a religious belief: some either have it or they don't.

This separation between those who are blessed or cursed is familiar to any churchgoer, but does it have a place in corporate Jamaica? There may a better way starting with a key assumption.

Many managers assume that high performance is an innate characteristic. 'Is so dem stay!' is a retort that ends arguments. In their mind, it's due to personality, culture, upbringing, ethnicity, or some other intangible factor that can't be changed. They pass a final judgement that throws an employee, with all his potential, into a box which is then locked from the outside.

Following this logic, the only resolution is to hire engaged staff members from the start. However, that not only takes a long time, it hardly lasts. Why? The majority of new hires are honestly engaged for their first three to six months after which they slip into the same disaffection that afflicts their colleagues. After a while, they are as ordinary as everyone else.

A more fruitful approach throws out the old concept of engagement as a belief, replacing it with a higher standard. Let's narrow it down to a collection of observable behaviours that can be captured on a video camera, thereby passing what I call 'The Video Tape Test'.

Using this standard, we can focus on the precise habits, practices, and actions people take when they are engaged, or not. However, we must be careful. my work in the region shows that engaged behaviours vary widely between companies, and sometimes, even between working groups. There are no cookie-cutter, universal answers.

This challenge means that you, as a manager, need to do some legwork in order to help your staff succeed. Follow these steps.


Step 1: Group your employees' jobs


Examine the positions that report to you and group them by the behaviours demonstrated to be engaged. In some rare cases, you may find that someone's formal job description may be too narrowly defined. For example, their role in building positive relationships around them using engaged behaviours may be diminished. In these cases, redraft the job description to be more realistic and holistic.


Step 2: Distinguish low engagement


Set aside hostile behaviours that are clearly antagonistic or simply a demonstration of 'bad mind'. Then define the level of low performance, which is just enough to prevent someone from being fired but not enough for them to contribute more than a minimum. Start to detail the behaviours of this person.

What practices does he engage in each day? Which ones is he unlikely to initiate?

Break down complex behaviours into small, practical atoms that are easy to observe. For example, 'being standoffish' is not a detailed behaviour. However, skipping the Christmas party, refusing lunch meetings, and leaving at 4:30 p.m. on the dot every afternoon might be.


Step 3: Clarify high engagement


Perform a similar tear-down of high engagement.


Step 4: Identify interim behaviours


Between the two extremes, distinguish additional levels an employee would climb on his way to high engagement. Think of it as a ladder. Then turn these steps into an assessment for people to apply for themselves.


Step 5: Teach employees to self-assess


As staff members evaluate themselves, show them the benefit of conservative grading, which allows for room to improve. Serious employees will be glad for the opportunity to improve now that they have a clear yardstick and direction.


Step 6: Offer coaching


Ask employees to take the initiative to improve performance. Most should be able to put together long-term improvement plans, but they will need your help to craft a strategy that isn't too aggressive. these skills always appear easier to implement than they are.

In fact, employees require a great deal of support to achieve their goals. You may not be the one to provide it, but you should help assemble a framework that makes it easy to make stepwise improvements.

If you suspect that this sounds a bit like self-gamification, you are correct. As the manager, you are actually providing a clear-cut game people can play to become more engaged, one step at a time.

In summary, it provides a huge win for both parties. Employees' attention will be diverted towards the task of giving themselves the gift of focused energy - a life engaged in purposeful activity even at their workplace.

The problem your company faces is that employees who are bored and disengaged are comparing their worklife with other parts of their lives. The only way for it to measure up is for you, the manager, to play your part in helping them adopt a game they can win.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: