Don't Gamify team work

In this article, you will read about my failed attempt at gamification, psychology of competition and why copy cat semantics of employee recognition may not work for you.

“Competition is for the Losers - Peter Thiel”

Almost a decade ago, I learnt an important lesson about adverse effect of gamification on team work. We did hit our goal before the deadline but in the hindsight it wasn’t the best outcome in terms of team dynamics.

I was asked to lead an upgrade project. We had 800 issues to fix in ~4 weeks time. Although most of the issues were minor, we had to look through and test each of them.

Most work items took a few hours but some took a little longer than a day. I decided to create a shared pool, from which each team member will pick the next item after he/she is done with the current at hand. I kept a shared dashboard that showed total issues resolved and no of tasks solved by each member.

After a couple days, I was surprised to notice a few members converted this process into a battleground. They were keeping scores. For a moment, I thought this is going well and we should stick to it. But then, as I reviewed the work, I started noticing the mistakes.

The reason was clear, the team members were scoring based on just the completion of work and in that hurry the quality started to fall apart.

Moral of the story - a shared metric and progress helped the team to get energised but keeping score of each members didn’t.

The ill effects of competition are not just limited to workplace but they can be seen at our schools too.


At a summer camp, a newly appointed sports teacher thought it will be a good idea to split students in red (ruby) and blue(emerald) teams. Each team would compete in multiple games, challenges through out the summer.

The team assignments in a way mutated the identities of the kids. They started associated themselves as rubysts or emeralds.

Half way through the summer, the teacher started noticing increasing hatred among two groups as they competed as rivals. This wasn’t the result she was expecting. The idea was rather to make students better team players and respect each other.

A few days went by and an unexpected event, a broken water pipe, gave her with an idea to break the tension. The pipe delivered water to camp needed to be fixed and this impacted everybody at the camp. Both the groups had to come together to solve the issue.

A common goal brought students to team up and work together.

Taking a cue from this, the teacher started placing hurdles that required the two teams to work together. For example - teams could only go to a movie if both teams had enough cash to do so. In such instances, teams even started pitching in for other.

In a few days, the teams started being more friendly to each other and respecting too. Some rubysts even traveled in emerald buses and vice versa.

The key idea here is, presence of a perceived common goal brings people together.

Creating Teams and Department

I once worked with startup that grew from 10 to tripple digits in a matter of months. During this time, I have seen teams forming up. The ‘Us vs them’ chorus growing at the same time.

This typically happens when your go with common tactics of creating departments by nature of work (e.g. sales, marketing, product, etc).

But integration of teams is much more important. One way to achieve that is by sharing a metric.

That’s why a lot of companies are moving towards squads (mix of engineers, design, QA) that share a common goal (e.g. product delivery). I think this is a good direction to head atleast for product-led companies.

When I was defining the team structure at xceler, I learnt to put product focused squads instead of technology based split (e.g. backend/API, android, front end). The entire team had a single goal of getting that product in the market.

This structure however doesn’t account much for building capability or domain expertise. That’s why focused groups for learning initiatives might be necessary.

To summarize, I think teams should be built around a shared metric that enables a common goal.

Special badges don’t help anyone

A common strategy in many companies is to assign badges or titles such as Performer of the Month. The only thing these awards achieve is create a sense competition among the team members.

I also received a few of these in my early years and I don’t think it ever motivated me more than I was.

Your high performers are (usually) already motivated, get better appraisals, then why add more badges of burden on the rest?

Towards a cohesive unit, not a competitive One

When working with a team, I think paying attention to these two leads to better team work than not.

  • Identify if your people or reward strategy is not creating competitition inward
  • If you must compete, then go outward (i.e. outside products, success metrics)

Photo credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

References: Summer camp story from Influence

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