Gamification elements that rank or reward users based on behavior can be powerful motivators for employees. For instance, experts say gamification can be particularly useful for sales teams: representatives eyeing the top spot on a leaderboard will be motivated to do whatever's necessary -- perhaps selling a certain number or type of product -- to leapfrog their colleagues.
However, gamified elements such as leaderboards, badges and points are not appropriate in every scenario, and experts say business leaders should be mindful of when and how they're applied. Social recognition systems are one area to approach with caution.
While a social recognition system will only be successful if employees use it to applaud coworkers' or direct reports' behavior -- and companies should encourage this use -- experts say they shouldn't award points or badges for nominations. But this practice of "rewarding the rewarders" does happen, according to Yvette Cameron, research director for human capital management (HCM) technologies at Stamford, Conn.-based firm Gartner Inc.
"One of the most common pitfalls I've seen is providing incentives or rewards for people that recognize or nominate others for rewards," she said. "You want to get people participating [and] valuing their colleagues by providing social feedback [and] nominating them for points or rewards for jobs well done. What you don't want to do is reward people for nominating ... on a leaderboard [or by] giving them points, because then you get the wrong behavior."
Eric Mosley, CEO of social recognition systems vendor Globoforce, agreed. Although gamification might be suited for and thrive in certain pockets of a social recognition system, it shouldn't be attached to the act of rewarding others.
"Gamification of a recognition program has to be done in a very thoughtful way," Mosley said. "It's OK to gamify the system for participation in certain areas -- for people to complete their profile or upload a picture, or [other] peripheral parts of the program. [But] if you start gamifying the act of giving [a] recognition moment, then [people might] recognize behaviors for their own purposes, [and] not because it's warranted."
But warranted or not, isn't the more nominations, the better? Not really. Mosley pointed out that rewarding rewarders creates credibility problems for the underlying data. For example, businesses often look to social recognition data to identify top performers or take the cultural temperature, Mosley said. However, if some recognitions are not given authentically, insights on either of these fronts can't entirely be trusted.
Instead, Mosley recommended that organizations set a "defined budget for activity," such as a usage goal of a certain percentage of the workforce, and then step back. "Manage it at that macro level, and let the rewards fall where they may," he said.
Adam Holtby, research analyst at London-based Ovum, suggested another possible tack to prevent users from nominating for their own gain. "Introduce a credit system that provides those encouraged to reward with a set amount of periodic credit," he said. "This should encourage users to consider carefully what they reward as a result."
As a rule of thumb, Mosley said the value of using gamification as an employee motivator increases the more manual and repetitive the work. He also said managers should take care to ensure competition is good-natured and that there's a wide winners' circle. For example, in a corporate fitness challenge where employees track their steps with pedometers, Mosley acknowledged that there will be only one ultimate winner, but there could be others along the way for smaller milestones such as most steps in one day, or stringing together a certain number of consecutive days.
The wide winners' circle is also a best practice with social recognition systems, Mosley added.
"Make sure it's not just the top 10% of people that win top recognition moments. The majority of the company over the course of a year [should] be praised and thanked," he said. "Then at the end of the year, everyone's gotten something out of it."
And if gamification elements are involved in a social recognition system, Cameron advised business leaders to keep an eye on them.
Gamification is "absolutely an inherent part of these solutions but you have to monitor the results," Cameron said. "Whatever badges, leaderboards [or] incentives you're providing, continually monitor the realities of those programs and tweak if necessary so you're not [incenting] the wrong behavior."