Freedom at Work: Saying No to “Gamification”, Slogans, Mottos, Mantras and Maxims, including Performance Appraisal.

Posted by jlubans on July 16, 2013

(This continues my series on what it means to be free at work, what the democratic workplace looks like.)

You’ve seen them, those glossy posters of an iced-over climber staking a flag on a mountaintop or a kayaker soloing a raging river; they’re all about excellence and what it takes (for you!) to be the best. Pretty good photography but is it effective in doing what it is meant to do: goosing the lackadaisical, the disinterested, the fatigued and tired to new levels of production?
Caption: Tom Sawyer’s Fence.
With the internet comes a new term: gamification*. It’s a way to get people to do things they normally would not do – e. g. write long reviews for free, for Amazon and TripAdvisor. In return, we get e-badges, congratulatory e-mails for achieving or aspiring to new levels of contribution. We may even be designated “top contributors!” If this reminds you of Tom Sawyer getting his friends to pay him so they can paint his fence, then you understand gamification. Indeed, gamification concepts have long been applied to work. If you achieve a certain level, you are rewarded along the way, maybe with a gold star, a badge, a medal Now, the computer tracks your progress and e-rewards you to keep you on task and tricks you (willingly), ala Tom Sawyer, to work harder. You are having fun. Right?

Well not really. Gamification – while automated - is not much different than any other external motivator, like the high-flying eagle on the wall poster. You might like the picture, but if you do not personally aspire to soar metaphorically alongside that eagle, then it is not likely you will. Anytime you are exhorted, reminded externally to do better, to give more, to pick up the slack, the assumption is that you are holding back and that you are not giving it your all.

I would go so far as to suggest that Performance Appraisal (PA) is a pre-internet example of gamification. PA is different from much of the new gamification in its explicit “carrot and stick” (rewards and punishment) approach. Most gamification suppresses punishment – Amazon does not upbraid me for failing to review a book I’ve purchased nor does TripAdvisor reproach me for too few reviews. LinkedIn does not admonish me - yet - for failing to post my CV. No, gamification does not at the moment use electrodes to buzz me with gentle reminders that I am, yet again, falling down on the(ir) job, that I have not clicked the SUBMIT button often enough.

Nowadays, most everyone in the library workplace goes through an annual ceremony of boss sitting down with an employee and assigning one of five levels (badges?) to that employee, from Exceptional to Unsatisfactory. Much of this process is tacit, highly ritualized, and pleasing only to HR officers who think – without any quantifiable evidence - that PA makes a positive difference. You disagree? Totally? Well, please show me a study or two concluding that performance appraisal makes a difference instead of stealing hours away from service desks and other real work. The notion that PA forces the boss to talk to the employee tells me that the boss needs to be replaced. Or, there's the other heralded result of PA; an official document that protects the employee from a mean-spirited supervisor. Again, why are we employing such cretinous bosses? PA has little, if anything, to do with the frequent coaching and disciplining, guiding, mentoring, and conversing - all essential components - in the daily relationship between leader and follower. The more independent and accomplished the follower the less frequent the interaction.

“OK, OK”, you exclaim! “You’ve convinced me to tear down (sob!) my inspirational posters, to stop with the Vince Lombardi wannabe exhorting my team to excellence, and to limit PA to an annual conversation about ambitions and goals! Now, what can I do to help my staff be more creative, more industrious, more willing to think about what they do?” “Gamify reference and cataloging?”
Nyet! No easy task or solution. I quote or allude to Fred Emery’s research more than once in my book. His research helps clarify what an organization must provide each worker to augment, perhaps waken, internal motivation:

Adequate elbowroom for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
Desirable future

Work towards these ends, then you’ll have a motivated library staff. Some workers will excel regardless, but if you do not provide what Emery concludes most workers want, they won’t be around for long.

*I ran into “gamification” in the Times Literary Supplement: Michael Saler, "How the internet is using us all”. Published: 22 May 2013.

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Posted by UpNorthLibrarian on July 17, 2013  •  09:50:50

~two years ago, the Graduate Student Library Advisory Board (?) hung nicely framed motivational quotations throughout the building. They are in multi colored and weirdly mixed typographic fonts -- poor graphic design at best.
Of course, that cadre of students has moved along, but, alas, they left those damnable prints behind.

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