When you find yourself spending most of your time placating your people, leadership can be a drain. An overly dependent team saps you of energy and stifles long term success.

This common occurrence has a common cause, though the sources of the solution are a little more surprising. In this post you’ll learn how a well-known movie character and world-famous toy can reveal a powerful strategy that can help you change the game.

When you are able to transform your staff into self-starters who manage and motivate themselves, you can shift your approach. This means you can be less coach; endlessly encouraging and critiquing, and more mentor; sensibly observing and advising.

The Trials of Leadership Can Outweigh its Trappings

When you are responsible for any group of people working together toward a result, a certain amount of time will be spent reassuring others. The law of odds dictates that you will always have one or two people who need a higher degree of support.

However, just getting things done can be a struggle when your entire team acts like a needy first girlfriend, constantly requiring attention and affection. Constantly having to stroke others egos can be a little like trying to master one of those old school toys where you push one end in, only to have another pop out.

Having to have the same kinds of conversations can get pretty old pretty quick. Eventually, most leaders will try to create some distance in one of three ways: becoming short and blunt with staff, creating walls of bureaucracy, or adding new layers of management.

The defence mechanisms described above may work for a period, but inevitably lead to more serious problems. Deprived of their usual avenues for significance, people will create new ways to be seen or feel important, and this is where politics and power games find fertile ground.

As with most common problems, prevention is always better than cure. Mopping up the mess from the office soap opera is far more work than the time it takes to create healthy avenues for ambition. However, to ensure any solution is effective, first we must accurately diagnose its’ cause.

Your People are Different, But their Wants are the Same

It seems sexy at the moment to attribute issues with motivation, engagement and teamwork to generational differences. ‘Millennials just don’t get it’ is the popular sentiment many continue to cling to. This is actually an age-old argument and in the end is redundant.

Throughout the course of history there has always been tension between incumbents and their eventual successors. Just as millennials refuse to wait patiently, baby boomers were once hippies who rejected the rigid rules of the past. Patterns always repeat through history. In the end, leadership means taking responsibility, not pointing the finger.

Like it or not the game has changed. The people who work for you are not ‘millennials’ they are just people who grew up in a different world. However, though their worldview is different the things that drive them and inspire them remain the same.

Most working people today grew up in a world where computers were the norm. This is important because computers enable data. For a generation that grew up using social media or playing computer games, feedback was always at their fingertips. They used it to gauge their progress, and alter their approach in order to improve their results.

To a person who grew up in this world of real time, relevant feedback, and variable rewards, work is too often a wasteland. To this person, the annual performance review is actually insulting. It does not inspire confidence or commitment; more likely it breeds complacency and or contempt.

All people want to feel like what they are doing matters, they are doing it well and their future is bright. Yet todays workforce is more assertive in seeking this validation. They are less likely to tolerate ambiguity, and will not blindly obey authority.

So how do we get the best out of this new breed?

What the Tamagotchi and Mr Myagi Can Teach Us About Motivation and Mastery

Most people misunderstand motivation. Too often we assume people who aren’t acting the way we want don’t have it, and that it is an important prerequisite for success. This causes all kinds of incentive schemes which often devalue the task itself and destroy the inherent pleasure in improvement.

People don’t need to be motivated to do better, we are wired to seek progress. Evolution has burned it into our DNA: adapt and improve or die. In the book Psycho Cybernetics Maxwell Maltz likens this ancient instinct to the way a missile seeks out its target and steers its way toward it.

This in-built improvement mechanism is the major reason why the Tamagotchi became one of the most popular toys of all time. Over seventy-six million units have been sold since its inception. Why? Because this game gave people a simple target (keep your digital pet alive) and provided ample opportunity to feel like a winner in some small way, every single day.

Just think about the time, attention and effort millions of people poured into such a simple, ridiculous goal. What may have been achieved had this human capital been deployed toward worthy ends that supported themselves and or their communities?

Just as people don’t need to be motivated, neither is motivation a causal factor in success. Despite what most popular social media memes seem to suggest, motivation is not the spark that ignites or propels a person toward success. Instead it is gradual success (otherwise known as progress) that propels people along the journey toward mastery.

In the movie karate Kid, the protagonists mentor – Mr Myagi shows us how motivation really works. At first an angry boy wants his help to get revenge on the local bully. Yet by the time Mr Myagi is done with him the boy is obsessed with mastering the art of karate, and almost indifferent to payback.

How did this happen? Mr Myagi started with simple exercises which built competence, gradually as the boy began to put the puzzle pieces together he built confidence. Soon he was exhibiting a level of consistency and intensity he had not believed he was capable of.

With consistency came progress and once progress showed up – suddenly the means was transformed into the end. He had now internalised the drive to master karate, why? Because he was getting good at it. And herein lies the secret: motivation is not a catalyst, it is a consequence of success.

The sooner a person sees visible progress, the sooner they will take a liking to almost any task. To get people to do big things, we need to chunk it right down and help them build competence. Competence leads to confidence and inspires consistency in the search for visible progress.

Gamification is a fancy word for doing just that.

How to Use Gamification to Power Your Teams Performance.

Without progress there is no motivation, but without some form of success there is no sustained effort to reach that point of progress. Like Mr Myagi we break it down for people and help them master the parts. Like the Tamagotchi, we provide them with opportunities to win every day in a variety of ways.

In order to apply this to your context it can help to think about the mechanics of a game. Games have three core components: a goal, rules and feedback. Your team as a whole and each member within it needs a daily goal, consistent rules and fast feedback loops which can validate and inform behaviour.

How do we get there? With five simple steps.

Step 1: Get Granular.

If the only markers for success are quarterly or annual objectives, then by that definition most days will be deemed a failure. If you want consistent effort, you need to make it possible for your people to win every day in a variety of ways. Too often we don’t go far enough:

if you want your staff to have a good year, show them what having a good quarter looks like

if you want them to have a good quarter, show them what having a good month looks like

if you want them to have a good month, show them what having a good week looks like

If you want them to have a good week, show them what having a good day looks like.

If we want people to go the distance, we need to help them take the first step. This means that although we work backward to create strategy for success, we need to communicate forward. This can be done by making it very clear what a good day looks like.

Think about the best days you can remember that did not involve achieving some long-term target. What was it about these days that struck home. Specifically, it can help to think about people’s attitudes, their actions and the results achieved on these days. These are your generic criteria.

Now look at your quarterly objectives, and think about what needs to be achieved each month, each week and each day in order to meet these targets. Find the lead metrics people can act on each day in order to achieve those lag metrics.

Step 2: Score it

Using the generic and specific criteria that describe what a good day looks like, create your own daily success formula, index or function. This should take in all the inputs and come up with one simple figure which can be recorded and tracked over time. Think of this as the teams overall score, just like in sport the team score is essentially an aggregate of a variety of inputs covering an array of disciplines.

Play around with the weighting you give to each criterion and observe how it impacts behaviour and performance. Try to make this as objective as possible. Rather than creating rating scales for attitudes, think about the objective metrics that are highly correlated to attitude.

For example, if ‘strive for excellence’ is a core value, look for those stats which indicate effort. For a sales team it might be number of outbound calls, number of courses or seminars attended. Look for those objective numbers that correlate to the behaviours espoused in your values.

Over time, you should be able to clearly define the threshold for daily success. Once you have a good indicator of your teams ‘ability’ you want to progressively keep moving that bar ahead of them. Do this right and you will be creating the conditions for flow.

Step 3: Track it 

What gets measured gets managed, but too often we’re not measuring the things that matter. Tracking the business numbers such as revenue, profit or anything regarding money is essential for making decisions about the business. However, emphasising the idea of money makes people less likely to want to help each other, and can crowd out intrinsic motivation for mastery.

Using the overarching success metric helps take the focus off the typical targets, and keeps your people process focused. To keep their attention, make sure that scores are recorded and available for comparison. Tracking trends in the score and various success criteria over time creates an important feedback loop. Consistent, relevant feedback allows your people to come up with their own ways to improve.

If you will not be the person tracking this, make someone you trust responsible for it. Putting your best people in charge shows that you take it seriously (you would not waste resources if it were a phase), and will ensure it actually gets done.

Step 4: Show it

Link your tracking system to a scoreboard that makes progress and daily success visible. Preferably you want this dashboard to be a physical artefact that your team will walk past frequently. Digital scoreboards are cool, but they are less likely to triggers awareness or action.

My wife and I have a simple system for regularly affirming each other in our relationship. On the back of our bedroom door is a whiteboard with 3 incomplete sentences: I appreciate A, I am grateful for B, and I am proud of C. Because this ritual has been made physical, every morning I walk out of the room I am reminded to do my ABC’s 😊.

A public dashboard keeps people focused on the score, and helps them visualise how the parts make up the whole to create progress and success. As Mr Myagi taught us making progress visible is the heart of motivation and attention.

Step 5: Use it

Using the scoreboard means referring to it regularly. In your meetings, talk about how the team and each individual is doing. Ask questions about where improvement can come from, and why. Keep updating the assumptions, and tweaking the criteria. Keep moving the needle to stretch your team to new levels of improvement and performance.

Help each person come up with their own individual scoring system and use it the same way. Encourage them to think about how their own actions, attitudes and results contribute to the team success score. This can be a great way to make the dreaded annual review obsolete.

When it is very clear how someone is doing, the conversation can be focused more on higher level ideas, such as; where improvement might come from, further education, career progression etc. These are the conversations that build trust, commitment and engagement.

Give it Some Time

Here’s the reality, you’re probably not going to nail this straight up. My advice is to start simple and slowly keep evolving things as you learn more and confidence in the system builds. It’s best to allow at least three months (preferably six) to get the hang of it.

The best way to introduce this is by involving your people early on. Be clear on the purpose of the undertaking and how decisions will be made, but get their input. The more they co create their experience, the more invested they will be in its success.

The Takehome

Ambiguity is the enemy of progress. When people are not clear on what success looks like, they look for ways to find reassurance and or significance. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that motivation is missing, realise that it needs to be uncovered not created.

To build independence, invest time and energy to combat complexity and leverage game mechanics. Make progress and success visible and achievable every day, and motivation will follow. Create a scoring system, build a scoreboard, track your progress and refer to it regularly.

If you have read this far, hopefully you’re thinking about giving this a go, I have included some recommended resources below. These offer a little more detail on designing games and linking them to your objectives.