How do you motivate juvenile athletes who don’t win very often? Typically such athletes are encouraged to focus on the enjoyment they derive from being part of a team and to be philosophical about their win-lose ratio.
Kipling once wrote that success and failure are the twin imposters and should be treated in the same way, as temporary circumstances derived from factors largely beyond our control. This is both wise and true, in addition to being beside the point. In competitive sports, kids want to win. They have plenty of time in later life to learn the big lessons about the relative merits of success and failure.
Teresa Amabile’s book The Progress Principle addresses this issue of motivation and engagement in difficult circumstances. It applies to the workplace, just as much as it applies to sport or education. After all, we’re in business to succeed, since wisdom and truth won’t pay the bills.
Amabile suggests three management practices can give people a sense of progress. The first is to give you employees lots of small achievable tasks, so that they can regularly feel that they have achieved something. The second is that you should regularly give your employees awards or recognition. The third is that you should let them know how they are performing.
The developers of gaming software understand these principles very well. In RPG games, the player embarks on an epic quest. However, they undertake many small tasks along the way, such as fighting off wolves, or acquiring armour. They are also given small rewards, such as extra life-points, or gold rings, or slightly more powerful weapons. The gamers can also, at any point, see their score displayed on the screen, so they know how they are performing. That’s how games publishers keep their gamers hooked, playing for hours, days and weeks.
In any workplace small achievable tasks – which are related to the overall strategic goal – and small rewards can help to motivate the workers. Management can provide the third pillar of motivation, by letting their workers know how they are doing, by giving them praise, or complimenting them on a task they the performed particularly well.