Today's Reading

Fostering Engagement through Job Characteristics

In addition to engagement traits, researchers have identified the importance of many job characteristics that tend to create meaningful work—things like challenge, task variety, autonomy, and a sense of how the work fits into the larger organizational context and strategy. Give employees these kinds of experiences through the structure and nature of their work and they will be more likely to experience meaningful work that is intrinsically motivating.

This is, of course, easier said than done. What exactly should you as a leader change about your team's jobs so that they can follow the lines from meaningful work to internal motivation to engagement? Well, if you've ever played a video game, you already know at least part of the answer.

Like high-performance workplaces, video games motivate people to keep plugging away at tasks. In fact, video games have to be more motivating than work in some ways. Companies offer employees basic, external motivators like a paycheck and a safe work environment. But once those baseline needs are met, additional external motivators are unlikely to drive performance. These kinds of external motivators aren't much of a consideration for video games. Instead, designers have to rely on the same kinds of experiences that every employee longs for and that every enlightened manager wishes they could provide--meaningful tasks and internal motivation.

For a specific example, look at Farming Simulator 17, which bills itself as "the most complete farming simulator experience." You get to drive around in farming equipment. You get to plant crops like beans. Beans! You can plant, like, twenty different kinds of beans! According to its developer, the Farming Simulator series is extremely popular among actual farmers and features dozens of authentic brands and scenarios taken from the real world of agriculture.

Or take Euro Truck Simulator, which lets you do exactly what you might guess—drive a truck around Europe. You sit in the cab of a big rig truck and drive through European cities in order to make deliveries, upgrade your equipment, and drive around Europe some more. Ever wanted to be a trucker? Are you currently a trucker? This is the game for you!

These are the kinds of tasks that if you had the chance to do them for hours on end in real life, you'd ask how good the dental plan was first. But it's not that weird if you keep in mind what I've discussed about employee engagement. Let's examine some sources of engagement and intrinsic motivation that video game developers have learned to focus on and how current or future leaders like you can use them to create happier and more engaged employees.

One of the research programs most relevant to gamer engagement was actually started in the workplace: self-determination theory, or SDT. This model explains why someone might voluntarily choose to engage in a task by showing that the characteristics of the task make it interesting, satisfying, fun, or otherwise motivating in and of itself. SDT holds that there are three such task characteristics: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.


Competence is the feeling that you are good at something, or at least that you're getting better. Tackling new projects so you can gain experience and take on more and more responsibility is driven by a need for competence. So is beating productivity standards or striving for positive feedback from customers. This feeling of mastery is common in video games, and clever game designers have developed many paths toward it. A game has to provide a challenge by increasing its difficulty in response to a player's progression and mastery of the game's mechanics.

Games also have to give players feedback to let them know they're getting better. Scoreboards and leaderboards that show the high scores of racing games, time trials, or point-based games are the obvious examples that have been included in video games since their coin-operated days. It's a clear indicator of mastery if your name or initials are perched at the top of a leaderboard or even if you beat your own personal best record in a racing game like Forza Horizon or an endless runner like Temple Run. However, other games indicate competence in unexpected and more subtle ways.

Take Overwatch, the first-person shooter from Blizzard Entertainment that I described earlier. The game is complex and features dozens of characters to choose from across roles such as offense, defense, healing, and soaking up damage. Winning a match in ranked, competitive modes requires all the players to be competent in their given roles and to play the game well. To facilitate this, Blizzard has baked all kinds of competence indicators into the game. Some are at the most basic of levels, such as getting on-screen indicators of when your shots are connecting. Others are subtler. In the Escort game mode, players must gather around the limousine, or "payload," of a pompous movie director and escort it to safety. When they begin to move the car forward, their character will call out "I am escorting the payload!" or some other indicator that they are doing what they should be doing. None of these little touches are accidents or arbitrary. The game designers include them in order to scratch players' need for competence and show that what they're doing is meaningful.

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