What managers should learn

Publicerad 3 augusti 2012

The makers of video- and computer games seem to have understood a very basic principle regarding human behavior. If we expose ourselves to an activity where we get constant feedback that we are getting better and better, and where we gradually manage to deal with challenges and problems that previously were too difficult, then the activity has an almost magnetic attraction on us. The majority of these games are constructed in such a way that they can be divided in hundreds, not to say thousands, small difficulties that we need to handle in order to proceed. Very seldom do you find a game where you spend months or years moving around blindly searching for a solution, making no apparent progress, until you finally get a revelation and break the secret code of the game. Most people get bored after just an hour or two if they don’t, with some effort, make it to the the next level, find the first clue, or handle the beginner’s course. The most captivating games have a multitude of such levels that gradually increases in difficulty, presenting the player with a steady stream of challenges that lie just above the his/her present level of competence.

By trial and error, use of different strategies and by getting more and more skilled with the joystick or the keyboard, within a certain critical time limit we generally manage to handle the problem we struggle with, and thereby receives a receipt of a small tasty piece of progress. This receipt brings us a brief moment of joy and elation before we shortly thereafter run inte the next hurdle. In this way it goes on, through the whole game, until we have mastered the final level, the hairiest and smelliest monster or the fastest opponent. As soon as this is done the game suddenly loosens its tight grip on us and we feel everything but motivated to start over again from the beginning.

In a videogame the feedback about small steps of progress are, more och less, automatically generated by reaching a high score, getting through to the next level or killing the enemy. These explicit, and automatically generated, forms of feedback are not nearly as self evident when performing the majority of jobs. How does, for instance, the cashier at the super market know that he has become one step better at his job? What regular receipts does the elementary school teacher receive telling her that she have developed in her role as a educator? What is it that makes the bank clerk understand that she has taken one step forward in competence this week as compared to the week before?

Of course, even the above persons sometimes get some kind of feedback on their progress or on some problem that they have solved. The cashier receives praise from a customer for friendly reception, or manages to change the receipt roll himself for the first time. The teacher notices that little Steven finally is able to tell the difference between addition and subtraction and the clerk manages to persuade the customers from the competing bank to move their money to her own bank? Regardless of this, the majority of jobs, and tasks within jobs, are poorer in automatically giving feedback about progress to the person performing then is the case with videogames. For that reason it is pretty much up to the individuals themselves to find acceptable measures of their performance. This can be considerably facilitated with help from a supporting manager who, in cooperation with the person, divides the job tasks in measurable pieces and indicators of good performances, formulates concrete goals that are followed up, and gives attention to and encourages the employee when he/she has taken a step in the right direction.

Stefan Söderfjäll, Ph. D